China illegally starts building infrastructure; Vietnam opposes Taiwan’s violations of sovereignty; Philippines ready to send back ships to Scarborough Shoal once weather improves; India has not withdrawn from Vietnamese oil block; The US concerns about recent developments in the South China Sea...
(Ceramic painting at the Spratly Island)
Activities of the Claimants
Taiwan has informed neighboring countries that it plans to conduct a live-fire training exercise on Ba Binh Island in the South China Sea early next month, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Steve Hsia said. It will be a routine drill, Hsia said, confirming local media reports that the Taiwanese Coast Guard Administration is scheduled to carry out a live-fire exercise from September 1 through September 5. “It means those countries will be able to warn their ships to avoid the waters near Taiping Island during the exercise,” he said.
According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA), the antenna will be located near an existing 1,200-meter-long airstrip on Ba Binh Island. Construction of a new navigation antenna in Vietnam’s territorial waters, is scheduled for completion in September.
The so-called Sansha city launched its first infrastructure projects on Saturday (25th August). Sewage disposal and waste collection facilities will be built to ensure the sustainable development of the city, which is made up of coral islands and reefs. At around 10 am on Saturday, Xiao Jie, the first mayor of the so-called Sansha, ordered bulldozers to start construction of the public utility facilities on Phu Lam Island.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung expressed wish that the Vietnamese and Thai armies will continue effectively implementing cooperation agreements on exchanging training and rescue experience as well as coordinating in their joint sea patrols. Dung made the remark in Hanoi on August 21 while receiving a delegation from the Royal Thai Army’s Defence Force, led by General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, Chief of Defence for the Thai Royal Armed Forces. In addition, Vietnamese PM Dung suggested the two sides cooperate more effectively in the framework of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), including the East Sea issue, for peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world at large.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Luong Thanh Nghi on August 23 opposed Taiwan’s plan of conducting a live-ammunition drill on Ba Binh island of Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago, saying that the act seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty. He said: “We protests Taiwan’s plan. Taiwan’s plan of the live-ammunition drill on Ba Binh island of Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago seriously violates Vietnam’s sovereignty, threatening peace, stability, security and maritime safety, causing tensions, and complicating the situation in the East Sea. “We request Taiwan immediately cancel this plan,” he stressed.
About 500 activists held a prayer rally in Manila on August 21st to end the longstanding tensions between the Philippines and China over the decades-old territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Activists from the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance sang Christian songs and prayed that the upcoming government transition in China on October will promote peace instead of showing aggression on its neighbouring countries as it did in the past months.
The Philippines will send back ships it pulled out from the disputed Scarborough Shoal once the weather improves, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said. “We’re waiting for better conditions, I think the President believes that this is not the proper time because of the very bad weather,” he said. Del Rosario also said he would travel to a number of ASEAN member countries to explain the Philippine position before the regional group holds an annual summit of its heads of state in Cambodia in November.
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert F. del Rosario was in Beijing on Saturday to visit Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Cataumber Brady who is recovering well after a stroke. While in Beijing, Secretary del Rosario also met with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
India has not withdrawn from oil and gas exploration in a block in the South China Sea where China claims territorial rights over blocks originally allocated by Vietnamese oil company PetroVietnam, Indian government has said. ONGC Videsh Limited is engaged in exploration of block 128 in South China Sea, Indian Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas R.P.N. Singh told the Lok Sabha in a written reply earlier this week. He said that block 128 and production block 6.1 fell under disputed zones.
American ambassador to ASEAN David L. Carden stressed that maritime security and the freedom of navigation on the South China Sea are important to the US and other countries in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. Ambassador reiterated the principle of peacefully resolving the dispute, in accordance with the principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In addition, the concerned countries should specify the scope of their claims. Regarding ASEAN’s role, Ambassador David L. Carden believes that ASEAN should express the unity in voicing concerns over the South China Sea issues. Particularly, ASEAN countries must negotitate the COC with China.
Deeper divisions could open up between Southeast Asian states and Beijing unless they do a better job of handling disputes such as a recent quarrel over the South China Sea, Indonesia's foreign minister said. Marty Natalegawa said Jakarta was trying to restore harmony after unprecedented arguments over the sea. Indonesia, by far the most powerful member of ASEAN, is working on a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea that would offer a guarantee that if one nation involved in a disagreement exercised restraint, the other would too.
