China’s Claims to the South China Sea Are Unlawful. Now What?
Republican and Democratic administrations have failed to thwart aggressive expansion in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
(NYT editorial board) In the absence of any coherent China policy, the administration’s proclivity for tearing up treaties and its disdain for alliances, Mr. Pompeo’s belated declaration that China is violating international law — and especially the Law of the Sea treaty, which the United States has never ratified — sounds a bit hollow.
It is, nonetheless, a message that is valid and long overdue. Over the past decade, China has steadily hardened its claims to most of the South China Sea, a zone circumscribed by a vague “nine-dash line” that one American naval commander called the “Great Wall of Sand.” The claims have included a campaign of building up shoals and militarizing islands or proclaiming municipal districts and settling people on contested islands. The reclamation of several reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands has included construction of runways, hangars, barracks, missile silos and radar sites.
South China Sea dispute: China’s pursuit of resources ‘unlawful’, says US
(BBC) In a statement on Monday, Mr Pompeo denounced China’s claims on the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, saying Beijing had “no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region”.
He said the US, which has previously said it does not take sides in territorial disputes, rejected Beijing’s claims to waters off Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
“Any [People’s Republic of China] action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful,” he said.
Four years after an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China’s claims in the region have no legal basis, the US has for the first time officially made its stance clear. But why now?
… the Trump administration has pledged to overturn what it says is 40 years of policy failure with regard to China. Washington has recently criticised Beijing on issues ranging from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, to human rights violations against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and how it has dealt with pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
But it was China’s land reclamation projects in the South China Sea that prompted the rest of the world to reassess Beijing’s international ambitions.
And the stakes in the region are incredibly high. In these seemingly insignificant island chains and reefs, there are growing risks of military conflict between the world’s two most powerful countries.
ASEAN takes position vs China’s vast historical sea claims
(AP) — Southeast Asian leaders said a 1982 U.N. oceans treaty should be the basis of sovereign rights and entitlements in the South China Sea, in one of their strongest remarks opposing China’s claim to virtually the entire disputed waters on historical grounds.
The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations took the position in a statement issued by Vietnam Saturday on behalf of the 10-nation bloc. ASEAN leaders held their annual summit by video on Friday, with the coronavirus pandemic and the long-raging territorial disputes high on the agenda.
“We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones,” the ASEAN statement said.
The leaders were referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 international agreement that defines the rights of nations to the world’s oceans and demarcates stretches of waters called exclusive economic zones where coastal states are given the right to exclusively tap fishery and fuel resources.
They said in their statement that “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.”
Chinese officials did not immediately comment on the statement, but three Southeast Asian diplomats told The Associated Press that it marked a significant strengthening of the regional bloc’s assertion of the rule of law in a disputed region that has long been regarded as an Asian flash point. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to a lack of authority to speak publicly.
While it has criticized aggressive behavior in the disputed waters, ASEAN, which relies heavily on China for trade and investment, has never castigated China by name in its post-summit communiques.
As ASEAN’s leader this year, Vietnam oversaw the drafting of the “chairman’s statement,” which was not a negotiated document but was circulated among other member states for consultation. Vietnam has been one of the most vocal critics of China’s assertive actions in the disputed waters.
China calls on U.S. to ‘stop flexing muscles’ in South China Sea
(Reuters) – China on Monday called on the U.S. military to stop flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and to avoid adding “new uncertainties” over Taiwan, during high-level talks that underscored tension between the world’s two largest economies. The remarks by Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, recounted by a Chinese spokesman, came just two weeks after a top White House official denounced Chinese “intimidation” in the busy waterway. It also came a day after Esper publicly accused Beijing of “increasingly resorting to coercion and intimidation to advance its strategic objectives” in the region.
The exchange came a day after news that China sailed a carrier group into the sensitive Taiwan Strait, led by its first domestically built aircraft carrier.
U.S. warship sails in disputed South China Sea amid trade tensions
(Reuters) – The U.S. military said one of its warships sailed near the disputed Scarborough Shoal claimed by China in the South China Sea on Sunday, angering Beijing at a time of tense ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
“[USS] Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Reef in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” said Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the Seventh Fleet.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the ship had entered waters near the shoal without China’s permission, and the Chinese navy had warned it to leave.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, where Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies operate.
South China Sea: Duterte warns Beijing of ‘suicide missions’ to protect disputed island
Philippine military warns that hundreds of Chinese vessels have ‘swarmed’ the Manila-held Pag-asa island
(The Guardian) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has warned Beijing to back off from a disputed island in the South China Sea, warning of “suicide missions” if China touches it.
Duterte, aiming to attract trade and investment from China, has mostly withheld his early criticism of Beijing’s expansive claims to the sea – a point of regional contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it.
But as the Philippine military warned this week that hundreds of Chinese coastguard and fishing vessels had “swarmed” the Manila-held Pag-asa island, also known as Thitu, the Philippine president spoke out late on Thursday.
China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have all staked claims to various islands and reefs as well as waterways in the sea, with rich petroleum reserves thought to sit deep beneath the waters.
In a major victory for Manila, an international maritime tribunal ruled early in Duterte’s presidency in 2016 that China’s claims to the area have no legal basis.
However, he has largely set aside that ruling and backed off on their once tense territorial dispute over the sea.
Cleo Paskal: China forcing a shift in strategic map
China is building new islands in the South China Sea, and equipping them in ways resembling military bases.
How Beijing is winning control of the South China Sea
Erratic US policy and fraying alliances give China a free hand
(Nikkei Asian Review) Since 2013 China has expanded artificial islands and reefs in the sea and subsequently installed a network of runways, missile launchers, barracks and communications facilities.
