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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Boosting Indonesia’s Naval and Air Defenses in the South China Sea

Until September, Indonesia seemed sure to increase its defense budget in the coming year.  Rising concern over Chinese actions in the South China Sea had already prompted Indonesian leaders to pledge themselves to do more to safeguard Indonesia’s maritime claims in the region.  Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo promised to turn the Indonesian military into “a regional maritime force respected by countries in the East Asia region.”  A senior Indonesian military official was more direct—putting China on notice that Indonesia would defend its maritime space around the Natuna Islands, including those parts that fall within China’s nine-dash claim line in the South China Sea.[1]

Indonesia China Claims in the South China Sea

But to properly defend Indonesia’s maritime interests, the Indonesian military has had to reorient itself onto what it calls a “maritime axis.”  That process was formalized in its 2010 Strategic Defense Plan.  It detailed what Indonesia would need to do to modernize its long-neglected navy and air force.  Since 2011, both have begun to procure newer equipment.  The navy ordered three Type 209/1400 diesel-electric attack submarines from South Korea, two Sigma-class corvettes from the Netherlands, and a number of fast attack craft from Indonesian shipyards.  It also acquired three small British-built frigates.  Meanwhile, the air force acquired the first of 24 retired American F-16C/D fighters, which will be refurbished and outfitted with new radar systems to give them better maritime and strike capabilities.

However, the momentum of Indonesia’s military procurement seemed to have faltered in September, when Joko’s government submitted its proposed 2016 state budget to the Indonesian People’s Representative Council (DPR).  In that budget, the government cut the defense allocation by 6.3% from Rp 102.3 trillion ($7 billion) to Rp 95.8 trillion ($6.5 billion).  A few weeks later, the government awarded a $5 billion high-speed railway contract to a giant Chinese state-owned enterprise.  Some wondered whether Indonesia had chosen to take a softer line towards China.[2]

More likely, though, Indonesia’s weakening economy drove both decisions, rather than any easing of its concerns over the South China Sea.  Joko’s government has argued that it needed to shift resources away from military spending to fund a series of stimulus packages to revive the Indonesian economy, which has suffered as the country’s raw material exports have fallen, a problem deepened by the government’s ill-timed reforms of Indonesia’s mining industry.  With respect to the contract award, the Chinese bid was sweetened at the last minute with a financial package for the proposed railway’s construction that did not require any loan guarantees from the Indonesian government, freeing it from any liabilities if the expensive project failed to meet expectations.  That was something Japan’s competing offer could not match.[3]

Whatever the reason for the lower defense allocation, it will hinder the modernization of Indonesia’s naval and air forces.  During budgetary testimony in October, General Gatot Nurmantyo, the commander of Indonesian armed forces, told the DPR’s defense commission that the lower defense allocation would force him to delay or scrap a number of procurement programs.  That prompted some on the DPR defense commission to worry whether the Indonesian military would have enough resources to achieve its “Minimum Essential Force,” the minimum requirements needed to defend Indonesia’s maritime interests.  Hence, the commission adopted a new proposal to add Rp 37.1 trillion ($2.5 billion) to the defense budget.  Ultimately, the DPR’s budget commission pared back that proposal, but still boosted the defense budget to Rp 99.5 trillion ($6.7 billion).[4]

While the new budget still represents a decrease from a year earlier, the small increase over the government’s proposal will help to keep some procurement programs on track and offset the falling value of the Indonesian rupiah against the U.S. dollar, which has made purchases of foreign military equipment more expensive.  In any case, Indonesia has also pursued other financing means to support its military procurement.  In early September, the Indonesian Ministry of Finance arranged for PT Bank Negara Indonesia to provide credit worth Rp 980 billion ($666 million) to the military for a variety of acquisitions.  Soon thereafter, the DPR’s defense commission revealed that Jakarta was seeking to secure a $3 billion loan from Moscow to fund major acquisitions.[5]  If the loan is finalized, Indonesia’s Ministry of Defense will most likely use it to acquire Russian Su-35 fighters and Kilo-class submarines, both of which the DPR’s defense commission has already endorsed.  As the one commission member said of Indonesia: “[we are] a maritime country… so sea security must be prioritized.”[6]

