Monthly Archives: July 2017

Britain’s new aircraft carriers to test Beijing in South China Sea


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UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson commits ‘colossal’ carriers to embarking on freedom of navigation exercises in pointed remarks Boris Johnson has committed the UK’s two brand new aircraft carriers to freedom of navigation exercises in the fiercely contested waters of the South China Sea. In a pointed declaration aimed squarely at China, whose island-building and militarisation in the sea has unnerved western powers, the British foreign secretary said that when the ships came into service they would be sent to the Asia-Pacific region as one of their first assignments. A place called ‘hope’: the tiny island on the frontline of US-China tensions Read more “One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area,” Johnson said in Sydney on Thursday, “to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.” He later reiterated the point in a speech – only to confuse listeners by adding in a Q&A: “We haven’t yet quite decided to do that … but they are coming.” The South China Sea is one of the busiest commercial sea routes in the world, carrying $5tn worth of trade a year. China claims it enjoys exclusive control over a massive portion of the sea – within the so-called nine-dash line – based on ancient rights marked in 600-year-old mariners’ books. In dispute with four neighbouring countries, China has claimed sovereignty over islands in international waters in the sea, and built up sandbars and atolls into usable land. Several key islands have been populated and militarised with airfields, weapons systems and ports.


Australia opposes China’s island-making project

  In this July 18, 2017, file photo, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, left, talks with her Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj as they leave for a delegation level meeting in New Delhi, India. AP   Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said during a visit to India that her country continues to oppose China’s efforts to reclaim and develop man-made islands in the South China Sea.   However, in her speech Tuesday to a forum in New Delhi, Bishop appeared to discourage direct confrontation.   “Our objective must be to encourage China to exercise its economic and strategic weight in a way that respects the sovereign equality of states, that upholds and strengthens the rules-based order and that benefits all countries and peoples,” Bishop said.   She urged the six governments that claim territory in the strategically vital waterway to respect international laws and dispute resolution mechanisms, especially the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, using them to “guide behavior and resolve disputes.”  


China’s challenging neighborhood diplomacy

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said during a visit to India that her country continues to oppose China’s efforts to reclaim and develop man-made islands in the South China Sea. However, in her speech Tuesday to a forum in New Delhi, Bishop appeared to discourage direct confrontation. “Our objective must be to encourage China to exercise its economic and strategic weight in a way that respects the sovereign equality of states, that upholds and strengthens the rules-based order and that benefits all countries and peoples,” Bishop said. She urged the six governments that claim territory in the strategically vital waterway to respect international laws and dispute resolution mechanisms, especially the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, using them to “guide behavior and resolve disputes.” “This is how countries in our region need to resolve disputes, including in the South China Sea, and we continue to oppose the construction of artificial reefs and militarization of those structures in the South China Sea,” Bishop said.  


South China Sea: Vietnam halts drilling after ‘China threats’

South China Sea: Vietnam halts drilling after ‘China threats’ Vietnam and other neighbours contest China’s territorial claims in the area Vietnam has reportedly terminated a gas-drilling expedition in a disputed area of the South China Sea, following strong threats from China. A source in the south-east Asian oil industry has told the BBC that the company behind the drilling, Repsol of Spain, was ordered to leave the area. It comes only days after it had confirmed the existence of a major gas field. Those reports have been corroborated by a Vietnamese diplomatic source. According to the industry source, Repsol executives were told last week by the government in Hanoi that China had threatened to attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if the drilling did not stop. China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including reefs and islands also contested by other nations. Why is the South China Sea contentious? China calls US warship ‘a provocation’ The drilling expedition began last month in an area of sea about 400km (250 miles) off Vietnam’s south-east coast. The Vietnamese call the region Block 136-03 and have leased it to a company called Talisman-Vietnam, a subsidiary of Repsol. China calls it Wanan Bei-21 and has leased the same piece of seabed to a different company. Exactly which company is not clear. In 2015, the Chinese rights were sold to a Hong Kong-listed company called Brightoil, but it has recently denied owning them.


China reportedly threatens Vietnam into ending energy exploration in South China Sea

Vietnam stopped a company from exploring for energy in contested waters of the South China Sea after taking threats from Beijing, the BBC reported early on Monday. Talisman-Vietnam, a subsidiary of Spanish energy firm Repsol, commenced gas-drilling operations in an area about 400 kilometers off Vietnam’s coast earlier this month, but Hanoi has since ordered Repsol to leave the zone, the BBC said, citing an unnamed source. Last week, Beijing warned Hanoi that it would attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if drilling continued, the BBC continued. Beijing claims tremendous area The world’s second-largest economy claims a massive section of the South China Sea that extends roughly 1,000 miles from its southern shores. The huge area is home to significant energy deposits and the world’s busiest shipping routes. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also assert sovereign rights over parts of the international waterway. The site of Talisman-Vietnam’s operations is known as Block 136-03 in Vietnam and Wan-an Bei 21 in China. In 2014, Hong Kong-based firm Brightoil bought the Chinese rights to the area, according to the BBC. Hanoi’s compliance with Chinese threats, if true, could spell bad news for Manila and Jakarta, which recently announced bold moves in the tension-ridden region. This month, the Philippines suggested it could resume oil and gas drilling in the Reed Bank after a three-year suspension. Meanwhile, Indonesia has renamed the northern side of its exclusive economic zone in the South China sea and could soon use its navy to protect resource exploration.