These military advances have led many to wonder if Beijing has already established unassailable control over the disputed waters. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea and its islands – claims that are looking increasingly forlorn in the wake of China’s military buildup.
At stake is the huge commercial and military leverage that comes with controlling one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, through which up to $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.
Hanoi recently called for greater Japanese involvement in the region’s maritime disputes, perhaps signalling an interest in a wider effort to counter China. But unlike the Philippines, Vietnam, which like China is a single party communist-run state, is not a U.S. treaty ally. Historical and ideological differences mean that there are limits to how closely Vietnam will align with the U.S.
Mattis later added some gravitas to the cinematic catchphrase, saying in Singapore that “standing shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners, America seeks to build an Indo-Pacific where sovereignty and territorial integrity are safeguarded — the promise of freedom fulfilled and prosperity prevails for all.”
The Trump administration clearly hopes for greater Indian involvement in its efforts to counter China’s growing influence. Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that while “Indo-Pacific isn’t yet an established part of the lexicon,” the implications of the term are clear.
It is perhaps no surprise then that China’s rivals in the South China Sea do not yet regard the nascent Indo-Pacific alliance-building as something to pin their hopes on when it comes to control of the sea.
“We are witnessing the great power shift toward Asia-Pacific with the ‘Indo-Pacific strategy,’ Belt and Road Initiative and a series of country grouping[s] in the region,” [Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Ngo Xuan] Lich said, cautioning that “the outcomes for the region and the world are somewhat yet to be unveiled.” (13 June 2018)
Brahma Chellaney: China’s South China Sea Grab
Over the last five years, China has turned its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth far from its shores. China’s leaders did not leave that outcome to chance.
(Project Syndicate) In December 2013, the Chinese government pressed the massive Tianjing dredger into service at Johnson South Reef in the Spratly archipelago, far from the Chinese mainland. … Since then, China has built six more artificial islands in the South China Sea and steadily expanded its military assets in this highly strategic area, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes. It has constructed port facilities, military buildings, radar and sensor installations, hardened shelters for missiles, vast logistical warehouses for fuel, water, and ammunition, and even airstrips and aircraft hangars on the man-made islands. Reinforcing its position further, China has strong-armed its neighbors into suspending the exploitation of natural resources within their own exclusive economic zones.
Consequently, China has turned its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth, despite a 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal invalidating those claims. China’s leaders seem intent on proving the old adage that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” And the world, it seems, is letting them get away with it.
The Chinese did not leave that outcome to chance. Before they began building their islands in the South China Sea, they spent several months testing possible US reactions through symbolic moves. First, in June 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, without eliciting a tangible international response.
The Chinese military command monitoring Taiwan and the South China Sea has been ordered war-ready
(Quartz) During a visit to the region on Thursday (Oct. 25), Xi said it was necessary to “concentrate preparations for fighting a war,” reported the South China Morning Post, citing a transcript of Xi’s speech from state broadcaster China Central Television. “We need to take all complex situations into consideration and make emergency plans accordingly.”
Such rhetoric isn’t entirely new: In November 2017, for example, Xi told the military it should be ready to “fight and win wars.” But it does add to an already tense situation in one of the world’s geopolitical hotspots. On Sept. 30, a Chinese destroyer almost collided with a US warship in the South China Sea, after making what American military officials described as an “unsafe and unprofessional” maneuver.
With Ships and Missiles, China Is Ready to Challenge U.S. Navy in Pacific
While China lags in projecting firepower on a global scale, it can now challenge American military supremacy in the places that matter most to it: the waters around Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea.
China does not need a military that can defeat the United States outright but merely one that can make intervention in the region too costly for Washington to contemplate. Many analysts say Beijing has already achieved that goal.
To do so, it has developed “anti-access” capabilities that use radar, satellites and missiles to neutralize the decisive edge that America’s powerful aircraft carrier strike groups have enjoyed. It is also rapidly expanding its naval forces with the goal of deploying a “blue water” navy that would allow it to defend its growing interests beyond its coastal waters.
“China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” the new commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, acknowledged in written remarks submitted during his Senate confirmation process in March.
Brahma Chellaney: Who Lost the South China Sea?
The South China Sea is central to the contest for strategic influence in the larger Indo-Pacific region. Unless the US adopts a stronger policy to contain Chinese expansionism there, the widely shared vision of a free, open, and democratic-led Indo-Pacific will give way to an illiberal, repressive regional order.
(Project Syndicate) The reality is that China’s incremental encroachments have collectively changed the facts in the South China Sea. It has consolidated its control over the strategic corridor between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, through which one-third of global maritime trade – worth $5.3 trillion last year – passes. It is also asserting control over the region’s natural resources, by bullying and coercing other claimants seeking to explore for oil and gas in territories that they themselves control, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Vietnam, for example, has been forced to scrap a project on its own continental shelf.
The Pentagon has flaunted its capability to demolish China’s artificial islands, whose creation Chinese President Xi Jinping has cited as one of his key accomplishments. … If open war is China’s only vulnerability in the South China Sea, the US will lose the larger strategic competition. While seeking to protect its military freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the US has turned a blind eye to China’s stealthy but aggressive assault on the freedom of the seas, including restricting the rights of other countries in the region. The only viable option is a credible strategy that pushes back against China’s use of coercion to advance its territorial and maritime revisionism.
Simply put, China is winning the battle for the South China Sea without firing a shot – or paying any international costs. While Trump is sustaining this trend, it began under Obama, on whose watch China created seven artificial islands and started militarizing them. … By the time the US realized the scope and scale of China’s land-reclamation program, Russia grabbed its attention by annexing Crimea. Yet the long-term strategic implications of what China has achieved in the South China Sea are far more serious.