Yet, even with such support for new kit, the Indonesian military will have to stretch its resources to set up adequate defenses in the South China Sea.  The military has already listed a number of infrastructure improvements on and around the Natuna Islands that need to be completed before it can station more forces there.  The improvements include the construction of facilities for 2,000 additional troops; expansion of a naval base at Pontianak; and upgrade of Ranai air base with new hangars, radar, and a longer runway.  In September, Minister of Defense Ryamizard Ryacudu visited Natuna Island to draw attention to Indonesia’s efforts to beef up defenses in the area.  He noted plans to deploy three ships and four fighter aircraft on the island.[7]

In the near future, Indonesia is expected to publish a new defense white paper.  It will likely detail the growing maritime threats to Indonesian security.  Along with Jakarta’s ongoing attempts to strengthen its navy and air force, it reflects the intent of Indonesian leaders to better protect their country’s interests in the South China Sea.  But how quickly those leaders can do so is an open question.  They have a long way to go before they can bring to fruition the robust force structure envisioned in the 2010 Strategic Defense Plan.  Despite the progress made over the last five years, the defenses on the Natuna Islands are only just beginning to improve.  For now, Ranai air base still has the air of a remote outpost, operating a single 1980s-era radar set.  Perhaps in the coming years more military hardware will finally reach it.

[1] “Jokowi wants RI to be respected maritime force by 2020,” Jakarta Post, Oct. 5, 2015; Moeldoko, “China’s Dismaying New Claims in the South China Sea,” Wall Street Journal, Apr. 24, 2014.

[2] Kanupriya Kapoor and Cindy Silviana, “UPDATE 2-Indonesia rewards China’s ‘courage’ with high-profile rail contract,” Reuters, Sep. 30, 2015; Nani Afrida, “The TNI to cut back on weapons procurement,” Jakarta Post, Sep. 9, 2015.

[3] Robin Harding, Avantika Chilkoti, and Tom Mitchell, “Tokyo furious after Jakarta awards rail contract to Beijing,” Financial Times, Oct. 2, 2015, p. 6; Avantika Chilkoti and Taufan Hidayat, “Indonesia rolls out next stimulus phase in effort to lift economy,” Financial Times, Sep. 29, 2015.

[4] Lili Sunardi Senin, Kementerian, “PU Dapat Anggaran Terbanyak Dari APBN 2016,”, Nov. 2, 2015; Jon Grevatt, “Indonesian parliamentary commission approves defence spending increase,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 28, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “National scene: House support plans to buy Russian submarine,” Jakarta Post, Sep. 30, 2015.

[7] “Indonesia: Islanders on Alert,” NHK World, Nov. 11, 2015; “Indonesia’s Defense Ministry to focus on improving infrastructure in Natuna,”, Sep. 21, 2015; “Indonesian military adds two thousand personnel to guard Natuna waters,”, Sep. 16, 2015; Ridzwan Rahmat, “Indonesia to upgrade naval base near disputed South China Sea waters,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 9, 2014.

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The Bigger Picture: China’s Energy Exploration in the East China Sea and Japan’s Security Debate

Last week Japan released its annual defense review.  For the first time, it revealed photographs of Chinese offshore drilling rigs operating in the East China Sea.  The images reminded many of the international controversy that China stirred up in May 2014 when it sent the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore drilling rig (pictured below) into waters claimed by Vietnam.  The photographs reinforce the narrative that China is intent on pursuing its own interests, regardless of the consequences for its neighbors.  That, along with its island-building activities in the South China Sea, has made it increasingly difficult for Asian countries, like Indonesia and Malaysia, to set aside their concerns over Chinese actions in the region.

China offshore energy exploration

China’s foreign ministry quickly denounced the Japanese disclosure of the photographs.  It decried them as inflammatory and declared that Japan’s use of the photographs “provokes confrontation between the two countries, and is not constructive at all to the management of the East China Sea situation and the improvement of bilateral relations.”[1]

China maintains that the offshore drilling rigs that it has erected in the East China Sea are on its side of the median line through the two countries’ claims.  Thus, China has every right to develop the energy resources there.  Unfortunately, man-made demarcations cannot so neatly divide the East China Sea’s oil and natural gas deposits.  Rather, they tend to migrate towards areas of lower pressure.  Those occur whenever wells are drilled nearby.  Hence, Japan fears that Chinese wells will siphon off the oil and natural gas deposits under its claim from across the median line.