A year after South China Sea ruling – threat to status

A year after South China Sea ruling – threat to status A year has passed since the arbitration court in The Hague made a verdict on the South China Sea issue. The ruling completely denied the legality of China’s sovereignty claims and interests in the area. China rejected the ruling and is proceeding with “changing the status quo by force”. The Yomiuri Shimbun spoke to Japanese and Philippine experts on how they view the current situation. The following are excerpts from the interviews.Shigeki Sakamoto, Doshisha University professorThe current situation regarding the South China Sea is as expected. As there is no mechanism to enforce the arbitration court’s decision under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, there has not been any change since the ruling was made regarding China’s controlling of reefs in the South China Sea. China said the ruling is invalid and has been in bilateral negotiations with the Philippines. The two countries shelved the ruling following a meeting between the Chinese and Philippine leaders last October. China clearly aims to render the ruling little more than a name. However, while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has agreed to shelve it for the time being, he has not abandoned the court ruling itself. He is apparently supporting the shelving of the ruling to obtain China’s economic assistance. The court ruled that the nine-dash line (see below), which China insists on applying in the South China Sea, violates the Convention on the Law of the Sea and is thus invalid. To make the South China Sea a “sea of China”, China is trying to pursue maritime interests and militarise the region. The judgement, which clearly denied the nine-dash line on which China’s claims are based, is of great significance. The ruling said the rock reefs that China reclaimed to turn into artificial islands are low-tide elevations without territorial waters, or rocks with no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, as referred to in Paragraph 3 of Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. None of the reefs controlled by China have an EEZ, and the surrounding area is international waters. In high seas, all countries have freedom of navigation and fishing. No matter how much the two countries negotiate, it does not change the effect of the judgement by third-party countries. We must not forget that the resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on “the principles and guidelines for international negotiations” states “the purpose and object of all negotiations must be fully compatible with the principles and norms of international law”. We should pay attention to whether the negotiations between China and the Philippines are being conducted in accordance with the resolution so that they do not enter an agreement that violates the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Not complying with the arbitration court’s judgement is nothing less than denying the rule of law in the international community. China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is required to respect the judgement as a major and responsible country.


Progress in the South China Sea? A Year After the Hague Ruling

July 12 marked the one-year anniversary of a United Nations tribunal ruling in a case brought by the Philippines against China over the latter’s claims and activities in the South China Sea. The ruling was a major victory for the Philippines, particularly the tribunal’s decision on China’s “nine-dash line,” through which Beijing attempts to lay claim to vast areas of the South China Sea. A year to the day after the award, the Philippines issued a conciliatory statement even as an energy official announced that Manila would soon offer investors new oil and gas blocks at Reed Bank, off the Philippine coast but within the nine-dash line. Beijing, for its part, has always made clear that it regards the tribunal’s decision as “null and void” and of “no binding force.” Statements from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states in the wake of the decision were muted. None urged China to adhere to the ruling; the strongest merely called for respecting international law. Yet the impact of the decision cannot be determined by words alone. A year after the landmark award, ASEAN states appear to be more willing to assert their rights to resources in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and China’s behavior is now more in keeping with the tribunal’s decision.


Beware the Illusion of South China Sea Calm

The cooling down some are playing up masks underlying tensions and broader strategic realities. A year after the supposedly game-changing arbitral tribunal ruling on the Philippines’ South China Sea case against China, the region appears to have entered another period of calm that some are happy to play up. But though a superficial glance might suggest that a cooling down period is truly at play in the South China Sea, a deeper look points to the reality that any calm is illusory at best and shows few signs of lasting. The illusion of calm in the post-ruling context is due to a confluence of various factors. Chief among them is the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines last June, which, at least for now, has seen Manila shift from the most forward-leaning Southeast Asian claimant in the face of Chinese assertiveness to a laggard, downplaying the South China Sea issue and the ruling it had sought in a bid to reset ties with Beijing (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”). Though Duterte is often singled out as the main factor in the perceived changing the strategic environment in the South China Sea, the reality is that others have either been complicit in this change or have benefited from it (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”). Most obviously, China has exploited this idea of what its officials like to term “cooling down” for now, playing up what is at best a skeletal draft framework on the code of conduct and shutting down attempts by non-claimants to interfere as it remains preoccupied with the 19th Party Congress later this year. Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month. Among Southeast Asian states, though a few, particularly Vietnam, remain anxious about this period of illusory calm, the other two Southeast Asian claimants, Malaysia and Brunei, do find some comfort in the fact that they, as one Southeast Asian official put it to me in June, “have just some time to breathe.” This reflects not just the divisions within ASEAN on the South China Sea issue, but also other dynamics beyond the issue itself such as the changing threat environment brought about by the Islamic State’s advances in the subregion, domestic politics with upcoming elections in Malaysia and Indonesia (a non-claimant but interested party, as I have noted before), and the growing pressure China is asserting on individual Southeast Asian states – from Vietnam to Singapore (See: “China: New White Paper, Old Asia Conundrum”).  