Thailand joined hands with the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok to hold a seminar on East Sea disputes on August 23, in an effort to demonstrate its role as ASEAN-China relations coordinator in the new term. Speakers included representatives from Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and the embassies of several ASEAN countries. In her presentation, Dr Nguyen Thi Lan Anh, Deputy Director of the Centre for East Sea Studies of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, pointed out issues related to the current disputes, the role of legal frameworks and prospects of dispute settlement.
Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo said Monday (August 20th) that China and Russia should further strengthen their coordination and cooperation on strategic security issues. Dai made the remarks at the seventh round of China-Russia strategic security consultations with Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev in Moscow. During the talks, Dai noted that China and Russia had common interests in strategic security, as both countries were making efforts to realize their national rejuvenation and development, which required favorable internal and external environments.
Cai Yingting, deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, left Beijing on August 20th for an official visit to the US. This is the second visit by a senior Chinese military official to the US in three months. The South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands are issues of common concern at the top of the discussion agenda, said Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
The Haixun 31 maritime patrol vessel, one of China’s biggest maritime patrol ships, will set out for its first visit to the United States on August 25th. Scheduled to depart from Shanghai at 10:30 am, Haixun 31 is expected to arrive in Hawaii on September 4th. It will be there for five days to work with the US Coast Guard on a series of maritime cooperation exercises, including a field test of joint search-and-rescues. Gene Maestas, public-affairs officer of the Hawaii-based 14th Coast Guard District under the US Department of Homeland Security, confirmed the upcoming joint search-and-rescue operation.
Commentaries & Analyses
Although US officials have named several specific US concerns about China’s policies and activities in the South China Sea, the US concern most widely understood and repeated is the potential threat to “freedom of navigation”: the PRC might be moving toward imposing restrictions on foreign ships sailing in the South China Sea.. This, however, is not the real issue. On the South China Sea, China has begun practicing what Beijing’s diplomats have for decades condemned as “hegemonism” or “power politics”—strong countries forcing their self-interested preferences onto smaller countries. Some observers see the China-US contention over the South China Sea as simply a squabble between two great powers that are both seeking regional domination. Each is acting in its respective hegemonic self-interest rather than in defense of some higher principle. In this case, however, US intervention is clearly aligned with the interests of the Southeast Asian countries, which seek to avoid domination by China or any other great power. China is trying to implement a might-makes-right order, while the United States is trying to ensure that smaller countries do not get steamrolled. This is the real issue, and US officials should make it clear.
Having become more and more assertive during the past few years in contesting its claims through the use and threat of force, China has now upped the ante by announcing the creation of the new municipality of Sansha in the South China Sea. The total area claimed by the city itself simultaneously makes it one of the smallest and largest cities in the world, but the water area claimed by Sansha approaches nearly 2-million square kilometers. China uses the dodgy basis of "historical waters" to claim some 90 percent of the sea as a kind of new Southeast Asian version of the Roman's mare nostrum--the Mediterranean Sea-- an area it circumscribes on its maps with a so-called 9-dashed line. China has never explained the exact meaning of the line. The nine-dashed line in particular totally undercuts the main purpose of UNCLOS, which was adopted in 1982 and came into force in 1994, principally to bring order to a growing tendency of countries to assert economic rights to their continental shelves. China has ratified/acceded to the convention, cherry picks the parts that are advantageous. It appears as though the bulk of the establishment and the new garrison will likely be administrative and logistics staff-hardly a sign of China embracing the military option for dispute settlement. Regarding ASEAN’s role, the fracture in ASEAN may have far-reaching repercussions for the South China Sea dispute, not the least which will be a continuing inability for the ASEAN claimants to work through the regional organization to persuade China to join in any sort of code of conduct.
The U.S. is planning a major expansion of missile defenses in Asia, a move American officials say is designed to contain threats from North Korea, but one that could also be used to counter China's military. The planned buildup is part of a defensive array that could cover large swaths of Asia, with a new radar in southern Japan and possibly another in Southeast Asia tied to missile-defense ships and land-based interceptors. The expansion comes at a time when the U.S. and its allies in the region voice growing alarm about a North Korean missile threat. They are also increasingly worried about China's aggressive stance in disputed waters such the South China Sea. U.S. defense planners are particularly concerned about China's development of antiship ballistic missiles that could threaten the Navy's fleet of aircraft carriers, critical to the U.S. projection of power in Asia. However, analysts say it is unclear how effective U.S. missile defenses would be against China. A 2010 Pentagon report on ballistic missile defenses said the system can't cope with Chinese missile attacks and isn't intended to affect the strategic balance with those countries. The senior U.S. official said the new missile defense deployments would be able to track and repulse at least a limited strike from China, potentially enough to deter Beijing from attempting an attack. Mr. Hildreth of the Congressional Research Service said the U.S. was "laying the foundations" for a regionwide missile defense system that would combine U.S. ballistic missile defenses with those of regional powers, particularly Japan, South Korea and Australia.
