Standing Firm, Mostly: Militarization of the South China Sea

China's Presence in the South China Sea
China’s Presence in the South China Sea

 

Last week, a Chinese naval vessel which had been shadowing the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy oceanographic ship, scooped up one of the ship’s unmanned underwater survey drones about 80 km off the Philippine coast.  Washington demanded the drone’s return.  Over the weekend, China’s Ministry of Defense said that it would transfer the drone back to the United States; and by Tuesday afternoon it was back in American hands.  Though the incident was quickly settled, it could have easily escalated.  Some initially feared a replay of the 2001 crisis in which China impounded a damaged U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft for three months after a Chinese J-8 fighter collided with it over the South China Sea.

 

Lest anyone think that the recent rapprochement between China and the Philippines would restore calm to the South China Sea, the drone incident demonstrated that tensions there remain high.  Even more worrisome in the longer run is the steady militarization of the region’s disputed islands.

 

Vietnam’s Response to China

Considering what Vietnam sees as China’s repeated provocations—from its use of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore oil drilling rig in disputed waters to its construction of military-grade airfields on Chinese-occupied islands—Hanoi has felt justified to respond in kind.  Last year, it extended the runway on Vietnamese-held Spratly Island from under 760 meters to over 1,000 meters, long enough to accommodate maritime surveillance and transport aircraft.  Then in August, Reuters reported that Vietnam had discretely deployed mobile rocket launchers on some of the other islands that it holds.[1]  Once assembled and armed, Vietnam could easily target China’s nearby island airfields and military facilities.

 

China’s Response to Vietnam

Conscious of such dangers, China has taken precautions.  Satellite imagery recently revealed that China has installed large anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems capable of shooting down cruise missiles on each of its islands.[2]  Earlier this year, China deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago.  Perhaps they will also appear on Chinese-occupied islands in the Spratly archipelago, if more foreign aircraft are seen overhead.  No doubt China is preparing itself for an armed challenge, whether from competing South China Sea claimants or the United States.  As China’s Ministry of Defense posted on its microblog last Friday, “Were someone to be threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready with even a slingshot?”[3]

 

The Philippines’ Resignation

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ response to all this went in the opposite direction after the election of Rodrigo Duterte as its president in June.  Duterte’s foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, signaled the Philippines’ resignation to China’s military construction.  “We cannot stop China at this point in time and say do not put that up,” he said.[4]  Instead, the Philippines would focus on furthering its economic ties with China.  That strategy has paid off so far.  In October, China promised Duterte that it would provide the Philippines with investment and financing worth $24 billion.  The following month, the Chinese coast guard allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the waters near Scarborough Shoal for the first time since the 2012 standoff there between Chinese and Philippine authorities.

 

That the Philippines has gone wobbly on standing up to China probably came as little surprise to Vietnamese leaders, who always doubted Philippine commitment.  For the moment, Vietnam is doing its best to match China’s actions.  And so the militarization of the South China Sea continues.  Hopefully future incidents in its waters will end as peacefully as the most recent one did.

 

[1] Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea – sources,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2016.

[2] “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Dec. 13, 2016, https://amti.csis.org.

[3] Li Xiaokun, “Island defenses ‘legitimate, legal’,” China Daily, Dec. 16, 2016.

[4] Jeannette I. Andrade, “PH helpless vs China–Yasay,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, Dec. 17, 2016.

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GI Go Home, Again: The Philippines-U.S. Alliance Weakens

On Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly demanded that American military advisors on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao “have to go.”  His stated concern was that the presence of American troops on Mindanao antagonized local Muslims and that the troops could become targets of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Islamic group, for kidnapping and ransom.

The American military advisors were once part of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines operating under the authorities of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, headquartered at an airbase near Zamboanga.  The task force had been deployed there for a decade as part of a program to train and support elements of the Philippine military in its efforts to combat Islamic militants throughout the region.  Last year, that program was wound down and most of the American troops left.  But a small detachment of military advisors remained behind.

Precisely why Duterte chose to make his remarks is unclear.  They might have been intended to strengthen his hand in peace talks that he reopened with the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in August.  Those talks had been stalled for over a year after a botched anti-terror raid against Islamic militants, including the MILF, resulted in the deaths of 44 Philippine police commandos.  The raid derailed his predecessor’s attempt to fulfill an accord reached in 2014 under which the rebels agreed to lay down their arms in return for the passage of a law turning a large part of Mindanao into an autonomous region.  How successful Duterte’s peace talks will be remains to be seen.  In early September, Islamic militants bombed a night market in Davao City, where Duterte was once mayor.  The blast killed 14 people and wounded 70 more.

