Monthly Archives: August 2017

The United States Has Not Lost the South China Sea


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Despite some setbacks, the United States has not lost influence in the vital waterway. The last two months saw an uptick in tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) following a period of relative calm since the arbitral tribunal at the Hague handed down its historic and sweeping award on maritime entitlements in the SCS, overwhelmingly favoring Manila over Beijing. After a year of successfully diminishing the legal and diplomatic impact of the unfavorable ruling, China has resumed a pattern of brazen intimidation against its fellow SCS claimants.   In July, Beijing bullied Hanoi into suspending oil drilling in a disputed oil block 250 nautical miles off the southeast coast of Vietnam. China reportedly threatened that it would attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if the oil drilling did not cease immediately. A month later, Beijing sent a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats, escorted by People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) ships and Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels to Thitu Island, the largest land feature claimed and occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands.   The purpose of the deployment remains unclear, but some have speculated that it may have been a coercive demonstration to dissuade Manila from carrying out announced infrastructure repairs and upgrades on Thitu; or a more provocative move of posturing (or threatening) to blockade or even land on one or more of the adjoining unoccupied sand bars. If the latter, however unlikely, it would suggest a similar modus operandi to the illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and a destabilizing escalation with strategic ramifications if one of those sand bars includes Sand Cay – an unoccupied high-water feature that could affect the sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction of nearby Chinese-claimed Subi Reef (one of China’s seven artificial islands in the SCS). As per United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Subi Reef cannot generate its own territorial sea, but it has the potential to supersede a territorial sea claim from Sandy Cay because the distance between them (unlike Thitu) is less than 12nm.   Also of consequence was the disappointing outcome of the 24th Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila 2-8 August. The joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting mostly favored China’s positions over those of the United States, Australia, and Japan. Beijing wanted no discussion or reference to its claims or activities in the SCS, last year’s arbitration ruling, and need for an ASEAN Code of Conduct (COC). Washington, meanwhile, advocated for the implementation of the 2016 arbitration decision and a substantive and legally binding COC. In the end, Chinese positions largely won out. The communique wording was far less forceful and China-specific than Vietnam and the United States and its allies preferred. Indeed, it was sufficiently ambiguous that Beijing and its supporters within ASEAN could tolerate and accept – another successful diplomatic obstruction on China’s part.   So, what does all of this means for the region and the United States? Part one of this two-part series provides perspectives and context to the strategic question. Part two examines ways and means the United States could turn the tide and regain the strategic initiative, recover the high ground of regional influence, and stave off losing the SCS.  


Vietnam Protests at Chinese Military Drill in South China Sea

  HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam on Thursday opposed what it said was a Chinese announcement of military exercises in the disputed South China Sea, amid rising tension between the neighboring countries.   Vietnam did not give any details of when it said the announcement was made or when any drill would take place.   China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment outside of business hours and it was not immediately clear which drills the Vietnamese statement was referring to.   The statement from Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said Vietnam was deeply concerned about drills in the region of the Gulf of Tonkin, north of the disputed South China Sea.   “Vietnam proposes China to cease and refrain from repeating acts that complicate the situation in the East Sea (South China Sea),” Hang said, adding all foreign activities in Vietnamese waters must be comply with Vietnamese and international laws.   The statement said Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry representative contacted a Chinese embassy representative on Thursday to express Vietnam’s position.   China claims nearly all the South China Sea, through which an estimated $3 trillion in international trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also have claims.      


China exploits the Philippines’ soft-pedalling in South China Sea

  Duterte’s conciliatory stance on Beijing’s territorial claims is backfiring   But Beijing’s blatant display of force risks undermining its newfound rapprochement with the Philippines, where the defense establishment and public are already highly critical of China.   Suspicious movements   Intelligence reports on suspicious movements of Chinese vessels near Thitu Island were leaked by Philippine defense officials to Gary Alejano, a prominent opposition lawmaker. The information was corroborated by satellite imagery released by CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.   Alejano, a decorated former soldier with strong ties to the military, reported that Chinese frigates and coast guard vessels sailed close to Thitu Island from Aug. 11 to 15. He also suggested that China is intent on occupying Sandy Cay, a low-tide elevation within Thitu’s territorial waters.   Rocky Thitu Island, which is the second largest naturally-formed feature in the area, has been under effective Philippine occupation for more than 40 years. It has a mayor, a civilian community, an airstrip that dates to the 1970s and a regular contingent of Philippine marines and other military personnel.   In April, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and military chief of staff Eduardo Ano made a high-profile visit to Thitu to demonstrate Manila’s resolve to protect its territory. They promised to upgrade local facilities, including the airstrip, and improve basic services and accommodation for civilians living on the island. These plans are now in jeopardy due to the growing presence of Chinese vessels in the area.   There are also growing fears of encirclement and additional reclamation activities by China in the Spratly Islands, which are contested by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Beijing already occupies nearby Subi Reef, which it has transformed it into a fully-fledged island with a large airstrip and advanced military facilities. A Chinese flag was reportedly planted on a sandbar next to the Philippine-controlled Kota Island. Such actions suggest that Beijing is intent on encircling and squeezing out other claimant states from the area.   Alejano has cautioned the Duterte administration against “denial or silence and inaction” in response to Chinese actions. Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, a prominent hawk on the South China Sea issue, described the episode as an “invasion of Philippine territory,” and has urged Duterte and Cayetano to stand up to China. He suggested invoking a mutual defense treaty with the U.S. in the event of clashes with Chinese vessels.  