South China Sea dispute: Beijing attacks ‘irresponsible’ US comments
(BBC) China has branded as “irresponsible” US comments that it is intimidating its neighbours with its military deployment in the South China Sea.
A top Chinese general said China had the right to deploy troops and weapons “on its own territory”.
Earlier US Defence Secretary James Mattis said Beijing’s actions called into question its broader goals.
Six countries have competing claims in the sea, but China has backed its own with island-building and patrols.
Gen Mattis had made his critical comments at a security summit in Singapore.
Last month China said it had for the first time landed bombers on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, prompting US warnings that it was destabilising the region.
Woody Island, which China calls Yongxing, is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
What does disputed Paracel island look like?
What Beijing is Building in the South China Sea
(Stratfor/paywall) Stratfor partners at AllSource Analysis have provided imagery that confirms mobile electronic warfare (EW) equipment was recently deployed to Mischief Reef.
The recent addition of mobile equipment for electronic warfare to Mischief Reef adds to the already-extensive electronic network on the reef. To the southeast, China has constructed what is probably a high-frequency, direction-finding antenna array installation which could be used to collect electronic or signals intelligence from transmissions by aircraft or ships in the region, as well as to detect stealth aircraft. North of the island, China has also built what is probably an inter-island communication tower with an associated antenna array similar to the ones found at Cuarteron, Hughes, Johnson South and Gaven reefs. On top of that, China constructed a Doppler very high-frequency omnidirectional range (DVOR) radio system adjacent to the airfield on Mischief Reef. DVOR systems provide short-range navigation information for aircraft without using satellite navigation data.
The deployment of EW equipment is particularly notable because the gear could be used to harass and jam the electronic equipment of various actors in the South China Sea, including the United States
Why more people aren’t talking about the Asian oil spill as big as Paris
(CBC The Current) It’s an oil spill the size of Paris. But only now is the world’s attention catching up with the vast scale of the disaster in the East China Sea — the largest tanker spill in decades.
The crash itself happened weeks ago when an Iranian tanker called the Sanchi collided with a Chinese freighter on January 6 and burst into flames, later sinking. Thirty-two crew members are presumed dead.
It’s a different kind of oil spill, though, and that’s what’s causing concern. Almost one million barrels of condensate were on board, an especially flammable type of light oil.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about a major condensate spill because we’ve never seen one. This is the first,” says Richard Steiner, an Alaska-based marine scientist and an oil spill consultant … “There has been serious ecological injury.” …
The East China Sea is an important fisheries area for China, Japan and South Korea, home to whales, seabirds and hundreds of species of commercially harvested fish.
Reading the Manila tea leaves
PM Modi’s meeting with EAS leaders will provide indicators of how the quad will pan out going forward
By C Uday Bhaskar
(DNA India) The 12th East Asia Summit (EAS) currently underway in Manila saw the four-nation quadrilateral consultative process being revived by officials of the US, Japan, India and Australia on the sidelines,
The quad was first mooted in 2007 as a multilateral maritime partnership among the four democracies led by the US and India, and was envisaged as a logical extension to the bilateral naval exercises that India had established with the other three nations. …
However, over the last two years, Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the maritime domain, demonstrated by its unilateral rejection of the international tribunal award over the South China Sea dispute has triggered considerable anxiety in the region. The directly affected ASEAN states have been differently persuaded with fiscal incentive or intimidated by China and the regional unease is palpable.
Beijing’s assertive profile in the regional maritime domain includes the rejection of the UNCLOS provisions; the consolidation of its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, wherein China has set up its first overseas military ‘facility’ in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa; and the Xi Jinping focus on the BRI (Belt Road Initiative with its maritime emphasis).
China, in summary, is signalling its intent to revise the existing status quo in the Indo-Pacific which has led to a revival of the quad consultative process.
Beijing seen poised for fresh South China Sea assertiveness
(Reuters) – China has quietly undertaken more construction and reclamation in the South China Sea, recent satellite images show, and is likely to more powerfully reassert its claims over the waterway soon, regional diplomats and military officers say.
With global attention focused on North Korea and Beijing engrossed in its Party Congress, tensions in the South China Sea have slipped from the headlines in recent months.
But with none of the underlying disputes resolved and new images reviewed by Reuters showing China continuing to develop facilities on North and Tree islands in the contested Paracel islands, experts say the vital trade route remains a global flashpoint.
Some expect China to land its first deployments of jet fighters onto its runways in the Spratly islands in coming months, while regional military officers say it is already using the new facilities to expand naval and coast guard deployments deep into Southeast Asia.
South China Sea: Beijing raises the temperature again
(The Interpreter) Something significant is happening in the South China Sea. Philippine media has reported that, over the past week, a flotilla of Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied by PLA Navy frigates and Chinese Coast Guard vessels, have maintained a presence very close to Thitu (which Manila calls ‘Pagasa’), the largest feature occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands.
While none of the territorial claimants to the Spratly Islands have formalised claims to territorial seas from the features they occupy, a close-in naval and paramilitary presence of this nature is still highly provocative, and totally at variance with China’s official narrative that the South China Sea is enjoying a period of relative tranquility following the recent adoption of a framework Code of Conduct between Beijing and ASEAN.
According to a timeline published by GMA News, the Chinese vessels began arriving on 11 August. Since 15 August at least one PLA warship has conducted shipboard helicopter overflights of a number of sand bars immediately to the west of Thitu. Thitu is situated just over 12 nautical miles away from Subi Reef. Subi is now host to one of seven artificial bases built up by China since 2013, but in its natural state is a submerged feature at low tide and therefore incapable of generating its own territorial sea.