Back in Manila, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, Jr. downplayed the impact of Duterte’s remarks.  According to Yasay, the larger defense relationship between the Philippines and the United States remained “rock solid.”  The removal of a “token” number of American military advisors from Mindanao would not affect that relationship or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that the two countries signed in 2014.

But Duterte’s remarks come at an awkward time in relations between the Philippines and the United States.  Only a week ago, at the ASEAN summit in Laos, a meeting between Duterte and President Barack Obama was cancelled after Duterte chided Obama for his criticism of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines.  While the two men eventually met, the incident amplified doubts over how Duterte’s administration would work with Washington.

More broadly, Duterte’s remarks reflected the deep ambivalence many Filipinos on the political left feel about the United States.  They would prefer it if the Philippines distanced itself from its one-time colonial ruler.  Indeed, Duterte already put a halt to the joint Philippine-American naval patrols in the South China Sea.  And, recently, he stated that he would favor buying weapons from China and Russia, rather than the United States.

Unfortunately, the Philippines needs the United States, at least until the Philippine armed forces can build up a credible external deterrent.  The last time Manila ordered American forces to leave the Philippines was in the early 1990s.  Soon thereafter, China took advantage of the weakened alliance to seize Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef.  Today China has not only fortified the reef, but also reclaimed enough land there to build an airfield on it.  Duterte’s remarks give China another opportunity.  Duterte may believe he can reach an accommodation with China without the United States.  But that accommodation will likely be on Chinese terms.

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Getting Tougher: Vietnam’s Response to China’s South China Sea Bases

Over the last few months, Vietnam has quietly deployed the components of several Extended Range Artillery (EXTRA) rocket systems to five of the islands that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago, according to Western officials. If true, Vietnam likely did so in response to China’s construction of military facilities on the islands that it controls across the region. Vietnam has reportedly dispersed and camouflaged the EXTRA rocket systems, but can arm them within days.[1] While Vietnam currently lacks the real-time surveillance and reconnaissance needed for the systems to target ships at sea, they can put at risk China’s island bases. With a maximum range of 150 km and an accuracy of within 10 meters, they could render inoperable many of China’s newly built airfields.

South China Sea Claims
South China Sea Claims

Vietnam is not a country known to shrink from a challenge, even when the odds are stacked against it. So far, that has been the case in the South China Sea where the growth of China’s naval might and its determination to assert sovereignty over the region have made the odds of successfully resisting it increasingly steep. Hanoi is doing what it can. It has lavishly spent on new Kilo-class submarines and Gephard-class frigates from Russia. It has accepted Japanese help to build a more robust coast guard. It has even strengthened its military ties with the Philippines, despite its concerns over Manila’s commitment and strength. (Indeed, the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has eased the confrontational approach of his predecessor by offering to open talks with China based on the recent arbitration court ruling.)

Vietnam’s military buildup in the South China Sea may prompt China to take further steps to strengthen its hold on the region. China is not taking any chances. It is already building reinforced concrete shelters to protect aircraft on its island airfields.[2] Earlier this summer, the Chinese air force began to send its fighters and bombers on “combat patrols” over the region.[3] All the while, China has continued its efforts to squeeze out the Philippines and Vietnam from the islands they hold by interdicting the resupply of their garrisons.

Still, the hardening of defenses on Philippine and Vietnamese-held islands is bound to make further Chinese attempts to seize new territory more difficult. The ease with which China occupied Scarborough Shoal in 2012 is less likely to be repeated. The only remaining island features in the region that now seem vulnerable are those of Malaysia, like James Shoal.

The arms buildup on the islands of the South China Sea may seem alarming. But the mere presence of more arms does not mean that conflict is inevitable. It does mean that if a conflict does occur, it could rapidly spiral. Given the strategic vulnerability of the islands involved, the deployment of offensive weapon systems, like rocket systems, may present commanders with a use-or-lose choice during a crisis. That would indeed be disturbing.

[1] Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea – sources,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2016.

[2] Eric Beech, Idrees Ali, and Michael Martina, “Photos suggest China built reinforced hangars on disputed islands: CSIS,” Reuters, Aug. 11, 2016.

[3] Michael Martina, “China conducts ‘combat patrols’ over contested islands,” Reuters, Aug. 6, 2016.

