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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Friends in Many Places: Vietnam’s Diplomacy

Last Wednesday, Vietnam feted the 60th anniversary of its victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu.  But earlier that week, Hanoi lodged a protest against Beijing for allowing a Chinese offshore oil rig to drill in the waters near the Paracel Islands, which are disputed between China and Vietnam.  Hanoi also complained that Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese coast guard vessels which were dispatched to the oil rig site on Sunday.  Several Vietnamese sailors suffered minor injuries.[1]  Fortunately, the outcome of the incident was far less severe than Vietnam’s March 1988 naval clash with China in which 70 Vietnamese personnel were killed and three ships lost after Chinese forces fired on them near Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands.

That China and Vietnam have had a long history of mistrust, reaching far before the 20th century, is well known.  The fact that both countries eventually became single-party states with a common communist ideology did not make them comrades.  During the Cold War, Vietnam allied itself with the Soviet Union, not China.  And in 1979 China and Vietnam fought a short, but intense war, in which Beijing sought to “teach Vietnam a lesson” for its invasion and occupation of Chinese-backed Cambodia.  But by the end of the conflict, China, after losing over 30,000 troops, learned that Vietnam was no walkover.  What Vietnam learned was the rarity of reliable friends.  Despite a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that Hanoi signed with Moscow a year earlier, the Soviet Union did not come to Vietnam’s aid when China invaded.  Unfortunately for Hanoi, after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, it had even fewer friends than before.

South China Sea - Paracel Islands - Spratly Islands - Vietnam

But with growing unease across the Asia-Pacific over China’s rise (and attendant assertiveness), Vietnam has found other countries receptive to friendlier ties.  Unlike the Philippines, which has sought to maximize its long-time relationship with the United States (and a more recent one with Japan), Vietnam has cast a wider net for friends.  Over the last 15 years, it has made fast friends with a number of external powers, including India, Japan, Russia, and the United States.[2]  These have paid off in different ways.

Like Vietnam, India has become wary of China.  New Delhi has wanted to push back against what it sees as China’s efforts to exert influence into South Asia, in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.  Moreover, India has its own territorial disputes with China over large sections of the Himalayan Mountains.  And so, India has pursued new ties with Southeast Asia through its “Look East” diplomatic strategy, and in doing so found common cause with Vietnam.  So, even as China drilled for oil in waters that Vietnam contests, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation had already agreed to lease exploration blocks from Vietnam in waters that China contests in the southern part of the South China Sea.[3]  India has also extended military support to Vietnam.  Since 2000, the Indian navy has deployed ships into the South China Sea (and on occasion ignored warnings from China’s navy that they were entering Chinese waters).  In 2010, Vietnam signed an agreement that granted the Indian navy access to Vietnamese port facilities.  In turn, India agreed to expand Vietnam’s naval logistics capabilities and, in 2013, offered to help train new Vietnamese submarine crews (since India has long operated the same class of submarine that Vietnam is now acquiring).[4]

Vietnam’s relations with Japan have also grown.  The rift between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu (in China) or Senkaku (in Japan) Islands in the East China Sea has made Tokyo as interested as Hanoi in developing new security ties with its neighbors.  In 2011, Japan and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding that facilitated the creation of bilateral defense ties, ministerial visits, and exchanges between the two countries’ armed forces.  And when Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Tokyo in December 2013, the two sides discussed further collaboration, including providing Japanese-built patrol boats to the Vietnamese coast guard.  (Japan made a similar offer of ten patrol boats to the Philippines in July 2013.)  That was followed up with an accord between Japan and Vietnam to establish an “extensive strategic partnership” during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to Hanoi in March 2014.  The partnership envisions many areas of engagement, most notable among which is Japan’s assistance to enhance Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement capacity.[5]

Of course, Vietnam’s relationship with Russia extends back to the days of the Soviet Union.  But that relationship has been revitalized over the last decade.  Russia is once again doing a brisk business as Vietnam’s principal arms supplier and ranks among Russia’s top five arms export recipients.  In April 2014, Vietnam took delivery of the second of six Kilo-class submarines that it ordered from Russia.  Before that came orders for 32 Su-30MK2 fighters, two batteries of P-800 mobile land-based anti-ship cruise missiles (part of the K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense system), six Svetlyak-class fast-attack craft, and four Gepard-class frigates.  Vietnam also contracted Russia to upgrade its venerable naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, where Russia maintained a naval presence until 2002.  Meanwhile, Vietnam has tried to broaden its relationship with Moscow by allowing Russian state-owned companies, like Rosneft, to acquire stakes in its energy sector.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Vietnam in late 2013, the two sides agreed to several deals that included a joint investment in a major refinery and a contract for a nuclear power plant.  But more interestingly, Hanoi offered Rosneft concessions in two offshore exploration blocks, both of which sit near or within China’s “nine dash line” that demarcates Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.[6]