That prospect was thought to have been put to rest in 2008, when China and Japan agreed to jointly develop energy resources in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.  Neither side would unilaterally drill for oil or natural gas there.  But those were different times.  Since then, China has become not only more powerful, but also more willing to openly assert its power in the region.  Japan (whether consciously or not) antagonized China when Japan’s central government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu in China) from private Japanese owners in 2012.  That prompted a sharp rise in the number of clashes between Chinese fishing boats and the Japanese coast guard around the islands, and China to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the disputed waters in November 2013.  At the same time, China did begin to unilaterally explore for oil and natural gas in those waters, as Japan’s photographs attest.

Even so, China may be correct to discern a political rationale for Japan’s photographic disclosure, though perhaps not the one that its foreign ministry seemed to intimate.  The main reason behind Japan’s disclosure may not have been to embarrass China, but rather to support Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s effort to pass security legislation that will enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective self-defense—or in other words, to fight alongside an ally when either it or Japan is threatened.  Indeed, the photographic disclosure was made only a week before the upper house of the Japanese Diet starts debate on Abe’s new security bills.

The photographs surely boost the argument of Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), that there is a clear and present danger to Japan’s national interests and more must be done to protect them.  But a chorus of Japanese politicians of different political stripes has joined in opposition to Abe’s effort to push through the security legislation without a thorough debate.  Many, including some within the LDP, are concerned about passing the security bills without a clear understanding of the circumstances in which Japanese military forces could be used.  The ultimate vote could be a close one, given that the LDP holds a slim majority in the upper house.  Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but Abe may hope that they are worth a few votes too.

[1] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang’s Remarks on Japan’s Disclosure of China’s Oil and Gas Exploration in the East China Sea,” China Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release, July 23, 2015, .

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Strategic Intentions: China’s Military Strategy White Paper

On Tuesday, China published its latest defense white paper.  Unlike its’ eight predecessors, this document was the first time that China publicly unveiled parts of its military strategy.  Even the paper’s title was changed from China’s National Defense to China’s Military Strategy.  Rather than the opaque and retrospective generalities found in earlier versions, the new white paper offered details about China’s strategic intentions and the future development of its military.

One Chinese military official went so far as to state that the greater transparency of the new white paper was a sign of a more confident China.  That said, many of the revelations contained in the document were hardly novel.  It profiled China’s decades-old “active defense” strategy, which maintains that China would always remain strategically defensive–though perhaps not so at the operational or tactical levels.  It also detailed the Chinese military’s primary aim: to prepare itself to fight “local wars under conditions of informationization”—in other words, regional conflicts in which command, control, communications, intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (C4ISR) would play major roles.  That too was already known.[1]

But other revelations in the white paper were more illuminating.  It showed that China intends to focus its force development in four domains: cyberspace (it will boost its cyber warfare capabilities); outer space (it will take steps to defend its interests there, even though it is opposed to the militarization of that domain); nuclear forces (it will build a reliable second-strike capability); and finally the oceans.

Yueyang - China frigate

That last domain is what currently worries China’s neighbors the most, given Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, the white paper highlighted Beijing’s intentions to further expand the Chinese navy and extend the range of its operations—shifting from “offshore waters defense” to “open ocean protection.”  The white paper argued that China’s growing overseas interests have changed the country’s focus from being a continental land power to a maritime power.  That has led China to prioritize its navy in its military modernization plans.  In what once would have been heresy in the Chinese military, the white paper declared that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.”[2]

That means that in the future China would not only defend its coastline from attack, but also its sea lanes of communications through international shipping routes, including those from the Middle East through which over half of China’s oil flows.  That, in turn, means countries like India will have to get used to seeing more of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean.  By the same token, Japan and the United States should expect more Chinese naval and air patrols in the Pacific Ocean and maybe one or two more Chinese aircraft carriers.

The white paper also listed China’s strategic concerns.  Chief among them was America’s “rebalance” toward Asia, under which the United States has increased its military presence and strengthened its alliances in the region.  The white paper also noted Japan’s push to revise its military and security policies, characterizing them as “sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism.”  China’s “offshore neighbors” warranted mention too for their “provocative actions [to] reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied,” no doubt referring to the Philippines and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands.