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Shame Power: The Philippine Case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration

The Philippines may not have much conventional power it can bring to bear in its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. But today it demonstrated that it does have the power to shame China on the international stage. After hearing the Philippines’ legal case against China’s South China Sea claims, an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled that there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within [its] ‘nine-dash line’” claim. The ruling went even further. It detailed how China had aggravated the dispute and “violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone” by constructing artificial islands and interfering with Philippine fishing and energy exploration.[1]

Chinese and Philippine claims in the South China Sea
Chinese and Philippine claims in the South China Sea

The ruling was a long time in coming. In 2013 Manila brought its dispute with China to the PCA, an option provided for under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Normally, the PCA’s tribunal would have heard the arguments of both parties in a dispute before making its ruling. But in this case, it heard only those of the Philippines. China refused to participate in the proceedings, arguing that the tribunal had no authority over its maritime borders. So to ensure that the tribunal had adequate authority to make a ruling, Manila asked it to narrowly assess “the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines over its maritime entitlements” in the South China Sea. That allowed the tribunal to make a ruling without Chinese participation. It also obliged the tribunal to consider the validity of China’s overlapping “nine-dash line” claim under UNCLOS.

Of course, the tribunal’s ruling does little to compel China to change its behavior in the region. China has already changed the status quo in the South China Sea. Over the last two years China has reclaimed enough land to turn the features it occupies in the Spratly archipelago into man-made islands large enough to support military-grade airfields and facilities. China is unlikely to abandon them now.

Over the long term, the tribunal’s ruling puts the Philippines in a better position to pursue future legal action. For the time being, however, what the tribunal’s ruling does do is to publicly shame China. Once, that mattered to China. In 1997, when a United Nations commission was considering a resolution critical of China’s human rights record, Beijing mounted a major diplomatic campaign, including tours by Chinese leaders and offers of trade deals, to dissuade other countries from voting for it. The fact that China did so to avoid international criticism suggested that it mattered to China. Today it does not seem to matter as much. China has grown too economically and militarily powerful. That has made it more confident in its ability to shape its geopolitical environment on its own terms.

One of the first countries to feel the brunt of China’s new confidence was the Philippines. Perhaps that was because the Philippines had become an easy target. After the Cold War, it allowed its navy and air force (the two services that matter in the South China Sea) to fall into disrepair. At the same time, it distanced itself from the United States. So, when China began asserting itself in the South China Sea, there was little Manila could do. That much was clear when China blocked access to Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and prevented Manila from resupplying by sea its outpost on Second Thomas Shoal in 2014.

Yet Manila refused to back down. It took its case against China to the PCA. It also began to rebuild its armed forces and strengthen its security ties to Japan and the United States. In March, the Philippines and the United States held their first joint naval patrol in the South China Sea and finalized their Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement, allowing American forces to rotate through Philippine military bases. Meanwhile, the Philippines has hosted a growing number of Japanese naval vessels, including a submarine, at its naval base in Subic Bay.

Nonetheless, the Philippines may change its approach to China. Former President Benigno Aquino, whose perseverance had been so critical in keeping international pressure on China, left office in June. His successor, Rodrigo Duterte, seems ready to take a softer line towards China. During his presidential campaign, he said that he would work to shelve the Philippines’ dispute with China; and that he was open to joint development of the South China Sea, especially if Chinese economic assistance was forthcoming. Such comments should encourage Beijing. But it remains to be seen how China responds.

In the meantime, China is likely to brush off the tribunal’s ruling. But the Philippines’ success at the PCA has not gone unnoticed. Other countries have followed the tribunal’s proceedings with keen interest. Encouraged by the Philippines, Vietnam added its position to the proceedings in late 2014. Indonesia has said that it would consider its own case too, if negotiations with China failed. Even Japanese lawmakers have discussed the possibility of international arbitration over China’s offshore drilling activities in the East China Sea. If the Philippine case sets a precedent that others follow, Manila will have demonstrated that it has not only the power to shame, but also the power to inspire.

[1] Matikas Santos, “Key points of the arbitral tribunal’s verdict on Philippines vs China case,” Inquirer.net, July 12, 2016.

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South China Sea Escalation: Relations between China and the United States

Every week that passes seems to bring a new development in the South China Sea. Over the last few months, China finished the construction of military-grade airfields on several of the islets that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago and began building radar installations on them. It also deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems and combat aircraft to the Paracel Islands. Meanwhile, the United States twice sailed a guided-missile destroyer close to Chinese-held islands and flew a pair of B-52 bombers nearby to assert freedom of navigation through the area. It also began to monitor the region with P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. Possibly even more worrisome to China, the United States has begun to discuss conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea with not only the Philippines, a country that disputes China’s claims, but also India, one of China’s Asian rivals. Yesterday, the U.S. Pacific Command announced that it would hold a joint naval exercise with India and Japan, China’s other Asian rival, in the waters just north of the South China Sea later this year.[1]

Naval and Air Bases in the South China Sea

While tensions have rapidly risen in recent months, the escalation in words and actions between China and the United States started years ago. Many Chinese cite 2010 as a turning point. During that year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, Southeast Asian leaders publicly rebuked China over its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Not believing that they would do so on their own accord and witnessing then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s behavior at the forum, China came to believe that the United States orchestrated the criticism. From that, China concluded that the United States had abandoned its long-held position not to take sides in the South China Sea dispute and had chosen to interject itself into it.