The Week Donald Trump Lost the South China Sea
Vietnam’s capitulation shows China’s neighbors fear the U.S. no longer has their backs
By Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow Chatham House
(Foreign Policy) Vietnam’s history is full of heroic tales of resistance to China. But this month Hanoi bent the knee to Beijing, humiliated in a contest over who controls the South China Sea, the most disputed waterway in the world. Hanoi has been looking to Washington for implicit backing to see off Beijing’s threats. At the same time, the Trump administration demonstrated that it either does not understand or sufficiently care about the interests of its friends and potential partners in Southeast Asia to protect them against China. Southeast Asian governments will conclude that the United States does not have their backs. And while Washington eats itself over Russian spies and health care debates, one of the world’s most crucial regions is slipping into Beijing’s hands.
In June, Vietnam made an assertive move. After two and a half years of delay, it finally granted Talisman Vietnam (a subsidiary of the Spanish energy firm Repsol) permission to drill for gas at the very edge of Hanoi’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
Under mainstream interpretations of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Vietnam was well within its rights to do so. Under China’s idiosyncratic interpretation, it was not.
Reports from Hanoi (which have been confirmed by similar reports, from different sources, to the Australia-based analyst Carlyle Thayer) say that, shortly afterward, the Vietnamese ambassador in Beijing was summoned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and told, bluntly, that unless the drilling stopped and Vietnam promised never to drill in that part of the sea ever again, China would take military action against Vietnamese bases in the South China Sea.
After two acrimonious meetings in mid-July, the decision was made: Vietnam would kowtow to Beijing and end the drilling. According to the same sources, the winning argument was that the Trump administration could not be relied upon to come to Hanoi’s assistance in the event of a confrontation with China.
The implications of China’s victory are obvious. Regardless of international law, China is going to set the rules in the South China Sea. It is going to apply its own version of history, its own version of “shared” ownership, and it will dictate who can exploit which resources. If Vietnam, which has at least the beginnings of a credible naval deterrent, can be intimidated, then so can every other country in the region, not least the Philippines. (Reuters 2 August) Repsol says drilling suspended on Vietnam oil block disputed by China
China-Vietnam Oil Dispute in South China Sea Intensifies
Hanoi has struck back following calls from Beijing to stop oil exploration in Block 136-03 of the South China Sea. China claims a huge section of the sea and has been ramping up construction of defensive installations in some sections, despite competing claims by Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other nations.
Beijing reportedly threatened to attack Vietnamese positions in the Spratly Islands of the sea if an oil discovery operation led by Respol was not called off on July 15.
‘Serious military provocation’: China angered by US presence in South China Sea
US operation came just hours before scheduled phone call between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping
(The Guardian) The passage of a US warship close to a disputed island in the South China Sea was a “serious political and military provocation”, Beijing said, one that could further strain relations between the superpowers
The destroyer, the USS Stethem, sailed less than 12 nautical miles from tiny Triton Island in the Paracel Islands archipelago, which is claimed by China as well as Taiwan and Vietnam, a US official said.
The operation, meant to demonstrate freedom of navigation in disputed waters, came just hours before a scheduled phone call between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
It was the second operation of its kind carried out by the United States since Trump took office and comes days after his administration took a number of steps that seemed sure to strain US-Chinese relations.
Trump on Thursday authorised a $1.3 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province. The same day, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a Chinese bank accused of laundering North Korean cash.
Also Thursday, the State Department expressed concern about Beijing’s respect for freedom in Hong Kong, on the 20th anniversary of Britain ceding the territory back to China.
And two days earlier, the State Department placed China on a list of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders.
(WSJ) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday forcefully called on China to stop militarizing islands in the South China Sea, to pressure North Korea and broadly to assume a more responsible role in Asia-Pacific stability.
Mr. Tillerson, speaking [in Sydney] on Monday amid annual talks between Australia and the U.S., echoed remarks made by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week as the U.S. leans heavily on Beijing to persuade North Korea to stop its ballistic-missile and nuclear programs.
But the U.S.-China relationship is also strained by a host of other diplomatic and economic issues, including over the South China Sea, where the U.S. has been needling Beijing with so-called freedom of navigation patrols. China claims sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters but denies it is militarizing them.
Mr. Tillerson’s latest comments were some of the most forceful to date at a time when the U.S. also wants China’s help on North Korea.
Trump may turn to Vietnam for help on South China Sea
(CNBC) Hanoi could emerge as a key player in Washington’s long-term Southeast Asia push that’s aimed at neutralizing Beijing’s influence in the South China Sea.
On Wednesday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will be the first ASEAN leader to visit the White House since President Donald Trump‘s election and the U.S. may look to tap into the emerging market’s friction with China.
The world’s second-largest economy claims 90 percent of the sea, home to over 250 islands and rich natural gas reserves, while Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan assert ownership of certain parts. And as Beijing ramps up island-building and military construction in the maritime region — reports recently emerged of Chinese rocket launchers in the Spratly Islands — Hanoi has not shied away from publicly denouncing the mainland.
In 2014, Vietnam witnessed violent protests as demonstrators criticized China’s assertiveness in the important waterway while Vietnamese officials lambasted Beijing in March after a Chinese cruise ship visited the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both countries.
North Korea is helping China in the South China Sea—whether it knows it or not
(Quartz) for Beijing, North Korea’s saber-rattling does serve one useful purpose: It distracts attention from the contested South China Sea. Last year, the world fretted over China’s territorial aggression in that resource-rich waterway, with critics warning it could become virtually a “Chinese lake.” Beijing claims nearly the entire sea, based on what an international tribunal ruled last July to be bogus reasoning, both legally and historically.
When US secretary of state James Mattis appeared on Face the Nation this past Sunday (May 28), he talked at length about North Korea, which he described as a “direct threat” to the United States, adding that a conflict there would be “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
The South China Sea didn’t come up.