While the white paper’s greater transparency may be the product of a more confident China, it is still a country that has not escaped the classic security dilemma.  As the white paper itself observes, China’s neighbors are rearming and helping the United States bolster its security alliances.  So, even as China strives to improve its security, it has prompted its neighbors to seek ways to improve their security situations, thereby reducing the effectiveness of its own efforts.  That is something that China’s military strategy probably did not intend.

[1] “China sticks to ‘active defense’ strategy,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015,; “White Paper highlights ‘active’ defense strategy,” interviewee Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, China Ministry of National Defense, host Han Bin, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015,

[2] China’s Military Strategy (Beijing: State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015); “China’s defense white paper,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, host Wang Yizhi, Dialogue, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015,

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Ready for a Fight?: How America Could Respond to a South China Sea Crisis

Last Monday, an American littoral combat ship, the Fort Worth (pictured below), sailed just over 12 nautical miles from some of the artificial islands that China has built from reclaimed land in the South China Sea.  While the U.S. Navy has conducted such transits before to ensure freedom of navigation through the region, it was the first time that a U.S. warship came so close to Chinese-held islands.  The transit was part of a stepped-up American effort to deter China from asserting its claims in the Spratly Islands too aggressively.  That effort has included openly questioning China’s maritime claims in December 2014 and encouraging Japan to take a bigger security role in the region earlier this year.

USS Fort Worth - Littoral Combat Ship

Last week, the United States also revealed that it is considering sending its ships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles—the internationally-recognized territorial zone around natural islands—of China’s newly-built islands, which the U.S. does not regard as natural.  If that happens, an incident between U.S. and Chinese forces may well take place.

Currently the Fort Worth, based in Singapore, is the only U.S. warship whose homeport is anywhere near the Spratly Islands.  While the U.S. Navy plans to eventually base four littoral combat ships in Singapore, when that might happen is not yet known.  In the meantime, America’s thin grey-hulled line in the South China Sea will be very thin indeed.

Thus, the Pentagon must consider how it would respond to a crisis there if one should occur.  Broadly speaking, the U.S. Navy expects to flow forces into the region from other areas around the world.  But to reach the South China Sea, those forces would have to pass through or near a number of choke points.  Those choke points would be natural places where China could intercept U.S. forces.

South China Sea - U.S. Navy

The U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Japan, would be the closest reinforcements that the United States could dispatch.  It would also be the most susceptible to Chinese interception.  To reach the South China Sea it would likely sail down the eastern flank of the Ryukyu Islands and through the Luzon Strait.   On the way it would pass the Miyako Strait, through which submarines and warships of China’s East Sea Fleet are known to sortie into the Pacific Ocean.  Then, as the U.S. fleet passes through the Luzon Strait, it would face the full brunt of Chinese naval and air forces stationed along China’s southern coast, including the main bases of China’s South Sea Fleet at Zhanjiang and Yalong Bay.  While the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines sailing underwater from Guam may avoid Chinese air power, both U.S. surface and subsurface forces would likely encounter Chinese submarines in the confined spaces of the Luzon Strait and in the waters near the Paracel Islands.

The U.S. 5th Fleet, normally operating near the Persian Gulf, would be the next closest source of reinforcements.  Its principal challenge to reach the South China Sea would be to sail unfettered through the long and narrow Malacca Strait.  There, Singapore’s capable navy and air force could play a vital role in keeping watch for Chinese aircraft and submarines, even if it did not want to directly involve itself in the dispute.

The last forces to arrive might deploy from as far as Hawaii or the U.S. West Coast.  They would be largely drawn from the U.S. 3rd Fleet.  Those forces may choose to eschew the Luzon Strait altogether and support operations in the South China Sea from the Sulu or Celebes Seas.  There, they could operate in relative safety, though still within range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles.  At least the mountains of Palawan Island would degrade the ability of Chinese land-based high-frequency direction-finding equipment and over-the-horizon radar to accurately target U.S. forces.  Resupply, particularly of ordinance, could be routed by air through Zamboanga (where U.S. Special Forces have operated for about a decade) or by ship through Davao or Koror.

All of which is to say that the success (or failure) of an American response to a crisis in the South China Sea depends, in no small part, to what happens in and near those straits, and that those straits should be very much present in the minds of U.S. naval commanders.  They also remind us of the abiding importance of geography, even in naval warfare.