Certainly by late 2014, the United States had decided to challenge China’s actions. Diplomacy had failed to deter China from incrementally elbowing its Southeast Asian neighbors out of the South China Sea. Indeed, China had become even more assertive, violating the spirit of the ASEAN code of conduct that it signed in 2002. Rather than refraining from actions that may change the status quo, China stepped up its military presence, increased the number of its coast guard patrols, and even encouraged its fishermen to fish in the South China Sea with subsidized fuel. That eventually led to a months-long standoff between Chinese and Philippine naval vessels near Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Despite the risk of such incidents, both China and the United States have good reasons to stand firm. First and foremost, Beijing believes that the islands in (and possibly the waters of) the South China Sea are its own. Plus, Beijing knows that no Southeast Asian country without American support can prevent it from dominating those waters. Chinese observers also have cause to question how strong that American support really is. Over the last half decade or so, the United States has proven itself to be diffident whenever it has been confronted with an international crisis, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe. However vigorous American rhetoric might sound, Beijing may believe that if push came to shove, the United States would back down.

On the other hand, Washington believes that it must ensure freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not only for the sake of international norms, but also to shore up the credibility of its security commitments in Asia, which have been dented by its past prevarications. Ultimately, those commitments help to underpin the prevailing international order, which China occasionally chafes against. But many American observers wonder whether China would really challenge that order, not least of which because China has so greatly benefited from it. Why risk upsetting it now, especially when China’s economy is teetering. Surely, Chinese leaders, whose primary interest has always been to stay in power, are more concerned about the rising unrest inside China than the South China Sea. However confrontational China may seem, Washington may believe that if push came to shove, China would back down.

All of this would be even more alarming were it not for Sino-American cooperation in other areas, such as this week’s United Nations sanctions on North Korea. But how far apart the two countries are on the South China Sea was made clear in February when the United States openly warned China of “consequences” if it did not heed the decision of an arbitration court in The Hague where the Philippines brought a legal case against China over its South China Sea claims. That divide was again evident at a press conference last week during which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while standing next to one another, cautioned each other’s country not to take further provocative actions in the South China Sea. Neither diplomat appeared to acknowledge the other’s caution. As most observed, it seemed as if they agreed to disagree.

Days later, the heated rhetoric between China and the United States resumed. At a Congressional hearing, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified that “China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei accused the United States of “maritime hegemony and muscle-flexing on the sea.”[2] Neither comment raised many eyebrows. Perhaps that is because we have become inured to the rhetorical exchanges. But the longer the escalation of words and actions continues, the higher the stakes will be if an incident does occur. It will be harder for China and the United States to back down without real costs. But thus far neither side seems in the mood for compromise.

[1] Sanjeev Miglani, “U.S. plans naval exercises with India and Japan in Philippine Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016.

[2] “China slams U.S. admiral’s South China Sea remarks,” Xinhua, Feb. 26, 2016.

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Japan’s Security Role in Southeast Asia (and the South China Sea)

Only a few years ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that Japan would have any security role outside of Japanese territorial waters.  But in a January 2015 interview, Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, related that Washington would welcome Japanese maritime air patrols in the South China Sea.  He said that they could help to stabilize the region by balancing China’s growing naval strength there.  That broke a long-standing taboo in Japan on public discussion of such uses for the Japanese armed forces.  While it still may be some time before Japan mounts maritime air patrols over the South China Sea, yesterday it held an historic naval exercise in those waters.