That was notable since just four days earlier the US conducted a “freedom of navigation” operation (Fonop) in the sea’s Spratly archipelago, where China has been steadily improving upon seven militarized islands it’s built atop reefs. Taking place at Mischief Reef, it was the first Fonop under Trump, and some took it as the start of a more challenging stance.
More likely, though, the operation was timed for the June 2 Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting in Singapore of the region’s defense ministers. It would have been difficult for Mattis, who will attend the gathering, to reassure his counterparts about America’s ongoing commitment to the area without having done a single Fonop since Trump took office.
Meanwhile China continues to make steady progress fortifying its military installations in the sea, while on the diplomatic front it routinely warns other nations against saying or doing anything that challenges its stance. For instance, it recently fitted out its manmade island at Fiery Cross Reef with an anti-frogman rocket launcher defense system, and it admonished Japan and New Zealand for agreeing that last July’s ruling should be adhered to with regards to the South China Sea.
(Quartz) The US challenged Beijing’s claim in the South China Sea. In the first such action under Trump, the US sent a warship within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly archipelago’s Mischief Reef, atop of which China has built one of its militarized artificial islands. The move was long expected. Going against international law and norms, China claims nearly all of the sea as its own.
Beijing’s scariest tack yet in the South China Sea: projecting an aura of calm
(Quartz) This week Japan said it plans to send its most formidable warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea. Observers waiting for an angry reaction from China—which claims nearly all of that sea and was mighty testy about it last year—were likely disappointed. Here’s what Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying had to offer:
“If it’s only a normal visit, going to several countries, and passing normally through the South China Sea, then we’ve got no objections, and we hope this kind of normal exchange between relevant countries can play a role promoting regional peace and stability.”
The response sounded remarkably mellow given Beijing’s belligerent rhetoric before and after an international tribunal ruled last July against its vast claims to the sea, saying they had neither legal nor historical basis.
But it wasn’t just that reaction out of China that sounded unusually measured. In various instances this year, on maritime matters that might have enraged Beijing in 2016—or provoked stern warnings of some sort—Chinese diplomats have given responses that seem disconcertingly lawyerly or diplomatic
China finishing South China Sea buildings that could house missiles: US officials
(CNBC) China, in an early test of U.S. President Donald Trump, is nearly finished building almost two dozen structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that appear designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles, two U.S. officials told Reuters.
The development is likely to raise questions about whether and how the United States will respond, given its vows to take a tough line on China in the South China Sea.
A Recipe for Disaster in the South China Sea
(The Diplomat) A recent proposal for the Trump administration could spark a war in the already tense region.
How America Can Take Control in the South China Sea
A simple playbook to prove China is all bark and no bite over its disputed islands.
Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief who just became the new U.S. secretary of state, might not be causing the same level of global disruption as his boss, President Donald Trump. But in his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 11, he sent shockwaves through the China-watching community, vowing: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
These remarks instantly gave rise to a global consensus that spanned hawks in China to doves in the West. An editorial in the Global Times, a prominent mouthpiece for Chinese nationalists, warned: “Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish.”
… If China does not recognize your rights to freedom of the seas, you have the right to restrict China’s freedom in return. The Permanent Court of Arbitration award from last July, which is now an integral part of international law despite Chinese rejection, has ruled as illegitimate China’s “nine-dash line” claims in the South China Sea, its occupation of Mischief Reef, its denial of access to Scarborough Shoal, its island building in the Spratlys, and its harassment of others in the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Trump, Tillerson and the South China Sea: What’s at stake
(CNN) Rex Tillerson, who was sworn in as US Secretary of State Wednesday, takes responsibility for US policy in one of the world’s biggest flashpoints: the South China Sea.
President Donald Trump says the former Exxon CEO will bring “a clear-eyed focus to foreign affairs.”
He’ll need it.
The contested waters are a crucial shipping route and home a messy territorial dispute that pits multiple countries against each other.
Tensions have ratcheted up since 2014 as China has turned sandbars into islands, equipping them with airfields, ports and weapons systems and warned US warships and aircraft to stay away from them.
Adding fuel to this heady mix, the Trump administration looks set to take a much more confrontational stance toward China than its predecessor.
During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson said China should be blocked from accessing the artificial islands it’s built, setting the stage for a potential showdown.
China to return seized U.S. drone, says Washington ‘hyping up’ incident
(Reuters) China will return an underwater U.S. drone seized by a naval vessel this week in the South China Sea, both countries said on Saturday.
The drone, known as an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), was taken on Thursday, the first seizure of its kind in recent memory.
The drone, which the Pentagon said was operating lawfully and was clearly marked as U.S. property, was collecting data about the salinity, temperature and clarity of the water about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, off the Philippines.
China Suggests It Has Placed Weapons on Disputed Spratly Islands in South China Sea
(NYT) China signaled on Thursday that it had installed weapons on disputed South China Sea islands and would use them like a “slingshot” to repel threats, compounding tensions with the incoming Trump administration. The Chinese message, in a Defense Ministry statement, suggested that China was further watering down a pledge made by its president, Xi Jinping, to not militarize the islands.
The comments left little doubt that such installations were part of China’s plan to deepen its territorial claim over the islands, which has raised tensions with its neighbors over their rival claims and with Washington over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways.