Vietnam has even courted the United States, a country against which it fought a bitter conflict in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  When Russia’s lease on Cam Ranh Bay was about to expire in the early 2000s, Vietnam turned to the United States.  Hanoi informally discussed granting the United States access to the naval base, which it had used during the Vietnam Conflict.  At the time the United States demurred, concerned about China’s reaction.  Even so, Vietnam has welcomed U.S. Navy port visits, which have averaged once per year over the last decade.[7]  Nonetheless, the relationship between Washington and Hanoi only really took off after they began holding annual bilateral defense and security talks in 2008.  Vietnam was particularly pleased in 2010 when the United States declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to be in its “national interest.”  That American assertion was reinforced in late 2013 when Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would provide Vietnam with $18 million and five fast patrol boats to improve its coast guard’s ability to properly police its waters.[8]

Whether Vietnam eventually finds these external powers to be fair-weather friends remains to be seen.  Certainly, China has tried to plant the seeds of doubt, warning Vietnam not to be misled by professions of friendship from other countries.  Of course, a country like Russia must weigh its growing strategic relationship with China against its military and economic ties to Vietnam.  Other countries must also consider how far they are willing to go for Vietnam.  Thus far, these sorts of questions have not hindered Hanoi from pursuing a foreign policy that aggressively makes friends around the globe.  Perhaps one day France may be counted among them too.

[1] “Sea incident not clash: China Vice-Minister,” China Daily Asia, May 8, 2014,; “Chinese vessels deliberately ram Vietnam’s ships in Vietnamese waters: officials,” Tuoi Tre News, May 7, 2014,

[2] Vietnam also developed closer security ties with Australia, Germany, Italy, and Sweden.  In 2010, Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation with Australia and further strengthened its ties in 2013 with a new joint training program.  In the same year, it contracted with Sweden’s Unmanned Systems Group for unmanned aerial vehicles.  Julian Kerr and James Hardy, “Australia, Vietnam signal closer defence ties,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 21, 2013.

[3] That same region was a zone of contention in the early 1990s when China and Vietnam leased exploration blocks abutting one another to Crestone and Mobil Oil, respectively, both American energy companies.  Philip Bowring, “China Is Getting Help in a Grab at the Sea,” New York Times, May 6, 1994.

[4] Rahul Bedi, “Indian Navy to train Vietnamese submarine crews,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 2, 2013; Hao Zhou, “China warns India against oil exploitation,” Global Times, Dec. 5, 2012,; Desikan Thirunarayanpuram, “USA, China frown at Navy’s S China Sea exercise,” The Statesman News Service, May 8, 2000.

[5] “Vietnam-Japan ties lifted to extensive strategic partnership,” Tuoi Tre News, Mar. 19, 2014,; Jon Grevatt, “Japan, Vietnam pave way for further defence collaboration,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 19, 2014; “Japan extends patrol ship carrot to Vietnam, plus ¥96 billion loan,” Japan Times, Dec. 15, 2013,

[6] Alexei Anishchuk and Ho Binh Minh, “Russia’s Gazprom, Rosneft sign Vietnam energy deals on Putin visit,” Reuters, Nov. 12, 2013 ; “Russia to Deliver 12 Su-30 Fighter Jets to Vietnam – Source,” RIA Novosti, Aug. 21, 2013; Nguyen Pham Muoi, “Vietnamese Defense Minister in Russia to Boost Military Ties,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10, 2013; “Russia Will Help Vietnam Build a Submarine Fleet, Shoygu Says,” RIA Novosti, Mar. 8, 2013.

[7] The most recent U.S. Navy port visit occurred in April 2013 when the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and salvage ship USNS Salvor docked at Da Nang.

[8] “Kerry announces new US maritime security aid to Vietnam amid China tensions, pushes reforms,” Associated Press, Dec. 16, 2013; Malcolm Moore and Praveen Swami, “Vietnam offers navy base to foil China,” The Telegraph, Nov. 8, 2010; John Pomfret, “Clinton wades into South China Sea territorial dispute,” Washington Post, Jul. 23, 2010, ; Nayan Chanda, “Cam Ranh Bay manoeuvres,” Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec. 28, 2000-Jan. 4, 2001, pp. 21-23.