ASEAN is at a crucial stage in its dream to build a community by 2015. It would do us well to keep two things in mind: The forefathers saw ASEAN as a regional security arrangement based on the value of berkampung, meaning to get together, from which kampung, the Malay word for village, comes from. This indigenous notion of “togetherness”, which has an equivalent in many parts of Southeast Asia, such as bayanihan or dagyaw in the Philippines, is an informal way of achieving a shared community objective. Second, it was believed that the cost of losing the region’s grip on its political and diplomatic force was too high a price to pay for economic gain. How do we apply these principles given the present controversy? A princeple that ASEAN need to harness is to look for the lowest common denominators, because this is what works for “us” as a community and then build on them, slowly and steadily. The next step is to build trust instead of sowing fear. In November, Cambodia will have the noble opportunity of keeping the calm over the waterways that link ASEAN with China and the world. It is another shot at leadership. Whether it wants to lead ASEAN or China or ASEAN and China is a question that Cambodia must seriously confront.
Commentaries in China’s state-run media analyzing the South China Sea issue have become markedly less conciliatory. Recent measures undertaken by the Chinese authorities do indeed suggest a more hard-line position. Ominously, some of the initiatives have included a strong military element, presumably as a warning to the other claimants that China is ready to play hardball. In the past, after China has undertaken assertive actions in the South China Sea it has tried to calm Southeast Asia’s jangled nerves. At the series of ASEAN-led meetings in Phnom Penh in mid-July, however, Chinese officials offered virtually no reassurances to their Southeast Asian counterparts. Worse still, China seems to have utilized its influence with Cambodia to scupper attempts by ASEAN to address the problem, causing a breakdown in ASEAN unity. If and when the two sides do sit down to discuss the CoC, it is probable that Beijing will demand all reference to dispute resolution be removed on the grounds that the proposed code is designed to manage tensions only and that the dispute can only be resolved between China and each of the other claimants on a one-on-one basis. Taken together, these developments have dimmed seriously the prospect of China and ASEAN reaching agreement on a viable code of conduct for the South China Sea any time soon. As such, the status quo will continue for the foreseeable future.
What is the significance of the establishment of the Sansha garrison? First, from a military perspective, it is a minor development. It likely will not command any combat units nor will it result in a substantial increase in the Chinese forces in the South China Sea. Second, because the PLA has maintained a military presence on the features it holds in the South China Sea for decades, the creation of the garrison does not support claims about the growing role of the PLA in Chinese foreign policy or policy in the South China Sea. Third, militarily, any forces on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea are vulnerable and hard to defend. Finally, the general reaction to the creation of the Sansha garrison reflects the limited understanding among analysts and observers of the PLA’s organization despite Beijing’s efforts to describe the structure of the Chinese armed forces in biannual white papers and media reports. In the case of Sansha, the Chinese government could have better explained its decision, while commentators might have examined what garrisons actually do before jumping to ill-founded conclusions.
Let’s review Ba Binh’s (Taiwan calls it Taiping Island) strategic merits to illustrate how tough defending outlying islands would be for Taiwan. Alfred Thayer Mahan evaluated islands and other candidates for bases by three standards, namely position, strength, and resources. Taiping Island is well-situated astride important shipping lanes crisscrossing the region. It meets the Mahanian standard for geographic position. Beyond that, its virtues are few—unless the force occupying it is strong enough to defend and resupply it in the face of enemy resistance. It is a postage stamp, at 1.4 km long and 0.4 km wide. That’s big enough for an airfield. However, Chinese forces could easily cut communications with the beleaguered island in wartime. Strength, a.k.a. defensibility, is a minus. What about resources? True, Taiping is the only island in the Spratly archipelago with its own fresh water. Plentiful fresh water is a significant asset. However, ships or aircraft would have to ferry in foodstuffs and other supplies from Taiwan to support any serious expeditionary presence there. Resources rates another thumbs-down. Without sea control or air supremacy—operational conditions Taiwan’s increasingly outmatched air force and navy are unlikely to achieve—Taiping Island will wither in any conflict.
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