China Warns Trump With Nuclear Fly-By
(Daily Beast) Chinese officials warned Monday that relations with the U.S. may fall apart if President-elect Donald Trump does not respect China’s “core interests” going forward. The comments were made in response to Trump’s now-infamous phone call with Taiwan’s president. “I want to stress that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and involves China’s core interests,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said during a news briefing. “Upholding the ‘One China’ principle is the political basis for developing China-U.S. ties. If this basis is interfered with or damaged, then the healthy development of China-U.S. relations and bilateral cooperation in important areas is out of the question.” The warning comes hours after reports emerged indicating China flew a nuclear-capable bomber over a disputed part of the South China Sea, in a move U.S. officials say was meant to send a message to Trump. The Xian H-6 bomber, at times accompanied by fighter jets, flew along the demarcation line between China and disputed territories, including Taiwan, Fox News reported, citing U.S. officials. Pentagon officials reportedly found out about the nuclear bomber’s flight Friday, though it was not immediately clear when the flight took place. Officials have warned the flight was the first of its kind in more than 18 months.
Rodrigo Duterte and Xi Jinping Agree to Reopen South China Sea Talks
(NYT) President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, agreed on Thursday to resume direct talks on disputes in the South China Sea after years of escalating tension, a sign of warming relations with Beijing.
The announcement came during Mr. Duterte’s state visit to China, as he repeatedly sought to distance the Philippines from the United States, a treaty ally. Mr. Duterte, speaking to business leaders shortly after meeting with Mr. Xi, openly declared a “separation from the United States.”
He refrained, however, from saying that he would revoke a 70-year-old treaty alliance with Washington and made no indication of doing what China would like most: scrapping an accord that gives the United States access to five military bases in the Philippines.
The decision to reopen discussions on the South China Sea after a hiatus of several years offers the promise of de-escalating tensions in the South China Sea, an issue that has strained Washington’s relationship with Beijing.
Thailand took China’s side in the South China Sea dispute. Historically, Thailand has stayed neutral on the issue, but a government spokesman told Reuters on Wednesday that it “supports China’s efforts” to promote peace in the region.
Ahead of G20, India sent down a ‘littoral’ message
By C Uday Bhaskar
(Economic Times) This G20 summit being hosted by China is rich in symbolism of different shades and the fact that it comes soon after an international tribunal rejected Beijing’s South China Sea (SCS) claim and upheld that of the Philippines is only the more visible. The extended western Pacific littoral from Japan down to Singapore exudes varying degrees of anxiety about China’s maritime assertiveness and all eyes are on Obama and the credibility of the US “pivot” to Asia.
China’s inflexible stance on the SCS and its rejection of both international law and customary practice apropos freedom of navigation became the dominant issue on the opening day of the G20 Summit and overshadowed the more substantive climate change agreement. The summit leaders have a prickly challenge ahead of them — how to raise the SCS issue with Xi and to encourage Beijing to work towards a modus vivendi.
Gordon Chang: India’s Grand Gamble With China
(Forbes) Modi has recently sent some other signals to Beijing. On his way to the China-hosted G20, the prime minister will visit Hanoi, one of New Delhi’s strategic partners. As Chinese vessels operate in the Indian Ocean, to the annoyance of the Indian navy, the Indian navy is increasing its presence in the South China and East China Seas. New Delhi’s vessels are able to irritate the Chinese because they can pull into Vietnamese ports.
Beijing has been trying to persuade Modi not to raise South China Sea issues at the G20, but even if he is mute at the meeting the Indian leader is leaving the Chinese in no doubt that he will support the Vietnamese as they contest Beijing’s expansive sovereignty claims in that critical body of water.
David T. Jones: Navigating the Tempest in the South China Sea
The international rule-of-law contretemps in the South China Sea is no longer a yappy Beijing Pekingese but rather a snarling pit bull whose potential for regional disruption appears limitless.
Beijing is not amused. It had rejected the court’s legitimacy in advance and categorically rejects the court’s decision. The Chinese regime’s emphasis on restoring national pride in areas where previous weakness was exploited by the West makes adherence to the court’s judgment de facto impossible.
It is important for Western observers, trained in arbitration, negotiation, accommodation, and compromise, to appreciate the unyielding nature of Beijing’s stance. Chinese school children are taught that the disputed area is theirs by right, seized during a period of Chinese weakness. Its recovery is an existential objective. Even Taiwan (Republic of China) rejects the court’s decision, making essentially the same historical argument that the area is Chinese territory.
Moreover, it is highly likely that Beijing regards the court, created over a century ago when Chinese concerns were little regarded, as a shill/stooge for Western interests. Indeed, Beijing may see Washington as supporting Japanese hegemony in other Pacific areas, making compromise even more problematic.
… although the court’s decision is legally binding, it has no enforcement mechanism. Its absence of a navy makes any change in the status quo (to the benefit of other claimants) no more than hypothetical.
Immediately following the court decision, Beijing hinted it could establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), requiring all foreign aircraft to identify themselves to Beijing. A senior Air Force officer said the United States would ignore such a zone.
Now the U.S. Navy has deployed a second carrier battle group to the region. And the U.S. chief of naval operations was scheduled to meet senior Chinese naval officers during a visit starting July 18. One can hope a modus vivendi to calm tensions is in train.
There are, however, many nationalisms in play. The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Malaysia have equities associated with the area’s rich fishing grounds and potential undersea resources. Any of these states may feel justified in aggressive action, given the court’s rejection of Chinese claims. And while the new Philippine president’s (Rodrigo Duterte) promise that he would ride a water scooter to Scarborough Shoal and erect a Philippine flag is probably bombast, the multiple actors offer multiple opportunities for bloody miscalculation.
David Kilgour: The Rule of Law and the South China Sea
(Epoch Times) The verdict was anticipated for fully three years. The Philippines originally sought a decision after Chinese boats repeatedly prevented Filipino fishermen from reaching an outcrop called Scarborough Shoal west of the Filipino island of Luzon. The court ruled that, although it was not in a position to rule on the issue of who held sovereignty over the shoal, it could rule that China had “violated its duty to respect the traditional fishing rights of Filipino fishermen” by preventing them from accessing the rich fisheries around the Scarborough Shoal.