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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,”, Jun. 24, 2014,

[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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Digging In: Land Reclamation and Defenses in the South China Sea

The U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of the Chinese military provided new detail on China’s land reclamation efforts on several of the islets that it occupies in the South China Sea.  These include Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago.  By December 2014, the report estimated that China had reclaimed as much as 500 acres of new land, creating full-fledged islands where only coral reefs or sand spits existed before.  Since then, China has only accelerated its efforts, expanding the total land area that it has reclaimed to 2,000 acres and building military facilities, ports, and at least one airstrip on the islands.[1]

China is not alone in reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands.  Though dwarfed by the massive scale of China’s efforts, Vietnam’s land reclamation work has recovered a total of 21 acres of land on West London Reef and Sand Cay.  Satellite imagery shows that not only are the two islands larger, but that Vietnam has constructed defensive positions and gun emplacements on them.[2]

Meanwhile, Taiwan is carrying out a more modestly-paced land reclamation effort on Itu Aba Island—the largest natural island in the Spratly archipelago—reclaiming roughly five acres of land.  By the end of this year, Taiwan plans to complete a large wharf that can accommodate its frigates and coast guard cutters.  Eventually, it hopes to extend the island’s runway and deploy P-3C maritime patrol aircraft there.[3]

Hence, China regards criticism from Southeast Asian countries over its island-building activities as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently shot back at its most vocal critic, the Philippines, which it claims “has conducted large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks on [Philippine-occupied] islands for many years.”  As a result, China called upon the Philippines to end its “malicious hyping and provocation.”[4]

Accusations aside, bigger islands that are bristling with weapons will not settle the disputes in the South China Sea.  No doubt military installations on the islands can be useful.  They can improve the ability of claimants to monitor and rapidly respond to incidents in the area.  And ultimately, they serve as a tripwire against hostile action.  But further fortifying the islands makes them only marginally more secure.  However strong an island’s defenses are, they are inherently vulnerable.

If push comes to shove, an island’s defenses can exact a toll on an attacker, especially if they are armed with anti-ship or anti-air missiles.  But eventually they will be lost without control of the sea and air around them.  A determined attacker that dominates both can always overcome an island’s defenses, no matter how skillful their defenders are.  Only superior naval and air power can ensure the safety of island outposts.  On that score, China has its rivals beat at the moment.

There once was a time when claimants in the South China Sea vied to demonstrate how their occupied islets met certain criteria to be considered islands under international law.  That way they could claim the rights to exclusive economic zones around their specks of land.  Today, a growing list of claimants, chief among them China, would rather build artificial islands than quibble over the finer points of international law.  There is an out-and-out scramble to establish de facto zones of control and land reclamation is part of that.

[1] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, May 2015), p. 72; James Hardy, Sean O’Connor, and Michael Cohen, “China’s first runway in Spratlys under construction,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 16, 2015.

[2] Gordon Lubold and Adam Entous, “U.S. Says Beijing Is Building Up South China Sea Islands,” Wall Street Journal, May, 9, 2015.

[3] Gavin Phipps and James Hardy, “Taiwan to deploy P-3Cs to Spratlys,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2015.

[4] Ben Blanchard and Manuel Mogato, “China says Philippines violating South China Sea code,” Reuters, May 5, 2015.

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Lines in the Water: The United States and China’s Claims in the South China Sea

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of State released a 26-page technical report on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.  It detailed the confusion that surrounds those claims.  Starting with the unexplained differences between China’s claim lines on its 1947 and 2009 maps of the region, the report went on to identify “at least three different interpretations that China might intend, including that the dashes [on its maps] are (1) lines within which China claims sovereignty over the islands, along with the maritime zones those islands would generate under the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]; (2) national boundary lines; or (3) the limits of so-called historic maritime claims of varying types.”[1]  (Together, those dashed lines are what observers have often referred to as China’s “nine-dash” or “U-shaped” line in the South China Sea.)

South China Sea - China 1947 and 2009 Claims

The confusion that surrounds China’s maritime claims is not new; and Beijing has been in no rush to clarify the picture.  Indeed, putting China into a position where it had to clarify its claims and the legal basis for them was a main driver of why the Philippines brought its maritime dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in January 2013.  But the report was the first time the United States formally laid out its view of the confusion in such great detail.