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Obama’s Visit to Asia and U.S. Alliances

As foreign trips go, President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia in April 2014 was more important than most.  It was originally scheduled to coincide with the APEC summit in October 2013, but domestic problems prevented him from travelling at that time.  But even then, such a trip was needed.  Many in Asia already had become concerned over his administration’s commitment to its strategic “pivot” or “rebalancing” towards the region.  Both its economic and security legs had come to little.  Despite the administration’s goal to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks in 2013, they were nowhere near a final agreement (and still are far from one).  Meanwhile, doubts emerged about the seriousness of the U.S. military rebalance.  A major part of that rebalance hinged on the U.S. Navy’s shift from a force that was equally balanced between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to one that would be tilted, 60 percent, toward the Pacific.  But given that the administration’s concurrent efforts would reduce the overall size of the U.S. Navy, many wondered whether its tilt would provide any boost to U.S. capabilities in the region.  And, more broadly, the United States still seemed more willing to engage itself in places like Libya and Syria, than in the East or South China Seas.

During the intervening six months, tensions in Asia have climbed even higher: from China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea (November 2013) and its quasi-maritime blockade of the Philippine-held Second Thomas Shoal (March 2014) to Japan’s decision to build a new radar base on Yonaguni Island (April 2014) to North Korea’s artillery barrages and missile tests (March and April 2014).  Layered on top of all that has been the Ukraine crisis, in which the Obama administration has allowed Russia to violate Ukrainian sovereignty without any serious repercussions.  That itself follows Obama’s failure to act in 2013 after Syria crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.  Little wonder that such worrisome events have made U.S. allies in Asia nervous.

Such was the backdrop for Obama’s visit to Asia over the last week.  Without a doubt, his main objective was to reassure U.S. allies in the region.  Obama visited all three U.S. security treaty partners during his trip: Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

In Japan, Obama plainly stated that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty would cover all territories administered by Japan.  That means the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea would be defended, since they are administered by Japan (though his later reply to a press question as to whether his statement represented a “red line” in the East China Sea slightly muddied its impact).  Still, it was the first time that an American president directly addressed the issue.  That must have heartened Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.  And though there was no breakthrough in the bilateral TPP negotiations between Japan and the United States during Obama’s stay, some incremental progress was made in the days afterwards.

Obama then touched down in South Korea, where he warned Pyongyang against further military provocations.  Already this year, North Korea fired artillery into and short-range ballistic missiles over South Korean waters.  Now, there is the prospect of a North Korean nuclear test.  And so, Obama sought to do more warning.  He also worked to coax Japan and South Korea into overcoming their historical animosities.  Given that both countries and the United States must deal with the threat from North Korea (and perhaps China in the future), the administration hoped that America’s two security treaty allies could find a way to work together, rather than against each other.  Lastly, Obama’s presence in Seoul helped South Korean President Park Geun-hye demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance to the Korean National Assembly.  That was important, since it soon will consider a major increase in its financial support of U.S. forces in South Korea, as part of a larger agreement reached seven years earlier in which wartime operational control of combined U.S.-South Korean forces would transition from an American general to a South Korean one.

Finally, just before Obama’s arrival in Manila, American and Philippine representatives signed a ten-year accord called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.  Under negotiation for much of the last two years, that agreement was originally dubbed the Increased Rotational Presence Framework Agreement, largely because that was its intent: to enable U.S. forces to more regularly rotate through the Philippines in order to conduct joint exercises with the Philippine armed forces.  The final agreement also allows the United States to keep the equipment that it uses for those exercises at Philippine military bases.  The frequency of those exercises could be increased to the point at which there would be a near-continuous American military presence in the Philippines.  That would represent a meaningful change in U.S. force posture in the region and send a strong signal of American commitment to the Philippines.  The successful conclusion of the agreement was a victory for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who faced domestic opposition to it.  The agreement offers the Philippines some breathing space to rebuild its own external defense forces and pursue greater security cooperation with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

While in Southeast Asia, Obama also began to build new economic and security bridges to Malaysia, which had developed somewhat cozier relations with China than the United States since the 1990s.  Hence, it was notable that Obama and Prime Minister Najib Razak elevated their countries’ relationship to one of a “comprehensive partnership.”  (That matched the status which Malaysia conferred on China a year earlier.)  But little more was accomplished for the time being, due to popular resistance in Malaysia to the American-led TPP.

