A shoal too far in South China Sea

Posted on July 20, 2012

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Another maritime incident between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea has tested the region’s tenuous calm. On the evening of July 11, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) missile frigate Dongguan ran aground on Half Moon Shoal, a contested maritime territory a mere 60 nautical miles from the Philippine island of Palawan.

The incident was not initially publicized by either side but its later disclosure has raised new questions about China’s naval intentions and capabilities in the area less – than a month after both sides backed away from a two-month stand-off over another contested shoal in the same island chain.

Philippine Navy officials later said two of their patrol vessels and a reconnassiance aircraft confirmed the presence of the Chinese naval ship on the contested shoal. Beijing acknowledged that salvage operations were underway to dislodge the warship, which was eventually sprung free on July 16 with minor damage to its stern.

Half Moon Shoal is part of the Spratly Islands, which with the rest of the South China Sea are claimed by Beijing as part of its sovereign territory. The Philippines also claims the Half Moon Shoal, which it refers to as Hasa-Hasa, along with several other islets, reefs and other shoals in the island chain as part of its internationally defined exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Chinese boats, often escorted by paramilitary vessels or naval warships, have long fished the waters included in the Philippines’ EEZ. Though there have been previous incidents in the area involving Philippine fishing boats and Chinese warships, this is the first time that a Chinese naval vessel, ostensibly on a patrol, has been stranded so close to Philippine territorial waters.

The incident caused a new stir among many nationalistic Philippine observers, including those galvanized by the sense Beijing is bullying its smaller neighbors in the wake of the recent stand-off over the contested Scarborough Shoal. Harry Roque, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute of International Legal Studies, said in a statement that “foreign naval vessels, particularly in disputed territory, have no business patrolling” in another country’s EEZ.

The Dongguan, a Jianghu-V class missile frigate, was armed with twin 100mm main gun turrets, 37mm Close-in Weapons Systems (CIWS) mounts, and YJ-83 Eagle Strike missiles that are China’s counterpart to the American Harpoon and French Exocet anti-ship missiles. These new missiles, which have replaced China’s previous Silkworms, have a range of 255 kilometers, putting major Philippine cities in their range. The grounded ship is also equipped with air/surface search and fire control radars.

Philippine Navy officials identified it as the same ship that last year harassed several Philippine fishing boats in the area. The Dongguan confronted three Philippine fishing vessels in Jackson Atoll (known by Manila as Quirino Atoll) on February 25, 2011. After issuing a warning over a marine band radio, two of the fishing boats left the area but one had trouble raising its anchor and asked the Chinese frigate for more time. In response, the Dongguan fired three times, landing shells less than a nautical mile from the unarmed fishing boat.

Philippine social media were abuzz about the warship’s presence so close to Philippine territory, with some suggesting a conspiracy to leave the beached frigate in place to create an outpost. President Benigno Aquino was urged to confront China. Cooler heads prevailed, however, as Philippine vessels stood watch while Chinese ships worked to extricate their sister ship from the shoal.

The Philippines had earlier extended traditional maritime courtesy by offering assistance in the rescue operation but apparently was rebuffed. In the aftermath, Manila said it will not lodge a diplomatic protest with Beijing over the incident but instead would ask Beijing for an explanation of the ship’s presence.

The incident coincided with the Philippines’ inability to convince Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to mention the Scarborough stand-off in a joint communique at last week’s ministerial meeting. Cambodia, a close China ally, was said to have blocked any mention of the incident in 18 different proposed drafts of the communique. For the first time in the grouping’s 45-year history, no joint statement was issued after the meeting.

Room for error
Manila cannot afford to challenge China’s superior naval firepower alone, even though President Aquino’s administration is upgrading the armed forces’ territorial defense capabilities. The Navy’s World War II-era flagship was replaced only last year by a 40-year-old refurbished US Coast Guard cutter, with a sister ship on the way. The government is also reportedly looking at used naval vessels now on sale in Italy.

On the diplomatic front, Manila has yet to receive a solid United States commitment to supports its South China Sea claims under their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which binds each party to defend the other in case of an attack by a third party. Despite a recent Aquino visit to Washington, the US has sidestepped the issue of announcing its full military support for the Philippines’ claims to the potentially oil and gas rich area.

At the height of the recent standoff over Scarborough Shoal, the US repeatedly stated the importance of the South China Sea as a vital international sealane and its belief that peaceful efforts should be made to resolve the competing maritime claims. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims to the Spratly Islands.

The US has, however, offered support to the Philippines in the area of maritime surveillance, recently pledging to help enhance Manila’s Coast Watch Center by upgrading its radar facilities. Aquino has also requested the US to provide maritime intelligence in the Spartlys through the US Navy’s P3-C Orion surveillance planes.

The Commander-in-Chief of the US Navy’s Pacific Command, Adm Samuel Locklear III, arrived in Manila on July 16 and met Aquino and senior defense and foreign affairs officials to discuss the situation in the Spratlys and US assistance to help Manila establish a “minimum credible defense posture”.

At the same time, the Half Moon Shoal incident suggests that China’s improving navy is perhaps not as mighty or well-managed as touted. A retired Philippine Navy admiral interviewed by journalist and blogger Raissa Robles said, the Dongguan’s captain “was negligent of his duties … These ships now have depth perception. [They] use satellites. They should be able to determine through the satellite where the reefs are.”

The Dongguan belongs to a class of ships designed to navigate the South China Sea’s myriad tight clusters of reefs, atolls and islets. Though the Dongguan had recently undergone refurbishment, it is notable that sister ships in its class, including export versions sold to Bangladesh, Egypt, Myanmar and Thailand, have historically received negative feedback from buyers.

“Apparently, these frigates proved less than impressive to the Thai Navy. The quality of workmanship of the frigate was said to be inferior, and considerable rework was needed to bring the vessels up to acceptable standards,” Globalsecurity.org, an independent news website, reported.

“The ability of the ships to resist battle damage was extremely limited, and damage control facilities were virtually non-existent. Fire-suppression systems were rudimentary, and it appeared that were the hull breached, rapid flooding would quickly lead to the loss of the ship,” the report said.

According to Kuala Lumpur-based defense analyst Dzirhan Mahadzir, “Running aground and collisions are the most serious offense next to losing a ship, in most navies. However, the degree of punishment or culpability of the captain varies between navies.”

Another strategic analyst noted that such an incident is typically “a career breaker, if not sufficient grounds for court martial”.

Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong was quoted in a South China Morning Post report saying, “It affects people’s confidence in the capability of the navy. The accident indicates that the technology of Chinese navy vessels and the ocean combat capability of the navy may not be sophisticated enough.”

If so, China’s rising deployment of heavily armed naval ships and harassment of other claimants’ civilian vessels in the area risks future miscalculations, human and technical errors that carry the perilous potential to trigger armed conflict and destabilize further a region already on edge.

George Amurao

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Posted in: Economy, Politics