Naturally, China denounced the report as American meddling in the South China Sea dispute and accused the United States of “taking sides” (presumably not China’s).  In light of the timing of the report’s release, ten days before the deadline for China’s reply to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, it is easy to see why China might regard it as pressure.

But the report’s creation may be as much, if not more, of a practical move by Washington in the long run.  Whatever the outcome at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the United States has an interest in ensuring that the countries in the region (particularly China) know precisely how it understands the matter.  That is because American ships and planes will operate in the region in a manner consistent with that understanding in the future.  Already, there have been incidents between American and Chinese forces, like those involving U.S. Navy’s Impeccable in 2009 and Cowpens in 2013.

Just as China elaborated on the reasons behind its refusal to participate in the proceedings at the Permanent Arbitration, in part, to lay the foundation for a rejection of any judgment that the court might render, the United States may have created its report to establish a basis for its freedom to use the South China Sea, if China one day chooses to enforces its claims on (or above, in the case of an air defense identification zone) those waters.  Surely, China can appreciate that logic.

[1] U.S. Department of State, Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea, Limits in the Sea No. 143, Dec. 5, 2014, p. 23.

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China Details Argument in South China Sea Dispute: China’s Position Paper and Philippine Diplomatic Gains

Yesterday, China’s foreign ministry released a position paper related to its maritime dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea.  The paper laid out the justification for China’s refusal to take part in the arbitration proceedings that the Philippines initiated at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in January 2013.  It comes a week before the court’s six-month deadline for a response from China.  While China’s refusal to participate should surprise no one, the paper detailed three broad reasons why it chose not to:

  • China claimed that the “subject-matter” that the Philippines submitted for arbitration is beyond the scope of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and, thus, the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.  In short, China argued that the court can hardly arbitrate China’s claims, when the extent of China’s territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea has not yet been determined.  (Ironically, in bringing the “subject-matter” to court, the Philippines hoped to compel China into explaining the basis for its claims under the Convention—something that it has been reluctant to do.)
  • China claimed that the Philippines had violated its earlier agreements with Beijing as well as the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (the oft-mentioned “code of conduct”), when it unilaterally initiated the arbitration proceedings.  China argued that in those agreements the Philippines pledged itself to resolve the maritime disputes through negotiation, a process that involves consent, which China clearly did not give.
  • China claimed that, in any case, it was not bound by any arbitration related to the Convention.  It reminded observers that in 2006 China filed a declaration with the United Nations in which it exempted itself from compulsory arbitration and other dispute settlement procedures.

South China Sea - China and Philippines Claims

Beijing’s position paper also appeared to lay the groundwork for a rejection of any judgment that the Permanent Court of Arbitration might render.  Certainly, over the course of the last year, China has been entrenching (literally) its position on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea through land reclamation.  It has been building up a number of islands, including Johnson South Reef, Hughes Reef, Cuateron Reef, and Gaven Reefs.  On Fiery Cross Reef, it has expanded what was once a tiny atoll into one capable of supporting an airstrip and a small harbor.  Even when Manila brought its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, it had to know that it was unlikely to change China’s behavior.

So, what did the Philippines achieve?  First, it forced China to further delineate its views on the South China Sea, a feat that years of Southeast Asian prodding had failed to do.  Second, it helped to change the tenor of the maritime dispute in the region.  By forcing China to put its claims into sharper relief, the Philippines helped to show its fellow Southeast Asian claimants just how little room they have to negotiate with China.  Even Malaysia and Indonesia, which had been the most reticent about confronting China, have become firmer in asserting their own claims.  Finally, and most tangibly, the Philippines gained greater cooperation with other ASEAN countries, most notably Vietnam.  In November, Vietnam’s two Gepard-class guided-missile frigates, the newest and largest ships in the Vietnamese navy, visited Manila for the first time.  Though Southeast Asia is still far from taking a unified stand, the visit was a signal that the Philippines may not stand alone.

It is remarkable what the Philippines has achieved diplomatically, given the limited resources at its disposal and the disproportionate power of China.  But diplomacy alone cannot change the facts on the ground.  China knows that.  As an op-ed from China’s Xinhua’s news agency, released alongside Beijing’s position paper, cautioned: “it is advisable that the Philippines return as soon as possible to the right track of negotiation to settle the disputes.”  The “right track” apparently means acceptance of China’s preference for bilateral negotiations.  But the editorial went onto state that China “will not give up an inch of its land.”  That suggests that the best the Philippines (or any of the South China Sea claimants) can hope for is cooperation with China “to manage resources and protect free navigation in the South China Sea.”[1]  That is hardly an enticement to the Philippines to negotiate.