It was the first time Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force ever conducted a bilateral exercise with the Philippines.  Two Japanese destroyers and a Philippine corvette practiced how to deal with “unplanned encounters at sea.”  They exercised near Subic Bay, a big Philippine (and former U.S.) naval base that is only 260 km from Scarborough Shoal—the spot where Chinese and Philippine patrol boats were locked in a months-long standoff in 2012 and where the Chinese coast guard used a water cannon to drive away Filipino fishermen just last month.[1]

Even before the naval exercise, the Japanese and Philippine coast guards held a smaller drill in Manila Bay a week ago.  Later this year, Japan will deliver the first of ten offshore patrol boats that it promised the Philippines in 2013.  Manila plans to use them to better monitor its territorial waters in the South China Sea and prevent intrusions into them.  Security ties between the two countries have grown substantially.  Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe invited Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to Tokyo to discuss greater security cooperation.  At the time, Aquino went so far as to say that “nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others… especially in the area of collective self-defense,” giving a nod to Abe’s efforts to loosen Japan’s constitutional constraints that prevent his country from defending allies under attack.[2]

South China Sea - Japan

Japan has also expanded its security activities with other Southeast Asian countries.  Early this year, it mended ties with Thailand, whose coup led to a surge of Chinese influence there and strained relations with its longtime ally, the United States.  In March, Japan signed an accord with Indonesia to enhance military exchanges and collaboration on defense equipment development.  And Japan has steadily expanded its military cooperation with Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea dispute.  Japan promised it offshore patrol boats too.  In fact, immediately after the Japanese coast guard finished its drill in the Philippines last week, one of its cutters proceeded to Vietnam to participate in an exercise there.[3]  Japan has clearly sought a greater role in the security of the region.

Nonetheless, there is a question of whether Japan’s military can sustain a wider role.  Contrary to China’s claims, Japan’s defense budget has not grown much.  It rose less than three percent in the last year (and not at all in U.S. dollar terms).  Any real expansion of Japanese military presence in Southeast Asia will have to run on a shoestring until Tokyo can afford a true increase in military spending.  That is not to say Japan is without options.  Its new long-range P-1 maritime patrol aircraft would be useful for patrols over the South China Sea.  Moreover, Japan could enlarge its navy by simply slowing the pace at which it decommissions older warships, many of which are still highly capable.  But there are limits too.  Keeping older warships in service entails higher maintenance costs which may crowd out investment in new weapon systems.

As Japan expands its security role in Southeast Asia, new questions will arise.  Foremost among them is whether Japan’s new role will lead to greater stability or instability?  On the one hand, the absence of an adequately balancing force in Southeast Asia has given China a free hand to assert itself in the South China Sea, as marked by its massive land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands.  Given how grindingly slow America’s rebalance to Asia has been, Japan’s security support could be just what the region needs.

On the other hand, any minor incident between Chinese and Japanese forces in the South China Sea could easily escalate tensions between their two countries.  Anyone who remembers the accidental collision between an American EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese J-8 fighter in 2001 can imagine how a similar incident between Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and intercepting Chinese fighters could spiral into a major crisis.  Let us hope deterrence prevails.

[1] Mynardo Macaraig, “Philippines and Japan hold historic naval drills in flashpoint waters,” AFP News, May 12, 2015; Manuel Mogato, Adam Rose, and Ben Blanchard, “Philippines, Japan coast guards hold anti-piracy drills,” Reuters, May 6, 2015.

[2] Louis Bacani, “Aquino: Beneficial if Japan can defend allies under attack,” Philstar.com, Jun. 24, 2014, http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2014/06/24/1338501/aquino-beneficial-if-japan-can-defend-allies-under-attack.

[3] Rosemarie Francisco, Manuel Mogato, Linda Sieg, Tim Kelly, and Nobuhiro Kubo, “Japan steps up maritime engagement with Philippines, Vietnam,” Reuters, May 12, 2015; “Japan – Indonesia Joint Statement: Towards Further Strengthening of the Strategic Partnership Underpinned by Sea and Democracy,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Mar. 23, 2015; Mitsuru Obe, “Japan Reaffirms Economic Ties With Thailand,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9, 2015; Bagus BT Saragih, “Indonesia and Japan improve military ties,” Jakarta Post, Jan. 30 2013.

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China’s (Is)land Reclamation in the South China Sea

For the last few years, China and the Philippines have repeatedly accused each other of destabilizing the uneasy balance in the South China Sea, where both sides claim small bits of land among the Spratly Islands.  Both have attempted to demonstrate their control over the area by using naval and coast guard patrols to protect what they consider to be their national fisheries.  And on occasion, they have detained and fined each others’ fishermen.  That is what happened early this month when Philippine authorities caught a Chinese fishing boat poaching sea turtles off Half Moon Shoal.

But China has become more assertive in its claims over the South China Sea.  After a months-long standoff at sea in 2012, it has effectively barred the Philippines from Scarborough Shoal, an islet about 200 km off the west coast of the Philippine island of Luzon (and well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone).  The Philippines has responded by beefing up its armed forces and drawing closer to the United States, even entering into a new security pact with it last month called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (earlier referred to as the Increased Rotational Presence).