Upon Obama’s return to the United States, he can rightly claim that American allies in the region feel more reassured.  But American reassurances will ultimately need to be matched with American deeds.  Sadly, Obama’s reticence to persuade members of his own party to grant him “fast track” authority to streamline the TPP’s ratification process belies to some degree his own words of commitment.  An even bigger question is whether his words will impress China or North Korea.  No doubt, his words will be tested.  Questions about American commitments to its Asian allies were not fashioned overnight, nor will they be dispelled with a presidential visit.

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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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What Does the Fox Say?: Japan’s Diplomatic Campaign

After North Korea launched seven ballistic missiles into the seas near Japan in July 2006, Japan did something uncharacteristic for a country that seemed inclined to follow than to lead.  It took the diplomatic initiative.  Japan immediately called an emergency meeting of the United Nation’s Security Council and drafted a resolution that not only condemned North Korea’s missile launches, but also called for sanctions backed by force.

At the time, Japan raised eyebrows.  The world had not heard Japan’s diplomatic voice so clearly on the international stage for almost six decades.  But that was one episode.  Early this year, Japan began a sustained, high-profile diplomatic campaign across Asia.  Soon after becoming Japan’s prime minster for a second time, Shinzō Abe kicked off that campaign with a speech in January 2013 that laid out Japan’s five aims for its diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific:

1. Protect the universal values of freedom of thought, expression, and speech

2. Ensure that the seas are governed by laws and rules, not by might

3. Pursue free, open, and interconnected economies

4. Bring about stronger intercultural ties between the peoples of Japan and the region

5. Promote more exchanges among younger generations

The first two aims have direct relevance to how Japan would like the region to deal with China and its new assertiveness.  Helpfully, they are also consistent with the goals of Japan’s principal ally, the United States.  So too one could say of Japan’s third aim, in light of American efforts to create the free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The third aim has the added benefit of ensuring that the region’s countries are not drawn solely into China’s economic orbit.  The final two aims have a far longer time horizon.  Japan continues to hope that with greater engagement memories of its imperial past will recede further into history and, in Abe’s hope, that Japan can once again become a “normal country.”

But old ghosts die hard.  Japan’s imperial past still creates barriers in parts of Asia.  Every time a Japanese official (and certainly a prime minister) visits Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates not only Japan’s 2.5 million war dead but also fourteen war criminals among them, there is an international outcry.  Yet the issue increasingly seems to be one that only animates China and South Korea.  A visit by several cabinet ministers in April 2013 derailed a bilateral summit with South Korean leaders; and another by 150 Japanese politicians in August sparked protests and an official rebuke from China.  For whatever the reason, Southeast Asian countries appear to have largely put the issue behind them in their dealings with Japan.  As a result, Abe has overseen an unprecedented expansion in Japanese ties with Southeast Asia.

In fact, soon after Abe’s election, Japan began to signal that it wanted to strengthen its relationships in Southeast Asia.  Abe’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, was dispatched to visit Australia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Singapore.  Meanwhile, Abe himself travelled to Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam at about the same time.  In all, Abe has visited every Southeast Asian country this year at least once (including a swing through Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos in November).  He has tried to build on Japan’s economic links to the region with the development of new security relationships.  Japan has offered ten coast guard vessels to the Philippines and conducted joint counterterrorism exercises with Indonesia.

While President Barack Obama missed the APEC summit in October, Abe surely made his mark there.  During a sidebar meeting, he and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang agreed to greater cooperation in maritime security, given their mutual concern over “unilateral attempts to change the status quo [of maritime disputes] by force”—a not-so veiled reference to China.  Even more ambitious was Japan’s overture to Russia.  In November, the two countries held their first meeting to enhance their maritime security cooperation, a somewhat odd turn of events given their own territorial dispute over in the Kuril Islands chain.  At the meeting’s concluding press conference, Japan reassured that its new security relationship with Russia in no way diminished its ties to the United States.  (Russia said as much regarding its ties to China.)

Unlike America’s seemingly on-again, off-again approach to engagement in Asia (at least to those in the region), Japan’s diplomatic campaign this year appears steadier, if for no other reason the country must live there.  Outside of the economic sphere, the world has not heard much from Japan in a half century.  It will likely hear more of Japan’s voice in the years to come.

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Diamond (Still) in the Rough: China’s New Charm Offensive in Southeast Asia

In early September, China hosted the 10th China-ASEAN Expo in southern Chinese city of Nanning.  There, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang glowingly characterized the last ten years as a “golden decade” of growing economic ties between China and the countries of Southeast Asia, all of which are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  He now foresaw that the next decade would be even better—a “diamond decade.”