China, the tribunal added, had also caused severe harm to coral reef environments such as Mischief Reef by dredging up the seabed to construct artificial islands. In so doing, Beijing violated its solemn commitment to protect fragile marine ecosystems.
South China Sea Verdict: Instead of Predictable Anger, China Should Show Objective Restraint
It would make more sense for Beijing to explore some of the peaceful coexistence options that have been hinted at by Manila.
By C Uday Bhaskar
(The Wire) Slamming the Philippines for its “concoctions” and warning its other regional rivals not to turn the South China Sea into a “cradle of war”, Beijing released a white paper on Wednesday, July 13, titled ‘China Adheres to the Position of Settling Through Negotiation the Relevant Disputes Between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea‘.
This irate response from the Chinese leadership would suggest that Beijing had neither anticipated nor prepared for such an exigency. There was no plan B that would have avoided the kind of anger and petulance that is now on display.
This notwithstanding, most maritime professionals had concluded last year that the historical claim advanced by Beijing apropos the South China Sea was untenable and an adverse decision was expected.
The white paper sought to rubbish the claims of Manila, vigorously upholding the Chinese position as “historically” valid. Yet it is evident that this exercise by Beijing is aimed at assuaging the domestic mood, which is incensed over the unambiguous rejection by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration of China’s muscular assertions and its misplaced certitude about historical claims.
Simon Baptist, the Economist Intelligence Unit:
China, of course, doesn’t recognise the ruling. UNCLOS is one of many international institutions whose authority it does not fully accept. This is what makes China’s emergence on the foreign policy stage so risky: it doesn’t consistently buy into established principles to guide behaviour. Unpredictability increases the chance of unintended consequences. The US has had a similar attitude, but may now be regretting not having adjusted its stance before its unipolar moment was so clearly coming to an end.
Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims in South China Sea
(NYT) An international tribunal in The Hague delivered a sweeping rebuke on Tuesday of China’s behavior in the South China Sea, including its construction of artificial islands, and found that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis.
The landmark case, brought by the Philippines, was seen as an important crossroads in China’s rise as a global power and in its rivalry with the United States, and it could force Beijing to reconsider its assertive tactics in the region or risk being labeled an international outlaw. It was the first time the Chinese government had been summoned before the international justice system.
In its most significant finding, the tribunal rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea. That could give the governments of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam more leverage in their own maritime disputes with Beijing.
Testing the Rule of Law in the South China Sea
(NYT Editorial) How China reacts to the sweeping legal defeat over its claims to the South China Sea will tell the world a lot about its approach to international law, the use — measured or otherwise — of its enormous power, and its global ambitions. So far, the signs are troubling. Beijing has defiantly rejected an international arbitration court’s jurisdiction over a case brought by the Philippines and insisted it will not accept Tuesday’s pathbreaking judgment.
How China reacts to the sweeping legal defeat over its claims to the South China Sea will tell the world a lot about its approach to international law, the use — measured or otherwise — of its enormous power, and its global ambitions. So far, the signs are troubling. Beijing has defiantly rejected an international arbitration court’s jurisdiction over a case brought by the Philippines and insisted it will not accept Tuesday’s pathbreaking judgment.
The unanimous ruling, by a five-judge tribunal in The Hague, was more favorable toward the Philippines and broader in scope than experts had predicted. It said that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, China had no legal basis to claim historic rights over most of the waterway, which is rich in resources and carries $5 trillion in annual trade.
International tribunal to make South China Sea ruling
(BBC) An international tribunal is set to give a long-awaited ruling, with implications for China’s controversial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
The case at the tribunal in The Hague was brought by the Philippines, which argues Chinese activity in the region is against international law.
China claims about 90% of the South China Sea, including reefs and islands also claimed by others.
China says it does not recognise the tribunal and has refused to take part.
- China’s Island Factory
- Mysteries and maritime claims
- Why is the South China Sea contentious?
- Flying close to China’s new islands
- Rivalries underneath the South China Sea
Beijing slams South China Sea case as court ruling nears
(Reuters) An international court said it would deliver a hotly anticipated ruling in the Philippines’ case against China over the South China Sea on July 12, drawing an immediate rebuke from Beijing, which rejects the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
The United States, which is a close ally of the Philippines and is concerned about China’s expansive South China Sea claims, reiterated its backing for The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration and urged a peaceful resolution of the dispute.
Manila is contesting China’s historical claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Several Southeast Asian states have overlapping claims in the sea and the dispute has sparked concerns of a military confrontation that could disrupt global trade.
In a lengthy statement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Manila’s unilateral approach flouted international law.
“I again stress that the arbitration court has no jurisdiction in the case and on the relevant matter, and should not hold hearings or make a ruling,” he said.
Indonesian navy fires on Chinese fishing boat in disputed waters
(BBC) The incident happened on Friday near the Natuna islands, off the coast of Borneo in the South China Sea.
The Indonesian navy said earlier it had fired shots at several boats with Chinese flags, but said there had been no injuries.
It is unclear whether the fisherman are still being detained by Indonesian authorities.
China claims most of the South China Sea, where it is building islands and extending its infrastructure, and there are often flare-ups with regional neighbours with competing claims.
Unlike other South East Asian countries, Indonesia is not involved in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China accepts the Natuna islands and the seas around them belong to Indonesia, but the two sides have confronted one another there before, typically over illegal fishing.