South China Sea - Spratly Islands

Meanwhile, China argues that it was Manila that escalated tensions, because it failed to remove the BRP Sierra Madre, an old landing ship tank that the Philippines had deliberately run aground on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, after China built a permanent concrete structure on nearby Mischief Reef.  The Philippines now stations a small marine detachment on the ship to maintain its claim on the shoal and observe Chinese activity.  Earlier this year, China prevented the Philippines from resupplying that garrison in another round of confrontation.

But on May 15, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a series of photographs that show Chinese land reclamation and construction efforts on Johnson South Reef (or Mabini Reef in the Philippines) over the course of the last two years.[1]

Johnson South Reef, March 13, 2012

Johnson South Reef - March 2012

Johnson South Reef, February 28, 2013

Johnson South Reef - February 2013

Johnson South Reef, February 25, 2014

Johnson South Reef - February 2014

Johnson South Reef, March 11, 2014

Johnson South Reef - March 2014

Manila speculates that China intends to build an airstrip on the reef, based on the scale of the land reclamation.  That would make some sense, since China has no airstrip in the Spratly Islands (apart from a few helicopter landing pads).  China’s nearest airstrip is on Woody Island in the Paracel group.  There Chinese engineers built a 2,700-meter airstrip, long enough to support all types of Chinese combat aircraft, though Woody Island is so small that it is unlikely to accommodate enough facilities to serve as a full-fledged air base.[2]  But even a basic airstrip on Johnson South Reef could reduce the logistical burden of supporting Chinese garrisons across the Spratly Islands.  Such an airstrip could also support light surveillance aircraft, giving China a greater situational awareness over the region.  (Only more photographs will tell whether China actually builds an airstrip on the reef.)  Currently, of the six claimants to the Spratly Islands, only Taiwan and the Philippines, occupying the largest islands in the group, have airstrips in the area.

The Philippines has declared that China’s land reclamation on Johnson South Reef is in violation of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which both China and the Philippines signed in 2002.  The code pledges its signatories to not pursue “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features.”[3]  The Philippines interprets that as a promise not to build on any of the South China Sea’s contested islands.  China obviously disagrees.  Manila lodged a formal protest against China last month, but Beijing rejected it.

While Beijing might rightly claim that some incidents in the South China Sea have been used to cast China in a negative light, it is clear that China has sought to change the status-quo in the area.  The other disputants in the region have begun to push back.  The Philippines brought its dispute with China over the Spratly Islands to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in March 2014.  This month, Vietnam confronted Chinese offshore oil drilling activities near the Paracel Islands, which it disputes with China.  Even now, dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese boats are circling the Hai Yang Shi You 981 (or HD 981) oil rig, about 220 km east of Vietnam’s coast.  That confrontation has sparked anti-Chinese protests and violence against factories in Vietnam, and prompted the United States to criticize China’s “aggressive” and “provocative” moves.  But Beijing has paid little heed, reiterating that both island groups are within China’s sovereign territory.

While countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have tried to maintain friendly ties with China, its recent actions in the South China Sea must concern their leaders.  It is harder for even those who consider themselves friends of China to continue giving it the benefit of the doubt.  But then again, that was the point of the Philippines’ photographs.

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Game On: Southeast Asian Cooperation in the South China Sea?

It is easy for a serviceman stationed on one of the tiny islands that comprise the Spratly group in the South China Sea to feel lonely.  But sometime in early June, the Philippines hopes to send 40 of its naval personnel to visit their Vietnamese counterparts on Southwest Cay for a day of beach volleyball, food, and music.  Even so, the history that the two sides share over the island was not so amiable.  South Vietnam slyly seized the island from the Philippines in 1975 and then communist Vietnamese forces replaced those of South Vietnam, after Saigon fell.  An impasse has existed ever since.[1]

South China Sea - Spratly Islands

While intermural events between island garrisons are not new, they have become scarce over the last decade or more.  With Chinese naval and coast guard patrols on the rise, tensions have increased across the South China Sea.  And so if the event on Southwest Cay occurs, it would carry with it some significance as a signal that the Philippines and Vietnam, two of the six countries that contest parts of the South China Sea, may have warmed to the notion of greater cooperation in the region.

In recent years, China has become more assertive, particularly against Philippine claims.  Notably, it blocked Philippine access to Scarborough Shoal in a months-long standoff in 2012.  And, in March 2014, China mounted a quasi-maritime blockade around Second Thomas Shoal (which China calls Ren’ai and the Philippines calls Ayungin), preventing the Philippines from resupplying its small garrison there aboard a grounded landing ship, tank (LST).  Eventually, the Philippines air dropped supplies to its contingent of marines.