Together with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and his high-level meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum that would soon follow, Li’s remarks appeared to mark the start of a new charm offensive in Southeast Asia.  China’s last charm offensive, despite Li’s depiction of a “golden decade,” had sputtered out at the end of that decade, overshadowed by China’s growing economic and political assertiveness on land and at sea.  Although China’s disputes with its maritime neighbors have drawn more attention, China also managed to irritate its neighbors across Indochina.  Its state-owned companies operating in the region have often been high-handed.  Their cavalier attitude towards displacing communities and destroying cultural relics contributed to Myanmar’s decision to halt the construction of the Myitsone dam in 2011—the first time any Southeast Asian country blocked a major Chinese-sponsored infrastructure project.  Meanwhile, China’s unrestrained hydroelectric development on its upstream stretch of the Mekong River has worried many downstream communities in Southeast Asia, even though their governments seldom voice their concerns.

Worse for China’s image is its maritime disputes with Southeast Asia, which were put under an international spotlight in 2010 when several ASEAN countries confronted China about its behavior in the South China Sea at the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum.  Regional concerns over Chinese intentions were further stoked by China’s increased interference of Vietnamese oil exploration ship; its months-long standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in the spring of 2012; and its escalatory attitude toward Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands since September of that year.  Finally, many believed that Chinese pressure directly contributed to rifts in ASEAN itself, when the 2012 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting failed to produce any progress on a multilateral code of conduct for the South China Sea or even issue a closing joint communiqué that mentioned one.  Surely such rising concerns have led the Philippines and Vietnam to accelerate the pace of their military buildups.

However, many Chinese believe they see the hand of the United States in China’s recently contentious relations with Southeast Asia.  They see American policy as either creating the environment that has allowed Southeast Asian countries to resist China’s interests or directly encouraging those countries to resist them.  In either case, they see the flare up of disagreements between China and its ASEAN neighbors as evidence of a larger American effort to contain China’s rise.  Hence, Beijing may believe that initiating a new charm offensive could not only capitalize on Southeast Asia’s continued view of China as a source of economic growth, but also diminish the effect of that American effort.  Whether Beijing’s new tack is momentary or longer lasting is too early to tell.

Yet China has already met with some success, perhaps enhanced as a result of President Barack Obama’s absence from the APEC meetings.  While it was not the first time an American president was absent, Obama’s absence came at a time when many Southeast Asians were looking for reassurance of American commitment.  At the very least, it allowed Xi to become the center of attention.  And Xi brought China’s “diamond decade” message with him.  He pointed out several areas of opportunity: upgrading China’s free-trade agreement with ASEAN, improving communications between China and Southeast Asian countries, strengthening financial cooperation across borders, developing maritime cooperation, and enhancing Chinese cultural exchanges with Southeast Asia.

Even before the APEC meetings, Xi visited Malaysia and Indonesia.  He heralded the advent of “strategic cooperative relationships” with those countries and was the first foreign leader to address the Indonesian parliament.  Then after the APEC meetings, Li arrived in Southeast Asia to continue China’s diplomatic efforts in Brunei, Thailand, and Vietnam.  In Brunei, Li discussed joint energy development.  In Thailand, he championed plans for a high-speed railway project connecting China to Singapore that has lain dormant for many years.  And in Vietnam—a country that has its share of maritime disputes with China—Li and his Vietnamese counterparts announced that the two countries would set up a joint maritime development working committee to ease the tensions in the South China Sea.

For their part, ASEAN countries seem to have responded positively (and possibly opportunistically).  Malaysia—perhaps sensing that the Philippines has, for the moment, halted China’s broader assertiveness in the South China Sea—may now view Chinese overtures as a chance to boost its own economy.  And while Thailand still sees the high-speed railway project as too expensive for it to undertake alone, it has encouraged China to contribute to the financing.

However, the one country in the region that China has not courted is the Philippines.  Instead, China seemed to go out of its way to isolate it.  Indeed, it is a strategy that some Chinese foreign policy scholars have advocated.  As if to underline the point, after China issued invitations to all the heads of state in Southeast Asia to attend the China-ASEAN Expo, it rescinded its invitation to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.  And so, the Philippines was the only ASEAN country not represented at the event.  And so, even as China seeks to emphasize its kinder, gentler side, its steely side remains.  Relations between China and Southeast Asia may yet improve during the “diamond decade,” but mostly on Chinese terms.

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