[1] Huang Yinjiazi, “Commentary: Manila’s unilateral move on South China Sea dispute unhelpful,” Xinhua, Dec. 7, 2014.

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Chinese Submarines and Indian ASW in the Indian Ocean

How to deal with Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean has become a practical question for India.  In December 2013, China let it be known that one of its nuclear attack submarines would sail through the Indian Ocean over the following two months.  It was the first time that China confirmed such a transit.  At the time, many thought it would be a relatively rare occurrence.  But over the last couple of months, two more submarines appear to have made similar transits, after they were spotted making five-day long port calls in Sri Lanka.

On September 19, a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric attack submarine and its attendant Type 925 submarine support ship, the Changxing Dao, docked at the Colombo International Container Terminals for refueling and crew refreshment before the submarine set sail for the international anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden.  Six weeks later, on October 31, there was another port call by a Chinese submarine and the Changxing Dao at the same facility.  Whether that port call was made by the same Song-class submarine which visited earlier or by a Han-class nuclear attack submarine, as some reports have indicated, remains unclear due to a lack of photos associated with its visit to Colombo.

Indian Ocean - China and India

Either way, the two port calls suggested that China might send more submarines (and with greater frequency) into the Indian Ocean in the future.  Naturally, that has heightened Indian concerns about Chinese power in the region.  But even more troubling to India was Sri Lanka’s readiness to welcome those submarines, in spite of Indian reservations.  After the first port call, New Delhi expressed to Colombo its concerns about such submarines visiting Sri Lankan ports.  Colombo dismissed India’s qualms, contending that Chinese submarines were no different than the other 230 foreign warships that visited Sri Lanka this year.  Many Indian observers saw the rebuff as a sign that Sri Lanka had decided to cozy up to China.  A few even argued that Sri Lanka had violated the 1987 peace accord between it and India in which Colombo agreed that its ports would “not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.”

As to why the port calls occurred at all, some speculated that they were a response to India’s growing military relationship with Vietnam, a country locked in a dispute with China over the sovereignty of the South China Sea.  India has already become Vietnam’s principal military training partner, providing spare parts for Vietnam’s warships and training Vietnamese sailors in submarine operations.  In fact, India and Vietnam signed an agreement to engage in even closer military cooperation just days before the first port call.

The port calls also lent credence to long-held Indian suspicions of a Chinese scheme to encircle India through the development of military and economic ties with countries across the Indian Ocean.  Indian commentators have often pointed to the proliferation of Chinese infrastructure projects in the region as the manifestation of those ties, and collectively referred to the projects as China’s “string of pearls.”  Notably, the Colombo International Container Terminals facility (where the Chinese submarines docked) was one of those projects.  This year, China put its own name on its infrastructure-building efforts in the region: the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative.  Two weeks ago Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China would set up a $40 billion fund to support that initiative as well as contribute billions more to a new Asian infrastructure investment bank.  Both are designed to foster new building projects across South and Southeast Asia.  Both are also likely to further stoke India’s sense of unease over Chinese intentions.

No doubt Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean would complicate India’s naval situation in the Indian Ocean.  To reduce the danger from Chinese diesel-electric attack submarines, the Indian navy could step up its monitoring of Chinese submarine support ships and the region’s ports, which those submarines need to periodically refuel.  But Chinese nuclear attack submarines would pose a bigger challenge, as they do not need to refuel.  If supplied with timely intelligence, such submarines could put at risk Indian shipping throughout the region.

Already, the Indian navy has begun to prepare for that possibility.  But its planning has labored under a series of naval accidents in recent years, the deadliest of which occurred in August 2013 when an explosion aboard one of its Kilo-class submarines, the Sindhurakshak, killed 18 sailors.  At the same time, the navy continues to experience delays in its procurement of new warships and refit of its existing ones.  Between 2005 and 2010, 113 out of its 152 refit projects were late.  Many of them were combat platforms used for anti-submarine warfare (ASW).  But equally important are those platforms designed to search for and detect an adversary’s submarines.