Making the Case for Canada’s Engagement with Oceania
(Asia Pacific Foundation) When Canadians think of the Pacific Islands, or ‘Oceania,’ we think of beaches and family vacations. What we do not think of is the next sphere of great-power influence. In May 2016, Cleo Paskal  made the case to the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada for a change of mindset regarding Oceania. Far from being merely a honeymoon destination, Paskal argued that the region is increasingly critical in geopolitical relations. She argued that some countries, like China, understand the new dynamic in Oceania, while others do not—and Canada is among those countries that are out of the loop on this fast-changing frontier.
The theoretical basis of Paskal’s argument was the ‘Island Chain Defence Theory.’ Conceived by former US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1953-1959), it maintains that if the West is to geopolitically contain China, it must control three chains of islands in the Asia Pacific, as shown below. The theory is the reason that Taiwan, for example, is of such geostrategic importance.
(Quartz) Southeast Asian leaders discuss borders with Beijing. Foreign ministers from 10 countries are meeting in China for talks over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China claims most of the sea, but countries including Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and Taiwan have competing claims.
(Daily Sabah) A statement released by Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry on Monday said the gathering was a proactive effort to further enhance relations between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Malaysia seeks to apply diplomatic pressure to caution Beijing about its maritime activities at the Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands where China has been conducting reclamation projects.
[Malaysia’s Foreign] minister had said that China’s test flights to and landings at the reef would create a “non-conducive” situation, with the potential to increase tension in the South China Sea channel.
China, Southeast Asia foreign ministers meet amid sea tensions
(AP via Philippine Star) Continuing Beijing’s push to ease concerns about its assertions of sovereignty over the South China Sea, China’s foreign minister told his Southeast Asian counterparts Tuesday that both sides should take a “long-term perspective” as they try to solve their disputes.
Wang Yi’s comments underscore China’s desire to contain damage to its reputation over its assertive tactics in the highly strategic and resource-rich waterway. Four of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have claims to South China Sea islands and reefs that overlap with China’s own.
Among ASEAN members, Vietnam has strongly protested China’s placing of an exploratory oil and gas drilling rig in disputed waters, while the Philippines has brought a case before a U.N. arbitration panel challenging China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, including artificial islands it has constructed from coral reefs. ASEAN members Brunei and Malaysia also claim territory there, while Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone overlaps with Chinese maritime claims. …
China has refused to cooperate with the U.N. arbitration panel and says it will ignore any ruling it makes, although Chinese and foreign analysts say Beijing’s desire to be regarded as a trusted member of the rules-based international community will likely suffer as a result.
A Guide to Stepping it Up in the South China Sea
(War on the Rocks) The South China Sea has become one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world as China continues to aggressively expand its influence and capabilities there. One year ago, we proposed several ways in which the United States could try to deter further Chinese encroachments. But, as the recent Shangri-La Dialogue demonstrated, tensions in the region have only risen since then. The Chinese have only accelerated their bellicose behavior, and nothing the United States has done has seemed to have any effect. The United States and its partners now have no choice but to consider a wider range of more assertive responses.
Beijing’s Real Blueprint in the South China Sea
By George Friedman
The Chinese have a strategic problem in the South and East China seas. China is obviously interested in what happens in these waters. There is much speculation as to why the level of interest is so high.
The answer is simple: China wants to keep foreign powers away from its coast and away from waters vital to its global trade routes.
China’s greatest threat in these waters is the United States. Given the size of the US Navy and the location of the islands off China’s coast, the Navy is capable of blocking China’s access to the ocean. This would deal a serious economic blow to China.
Countering this threat means building a navy that could challenge the US… a far from easy task. So, China’s actions in these seas are meant to intimidate regional countries away from American influence. The goal is to boost China’s ability to control shipping lanes. This calls for a show of strength.
China scrambles fighters as U.S. sails warship near Chinese-claimed reef
(Reuters) Facilities on Fiery Cross Reef include a 3,000-metre (10,000-foot) runway which the United States worries China will use to press its extensive territorial claims at the expense of weaker rivals.
To fix the South China Sea, US must look to Taiwan
The fact is that when it comes to the South China Sea disputes, Taiwan—or rather, the nature of Taiwan’s future relationship with China—is a complicating factor. It is the elephant in the room, and nobody wants to poke it.
(Asia Times) Outgoing Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s controversial trip to Itu Aba—the only island Taiwan controls in the South China Sea—has drawn a sharp rebuke from Washington. The spokeswoman for the American Institute in Taiwan, the unofficial U.S. embassy, expressed disappointment following the announcement of the visit, condemning it as “extremely unhelpful.”
Setting aside the merits of Taiwan’s South China Sea claims, its status as a claimant is no more or less legitimate than that of the other disputants. But following the Southeast Asian claimants’ lead, Washington has essentially ignored Taiwan’s role in the sea. Taiwan has been treated not as a coequal claimant, but as a complication, despite the fact that Ma is perhaps the only leader to have put forth a thoughtful—if difficult to enact—peace plan for the region’s troubled waters.
When asked about Ma’s South China Sea Peace Initiative after he proposed it last May, a State Department spokesman issued a supportive but anodyne statement expressing lukewarm appreciation.
Taiwan president visits disputed Taiping island in South China Sea
Ma Ying-jeou ignores concerns from US and Philippines to board flight and ‘reaffirm sovereignity’ of isle in Spratlys
(The Guardian) Ma Ying-jeou’s one-day visit to Itu Aba on Thursday came amid growing international concern over rising tensions in the South China Sea, especially in the wake of Beijing’s rapid creation of seven manmade islands in the Spratly archipelago.
On Wednesday Beijing reiterated that China and Taiwan had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. Beijing deems Taiwan a wayward province to be taken by force if necessary.
Taiwan has just finished a $100m (£70m) port upgrade and built a new lighthouse on Itu Aba, known in Taiwan as Taiping. The island, which lies in the Spratlys, also has an airstrip, a hospital and fresh water.