  Two nuclear-armed powers have stepped back from the brink — for now. Yesterday India and China announced they had agreed to end a two-month border confrontation, in which a few hundred troops had faced off in the Doklam area claimed by both China and Bhutan, and many thousands more had been placed on heightened alert. The immediate crisis seems to be over, but it offers tantalizing insights into Chinese coercive strategies and how they may be thwarted. This has implications not only for India in its own land border disputes, but also for several Southeast Asian nations and the United States, as they all confront China’s attempts to expand its control and influence.   Background: The Standoff at Doklam   China had every reason to believe that a short stretch of new road, high in the remote Himalayas, would reinforce its claims on the “tri-junction” where the borders of China, Bhutan, and India meet. In mid-June, Chinese military road crews began to extend a road in an area known as Doklam, disputed by China and Bhutan. The road had been built into the disputed territory as early as 2003, and PLA troops had often conducted foot patrols in the area of the proposed road extension. But China knew the area was disputed, and had acknowledged as much in agreements with Bhutan in 1988 and 1998, and with India in 2012. Extending the road would be a relatively cheap and clear way for Beijing to advance its claims in the dispute. (The details of the competing territorial claims have been ably covered, including here at War on the Rocks.)   Almost immediately after the road crews began their work, however, they were surprised by an Indian Army intervention. Indian troops entered the disputed territory, with at least the tacit consent of Bhutan, and physically impeded the construction of the road. India saw the Chinese encroachment as a threat to its security and its regional influence — it historically regarded Bhutan as a pliant buffer and remains its security guarantor today, even as their alignment has loosened in the past decade. New Delhi denounced the Chinese road building as an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in contravention of the 2012 agreement.  


Chinese boats stir Philippine anxieties

While Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte plays down reports that China has occupied another contested land feature in the South China Sea, his defense establishment is calling for a tougher stance   “Why should I defend a sandbar and kill Filipinos because of a sandbar?” declared Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte when asked about reports suggesting China has sought to occupy a land feature (Sandy Cay) close to the Philippine-occupied island of Thitu in the South China Sea.   The Filipino president again brushed aside the necessity for and wisdom of confronting Beijing on the issue, insisting that China is, “just there but they are not claiming anything,” and that the Chinese Ambassador to Manila Zhao Jianhua, “assured me that they will not build anything there.”   Prominent political figures, however, have rung alarm bells over what they see as a creeping Chinese ‘invasion’ of Philippine-claimed territories in the contested South China Sea.   Security analysts see China’s build-up on the nearby contested Scarborough Shoal as the third vertex of a triangle of emerging Chinese military bases that aims to establish control of the strategic waterway.   Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, a key architect of the Philippines’ landmark arbitration award against China last year at The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, has described China’s latest move as nothing short of an “invasion of Philippine territory.”   The influential magistrate called upon the government to “vigorously protest this invasion of Philippine territory by China” and invoke the country’s mutual defense treaty with America if necessary.   Duterte has blown hot and cold on strategic ties with the US, witnessed in the downgrading of recent joint military exercises known historically to concern China.  


Sharing resources could calm seas for China and Philippines

Richard Heydarian says China’s and the Philippines’ weighing of resource sharing marks an upward turn for two nations once awash in acrimony For the Filipino president, who is intent on improving strategic relations with Beijing, this is the best available modus vivendi to manage and eventually resolve territorial disputes among claimant states. While in theory a JDA could break the impasse in the South China Sea, there will be significant political and legal hurdles along the way. Yet, peaceful dialogue over resource sharing in disputed areas could in itself contribute to improving diplomatic relations among competing neighbours. A Philippine boat fishes during sunset at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters For weeks, Duterte has repeatedly advocated the exploration and development of hydrocarbon and fisheries resources in the South China Sea. During his state-of-the-nation address in late July, Duterte praised Beijing as a friendly and generous neighbour which could serve as a partner for national development. Throughout his tenure in office, he has repeatedly downplayed territorial tensions by emphasising the value of restoring robust investment and trade relations with China. The Filipino president has extended the same “pragmatic” logic to the South China Sea, where he believes the two sides can jointly develop contested resources. With the impending exhaustion of the Malampaya plant, the main source of the Philippines’ indigenous natural gas, Manila is scrambling for alternative sources of energy.