Vietnam has also experienced Chinese harassment.  Over the last few years, Chinese patrol boats have repeatedly interfered with Vietnamese exploration vessels operating in the South China Sea, cutting their towed cables from time to time.  As a result, Vietnam has heavily invested in beefing up its navy, spending about $3 billion (equivalent to almost its entire 2011 defense budget) on six new Kilo-class submarines and four new Gephard-class frigates to help defend its waters.

With Manila seemingly serious about its own military buildup for the first time in decades, Vietnam may have begun to see the Philippines as a credible partner in the dispute in the South China Sea.  If nothing else, Vietnam knows that the event would irritate China, which has tried to divide its adversaries in the dispute and deal with them bilaterally.  For the Philippines, which has borne the brunt of Chinese ire over the last half decade alone, the event would be a step in the right direction for its efforts to encourage Southeast Asian cooperation.

Of course, Philippine hopes for cooperation extend further than an island sporting event.  In September 2012, Philippine Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin revealed plans for “tripartite patrols” across a swath of ocean from the southern Spratly Islands to the Celebes Sea.  The patrols would involve naval forces from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  He hoped that the three countries could expand their existing cooperative agreements in order to better coordinate their maritime patrols and, thus, enhance their collective situational awareness in the region.  (Clearly there is much room for improvement, given that in February 2013 nearly 200 gunmen from the Philippines, under the banner of the Sultanate of Sulu, sailed across the area and occupied a Malaysian town for three weeks.)

In 2012, the Philippines and Vietnam also mooted the possibility of holding joint naval exercises near Southwest Cay.  Later this year, naval officials from the Philippines and Vietnam will visit each other’s capitals to discuss further naval cooperation in the region.  Collaboration around situational awareness is likely to be on the agenda.  For the Philippines, its efforts will be aided by an integrated coastal monitoring radar system that it recently received from the United States.  Since then, it has worked with the U.S. Navy to bring it into full operational use, testing it during their joint Coast Watch South Capability Exercise.

Nonetheless, just how much cooperation can be expected to develop among Southeast Asian countries remains unclear.  They still harbor reservations about one another.  Even the effort to establish “tripartite patrols” was limited—aimed at coordinating naval activities, rather than mounting joint patrols.  Yet, they have all gradually come to see that the stronger China has become, the less willing it has been to negotiate.  Even Malaysia, which has been the most willing to give China the benefit of the doubt, has edged closer to the Philippine view.  As early as 2010, Malaysian officials began to express their concerns.  Then, in March 2013, the Chinese navy held an amphibious exercise in the waters off James Shoal, a Malaysian-claimed island; Kuala Lumpur responded with a rare protest to China.  By late that year, Malaysia announced that it would establish a marine corps and build a new naval base in Sarawak, near the disputed shoal.  But to little avail, China sent another three warships to the island in February 2014.[2]  Meanwhile, the Philippines continues to do what it can do alone.  That has included strengthening its alliance with the United States and bringing its dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

For the moment, beach volleyball on Southwest Cay merely means an opportunity for Philippine and Vietnamese personnel posted in the Spratly Islands to take a break from their daily duties.  But it would be better for them if their governments could start looking at each other as something other than rivals in the South China Sea.  Then, perhaps life among the Spratly Islands may truly become a little bit less lonely.



[1] Manuel Mogato and Greg Torode, “Philippine, Vietnamese navies to unite against China over beers and volleyball,” Reuters, Apr. 10, 2014.

[2] Stuart Grudgings, “Insight – China’s assertiveness hardens Malaysian stance in sea dispute,” Reuters, Feb. 26, 2014; Dzirhan Mahadzir, “Malaysia to establish marine corps, naval base close to James Shoal,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Oct. 16, 2013.

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Where Will It End?: China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone

More lines were drawn in the East China Sea (or rather in the skies above it).  With very little notice, China declared a sweeping air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over much of the East China Sea as of November 23 at 10:00 a.m. (local time).  Countries typically use such zones to expand their early warning against potential airborne threats.  Aircraft that fly within those zones are required to file flight plans and identify themselves to the appropriate authorities; otherwise those authorities may dispatch combat aircraft to intercept them.  China’s new ADIZ covers an area that contains two disputed maritime territories.  The first consists of islands, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, that are claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo.  The second is a small submerged rock, called Suyan in China and Ieodo in South Korea, which is claimed by both Beijing and Seoul.  South Korea has operated a small research station there for the last decade.  Shortly after China’s new ADIZ went into effect, its air force mounted its first patrol of the area; Japan spotted a Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft and a Tu-154 electronic intelligence aircraft over the East China Sea.