While India’s land-based ASW helicopters and short-range maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), like its 14 Do 228 aircraft, are valuable to protect its key ports, the Indian navy must use long-range aviation assets to patrol the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean.  Historically, that mission has fallen to the navy’s handful of Soviet-vintage prop-driven aircraft.  Its four Tu-142M MPAs based at Rajali naval air station are responsible for the waters off India’s east coast; and its five Il-38 MPAs based at Hansa naval air station for the waters off its west coast.  But both sets of aircraft are showing their age.  Even setting aside the quality of their ASW sensors and the quantity of sonobuoys and weapons they can carry, the aircraft themselves are relatively slow compared to modern MPAs.  That is an important factor, given the long distances they need to cover in the Indian Ocean.

Hence, it was significant that the Indian navy began to upgrade its long-range MPA fleet in late 2008.  At that time, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta explained the need for better “maritime domain awareness and network-centric operations along with a reliable stand-off deterrent” to deal with China’s naval rise.  That approach was reflected in India’s purchase of twelve P-8I MPAs from the United States.  Based on the Boeing 737 jet airliner, the P-8I provides the Indian navy with not only a more capable suite of ASW sensors and weapons, but also greater speed.  The aircraft has a cruising speed over 100 miles per hour faster than India’s current MPA fleet, allowing it to better prosecute any submarines that it detects at longer ranges.[1]

Long-range detection and prosecution are important if the Indian navy is to conduct ASW on an oceanic scale.  Fortunately for India, geography helps to some extent.  The eastern approaches into the Indian Ocean are funneled through narrow straits created by the Indonesian archipelago.  The most significant of these are the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits.  They offer Chinese submarines the most direct routes from their bases in southern China, particularly a major new one at Yalong Bay, into the Indian Ocean.  Naturally, the Indian navy would want to monitor those straits for the passage of Chinese submarines.

However, the Indian navy must watch its western flank too.  There, Pakistan—China’s “all-weather friend”—has drawn ever closer to Beijing in the wake of America’s scaled back engagement from Afghanistan.  Recently, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa went so far as to say that “Pakistan sees China’s enemies as their own.”  Though his comment was directed at China’s Xinjiang militants, it also raised eyebrows in India, which has had a long history of conflict with Pakistan.  Hence, the Indian navy must also have ASW resources ready to counter the possibility that Chinese submarines may use a Pakistani port as a base of operations or that Pakistan’s five French-built Agosta-class diesel-electric attack submarines may even sortie in support of China.

Considering these strategic parameters, we can gauge the number of long-range ASW aviation assets that India would need to conduct oceanic ASW in the Indian Ocean.  We can assess that the Indian navy would have to establish at least two ASW barrier patrols along the eastern and western peripheries of the region (as well as keep a sufficient reserve for escort duty).  Given an operational readiness rate of 75 percent, we can then estimate that India would require a force of 40 to 48 long-range MPAs, likely divided into five or six squadrons of eight aircraft.[2]

The Indian navy could assign three of these MPA squadrons to its Eastern Naval Command, which would likely operate them from not only Rajali, but also Utkrosh naval air station in the Andaman Islands.  From these bases, it could use one squadron to establish an ASW barrier patrol at the western exit of the Malacca Strait and a second squadron to do the same further south, closer to the exits of the Sunda and Lombok Straits.  Finally, it could use a third squadron to support its surface fleet operations.  On the other side of the Indian subcontinent, the navy could assign the other two or three MPA squadrons to its Western and Southern Naval Commands to monitor the western approaches to India’s coast as well as the waters around Sri Lanka for submarine activity.

No one said that oceanic ASW was going to be easy or inexpensive.  But Asia’s changing strategic environment has begun to force India to reassess the kinds of resources that it will need to maintain its naval position in the Indian Ocean.  Given the pace of China’s military modernization, India would do well to mobilize those resources faster.

[1] Gulshan Luthra, “Indian Navy to induct 24 Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft,” India Strategic, Dec. 2011; Rahul Bedi, “Indian naval head warns of Chinese military challenge,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 12, 2009; Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy (New Delhi: Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), May 2007), p. v.

[2] With a 75 percent readiness rate, each squadron would have six of its eight aircraft operational.  To maintain an effective ASW barrier patrol, two MPAs would constantly need to be on station.  Another two aircraft would be flying to or from the patrol area, and the last pair would be on the ground, preparing for their next patrol.

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