Use it or lose it: Why Canada’s navy needs to be in the South China Sea

Canada’s diplomatic and strategic engagement in East Asia has been erratic over the past two decades. Successive governments have been incapable or unwilling to clearly articulate a regional strategy, remaining virtually silent on major geopolitical tensions.   Some observers have advocated regular deployments of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) to create a visible, routine presence in the region. One unexplored question is whether Canadian naval ships should participate in U.S. freedom of navigation (FON) patrols in the South China Sea.   U.S. FON patrols are meant to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation for all maritime vessels and aircraft, as outlined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. While FON naval patrols take place globally, they are particularly salient when placed in the context of the South China Sea disputes.   These disputes are the result of competing topographical and maritime claims in the South China Sea from Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.   Of these, China has by far the most expansive claims, asserting historically-derived ownership over all islands and reefs and upwards of 90 per cent of the surrounding waters. In addition, China has undertaken the most intensive land reclamation activities, creating manmade islands complete with runways, ports and military infrastructure.   Notably, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled decisively against Beijing’s expansive claims and has called on Beijing to halt its reclamation activities — a ruling that China has ignored.      


Yin and Yang: China’s Rise and the Future of the Pacific

  Rise of China: China is a rising revisionist power, seeking to realign the status quo in the Pacific and assure its security via domination of its periphery regions, after a “century of humiliation.” In 1978, its GDP was a mere US$150 billion, while 39 years later, its economy stands at $11.2 trillion, with the country now standing as the world’s second largest economy and the world’s largest active military force. Its burgeoning strength is demonstrated by its provocative and aggressive expansion into the South China Sea and the creation of its first overseas base in Djibouti. How will the Pacific be affected by a resurgent and aggressive China, what is the source of Beijing’s aggression, and does Beijing pose a threat to the global order?   China’s burgeoning strength in the Pacific is best evidenced by its recently-launched domestic aircraft carrier, the first of its kind. Beijing allocated over $215 billon to its armed forces in 2016. While this pales in comparison to Washington’s $611 billion commitment, the majority of Beijing’s military budget goes into the Pacific, whereas Washington has military obligations across the globe due to its position as the world’s sole hegemonic power. Washington also suffers from the tyranny of distance, whereby to reach Asia, Washington must cross the vast Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, Beijing lies on its doorstep, allowing Beijing to exert greater influence over the region at less cost.  


Beijing runs circles around our Digong!

  MANY concerned Filipinos are horrified seeing China’s leaders and diplomats running circles around our one-year-old President and his three-month-old sidekick of a Foreign Secretary.   The diplomatic duo looks on helplessly as some of our outlying islets are being occupied, enlarged and armed with weapons disguised as navigational aids – with the artificial islands to be claimed at the right time as part of China.   Probably not wanting to betray his own fears, President Duterte plays down the occupation (a preliminary step toward physical possession), saying that his new friend China President Xi Jinping has assured him that Beijing would not do such an ugly thing.     We heard the same lullaby when China grabbed Panatag (Scarborough) shoal off Zambales in 2012. We hear the same refrain as the Chinese linger on Sandy Cay, a sandbar within the 12-nautical mile Philippine territorial sea off Pagasa island that is home to a Filipino barangay in the Spratlys.   “China assured me that they will not build anything there,” the President told reporters in Malacañang Park Monday night. “They called me up, the ambassador, we assure you that we are not building anywhere there.” (He was referring to Ambassador Zhao Jianhua.)   Wonder of wonders, President Duterte believed their bona fides! So did Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano, who sometimes doubles as China’s spokesman when Mr. Duterte is not available.   Opinion ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: 1 Until last night, however, Malacañang has not shown a binding document affirming the supposed assurance of the honorable intentions of Chinese lurking in the sandbar just 2.5 nautical miles from Pagasa island.   This is one of those times when we wish our President, aside from being brave, were shrewd – cunning to a fault – in dealing with Chinese bearing promises of $24-billlion in investments, loans and aid that some analysts warn could lead to a debt trap.   While a fat finder’s fee for the $9-billion loans may be collected during the Duterte regime, succeeding administrations will carry the burden of paying the gargantuan borrowings.   Asked why the Chinese were hanging around in the sandbar so close to barangay Pagasa, the President said: “Nagpa-patrol, kasi magkaibigan man kami.”   That confirmed the Coast Guard disclosure that the Commander-in-Chief has ordered them to work out with their Chinese counterparts the joint patrolling of Philippine waters – oblivious of the fact that the two neighbors are locked in a territorial dispute.   The patrol plan is like allowing a suspected burglar to sleep on the porch and freely reconnoiter in the yard, checking doors, windows and only god knows what else. Pretty soon he would decide to stay and start telling neighbors he owned one wing of the house.