China’s demarcation follows a widely-publicized 18-day Japanese military exercise across southern Japan.  The exercise was one of an annual series that is normally held in November.  In 2011, a similar exercise was held that involved 35,000 Japanese personnel and the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington.  After tensions were ratcheted up between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands in September 2012, Tokyo shelved that year’s exercise.  This year’s iteration involved 34,000 military personnel, six ships, and 360 aircraft.  The exercise featured air defense missile battery drills on Okinawa as well as an amphibious landing, supported by a Japanese helicopter carrier, on the uninhabited atoll of Okidaitōjima, about 250 miles southeast of Okinawa.

China’s new ADIZ requires aircraft operating within the zone to register flight plan, radio, transponder, and logo information with its Civil Aviation Administration.  But the Ministry of National Defense is the “administrative organ” responsible for the zone.  Aircraft that violate the rules of the ADIZ could prompt the Chinese air force to adopt “emergency measures.”  Japan maintains a similar zone around its nearby islands.

Certainly China’s action has reverberated across the Asia-Pacific.  As one South Korean official noted, the focus of South Korea’s upcoming talks with China will likely shift from strengthening trust and cooperation to the ADIZ controversy.  Even Australia summoned the Chinese ambassador in Canberra to express its concern.  But those that could ultimately end up facing a similar situation might be the countries of Southeast Asia.  In announcing the ADIZ, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense referred to its authority over “the area enclosed by China’s outer limit of the territorial sea.”  Of course, there is another “territorial sea” that China claims—the South China Sea.  Within that sea, China has many other maritime disputes.  The most recently visible one is between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, which led Manila to challenge China’s maritime claims before a United Nations tribunal earlier this year.  There are also the long-running disputes between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands as well as among China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands.  But by mentioning the “outer limit of the territorial sea” China also revives a long-dormant dispute between it and Indonesia over the waters along the northern edge of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which have offshore natural gas fields.  China’s use of an ADIZ to strengthen its sovereignty claims in the East China Sea suggests that it might try a similar approach in the South China Sea too.  China’s Ministry of National Defense spokesman, Colonel Yang Yujun, failed to dispel such notions when he said that China would establish additional zones “at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”

More practically dangerous for the United States is that China’s ADIZ creates a situation in which American reconnaissance aircraft, which regularly patrol the East China Sea, may increasingly encounter Chinese fighter jets.  (Such patrols have long annoyed China.)  To appreciate the danger, one needs only to recall the April 2001 incident when a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea.  The EP-3 was forced to land on China’s Hainan Island where it was interned, triggering a two-week long crisis between China and the United States.

Little surprise, then, that China’s demarcation drew an immediate response from the United States.  Secretary of State John Kerry commented that he was “deeply concerned” and that China’s “unilateral action constitutes an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea”; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flatly stated that the United States would not recognize China’s control over the zone.  To make that point clear, the United States ordered two B-52 bombers to make an unannounced transit of the East China Sea on November 26.  No doubt, Washington also wanted to set a precedent for American combat aircraft to operate within the zone without notifying Chinese authorities.

Tokyo took an equally stern tone.  Prime Minister Shinzō Abe said that Japan would not recognize the zone.  He even persuaded Japan’s major airlines not to file flight plans with Chinese authorities on routes through the East China Sea.  Both Japan and South Korea flew military aircraft into the zone on November 27.  Soon after, China announced that it sent more aircraft to patrol the area, including a KJ-2000 early-warning aircraft and several J-11 and Su-30 fighters.

Most likely, China is trying to use the ADIZ to not only respond to Japan’s recent military exercise, but also enhance its sovereignty claims to the East China Sea (and the islands within it).  Earlier, it began maritime law enforcement patrols in the area to do the same.  Hopefully, China understands that it is setting the stage for future conflict if it pushes its claims too hard.  Already, China has chipped away at the credibility of its own diplomatic charm offensive in Southeast Asia, which Beijing just launched at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in October.  Even Southeast Asian countries with less-apprehensive views of China, like Indonesia and Malaysia, cannot help but take notice.

China’s establishment of its air defense information zone in the East China Sea raises another question: why take such a step now?  Is it because China feels the need to immediately respond to Japan’s recent military exercise; or because Beijing knows that the world’s attention is focused on the successful international negotiations in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program rather than its actions in the East China Sea; or because China sees the Obama administration’s commitment to its Asian allies as fundamentally weak (and wants to test it)?  Thankfully, Beijing decided to declare its ADIZ after Japan concluded its military exercise.  At least, there will be a full year before Japan conducts its next set of military drills in the area.

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