Water Wars: It’s Time to “Get Used to It” in the South China Sea

This week, the Chinese navy and air force carried out extensive operations—some of them unprecedented—in and around Japanese, Taiwanese, and American territorial waters. Beijing took a defiant tone when the appropriateness of these operations was questioned. Last Thursday, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force flew six Xian H-6 bombers over the Miyako Strait, which lies between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa. That night, Japan’s defense ministry called the flyover “unusual,” but noted that Japanese airspace had not been violated. Ren Guoqiang, the Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesperson, said that the air force was conducting a regular drill that should not cause alarm or speculation. “This is a routine,” said Ren. “The activity of Chinese warplanes flying across the Miyako Strait is legal and appropriate.” Indeed, the Chinese military is planning conduct more far-sea exercises like it in the future and the relevant parties, Ren added, should simply “get used to it.” Just a few days later, on Saturday, a pair of China Coast Guard ships passed into Japanese waters near Kyushu that they have never previously entered, according to the Japan Coast Guard. When the first Chinese ship entered Japan’s territorial waters just before noon, the Japan Coast Guard requested that it leave immediately. The Chinese ship complied, but then returned with another ship a few hours later. Both exited by mid-afternoon. On Monday, however, the Japan Coast Guard reported that several more Chinese ships had entered Japanese waters: two in the Sea of Japan off of Aomori Prefecture, and four around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. On Tuesday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that the Chinese ships had complied with relevant United Nations maritime rules, and that nothing indicated that the ships “acted in any way that would mean they would not deserve the right of innocent passage.” Nevertheless, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Japan’s “government is increasing its vigilance against Chinese government vessels entering Japan’s territorial waters, believing that China may have been intentionally repeating such acts.”  


Let’s be clear: China would call America’s bluff in the South China Sea

US FONOPs: Game on again in the South China Sea It seems to be widely agreed that Washington’s current policy of well-worn talking points and low-key FONOPS in the South China Sea [SCS] isn’t working. Ely Ratner and I have been debating how to do better. Ely has proposed a more robust approach. He suggests that Washington could deter China from further provocations by warning that it would respond by encouraging and supporting the other claimants among China’s neighbours to develop, fortify and if necessary defend the islands and features which they occupy. I have argued that this would not work, because Beijing is unlikely to believe that its smaller neighbours would risk provoking it in that way, nor that America would really support them if they did. Beijing would therefore view America’s warning as a bluff, and would be seriously tempted to call it, which would leave Washington with a choice between confrontation and probable conflict, or back-down and humiliation. Ely has responded with two cogent points that go to the heart of the SCS issue, and of the much wider and more momentous questions of regional order which underlie it. First, he argues that China’s neighbours would be willing to stand up to China if America helps to reduce their economic dependence on China. And second, he argues that America can easily convince China not to test its resolve by calling its bluff. But I remain unconvinced. First, Ely’s argument that America can encourage other Asian countries to stand up to China in the SCS by offering them alternative economic opportunities via a revived TPP or something like it underestimates the depth and strength of China’s economic position in Asia, and overstates the power of US economic statecraft. Neither the TPP nor anything like it could ever offer China’s neighbours economic opportunities comparable to those provided by China’s still-rapid economic growth and the huge initiatives like BRI and AIIB that promise them a share in it. The reality is that whatever Washington does, China is going to be seen by all its East Asian neighbours as the principal driver of their economic prospects. And Beijing knows that. Any US policy towards China which wishes that away will fail. Second, Ely’s confidence that China wouldn’t test US resolve overlooks the way US policy in Asia over recent years has emboldened Beijing. Certainly the Chinese do not want a war with America, but their recent conduct suggests they are increasingly confident that they do not need to fear one, because America can be relied upon to back off first from any confrontation. As long as China believes this, then it is very likely that they would try to call the bluff if Washington tried to implement Ely’s proposals. And why wouldn’t they believe it?