The South China Sea is making worrisome waves again

Posted on August 2, 2012


Former police officer Abner Afuang burns a Chinese flag in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs to oppose the presence of Chinese vessels in the disputed territory in the South China Sea Friday, July 27, 2012 in suburban Pasay City, south of Manila, Philippines. Afuang called on the government to persist on its claim on Scarborough Shoal which is within the country’s economic zone. (AP Photo/Photo/Pat Roque) (Pat Roque)

The South China Sea – long regarded, together with the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula, as one of East Asia’s three major flashpoints – is making waves again. China’s recent announcement of a troop deployment to the Paracel Islands followed a month in which competing territorial claimants heightened their rhetoric, China’s naval presence in disputed areas became more visible, and the Chinese divided the Association of South East Asian Nations, whose foreign ministers could not agree on a communique for the first time in 45 years.

All of this has jangled nerves – as did similar military posturing and diplomatic arm wrestling from 2009 to mid-2011. Little wonder: stretching from Singapore to Taiwan, the South China Sea is the world’s second-busiest sea-lane, with one-third of global shipping transiting through it.

More neighboring states have more claims to more parts of the South China Sea – and tend to push those claims with more strident nationalism – than is the case with any comparable body of water. And now it is seen as a major testing ground for Sino-American rivalry, with China stretching its new wings, and the United States trying to clip them enough to maintain its own regional and global primacy.

The legal and political issues associated with the competing territorial claims – and the marine and energy resources and navigation rights that go with them – are mind-bogglingly complex. Future historians may well be tempted to say of the South China Sea question what Lord Palmerston famously did of Schleswig-Holstein in the 19th century: “Only three people have ever understood it. One is dead, one went mad, and the third is me – and I’ve forgotten.”

The core territorial issue currently revolves around China’s stated interest – imprecisely demarcated on its 2009 “nine-dashed line” map – in almost the entire Sea. Such a claim would cover four disputed sets of land features: the Paracel Islands in the northwest, claimed by Vietnam as well; the Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Reef in the north, also claimed by the Philippines; and the Spratly Islands in the south (variously claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, in some cases against each other as well as against China.)

There has been a scramble by the various claimants to occupy as many of these islands – some not much more than rocks – as possible. This is partly because, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which all of these countries have ratified, these outcroppings’ sovereign owners can claim a full 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (enabling sole exploitation of fisheries and oil resources) if they can sustain an economic life of their own. Otherwise, sovereign owners can claim only 12 nautical miles of territorial waters.

What has heightened ASEAN’s concern about Beijing’s intentions is that even if China could reasonably claim sovereignty over all of the land features in the South China Sea, and all of them were habitable, the Exclusive Economic Zones that went with them would not include anything like all of the waters within the dashed-line of its 2009 map. This has provoked fears, not unfounded, that China is not prepared to act within the constraints set by the Law of the Sea Convention, and is determined to make some broader history-based claim.

A sensible way forward would begin with everyone staying calm about China’s external provocations and internal nationalist drumbeating. There does not appear to be any alarmingly maximalist, monolithic position, embraced by the entire government and Communist Party, on which China is determined to steam ahead. Rather, according to an excellent report released in April by the International Crisis Group, its activities in the South China Sea over the last three years seem to have emerged from uncoordinated initiatives by various domestic actors, including local governments, law-enforcement agencies, state-owned energy companies, and the People’s Liberation Army.

China’s Foreign Ministry understands the international-law constraints better than most, without having done anything so far to impose them. But, for all the recent PLA and other activity, when the country’s leadership transition (which has made many key central officials nervous) is completed at the end of this year, there is reason to hope that a more restrained Chinese position will be articulated.

China can and should lower the temperature by re-embracing the modest set of risk-reduction and confidence-building measures that it agreed with ASEAN in 2002 – and building upon them in a new, multilateral code of conduct.

And, sooner rather than later, it needs to define precisely, and with reference to understood and accepted principles, what its claims actually are. Only then can any credence be given to its stated position – not unattractive in principle – in favor of resource-sharing arrangements for disputed territory pending final resolution of competing claims.

The United States, for its part, while justified in joining the ASEAN claimants in pushing back against Chinese overreach in 2010-2011, must be careful about escalating its rhetoric. America’s military “pivot” to Asia has left Chinese sensitivities a little raw, and nationalist sentiment is more difficult to contain in a period of leadership transition. In any event, America’s stated concern about freedom of navigation in these waters has always seemed a little overdrawn.

One positive, and universally welcomed, step that the United States could take would be finally to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, whose principles must be the foundation for peaceful resource sharing – in the South China Sea as elsewhere. Demanding that others do as one says is never as productive as asking them to do as one does.

Gareth Evans

Storm Warnings: South China Sea Tensions Reflect Danger of Defense Cuts

In recent months, tensions have risen in the South China Sea as the ongoing territorial disputes between various Southeast Asian states and the People’s Republic of China have begun to boil. An April speech by Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie stating that the South Sea Fleet would be the vanguard of major new missions makes recent developments even more ominous. This situation raises real stakes for the United States, especially in the context of ongoing and potentially accelerating cuts to the defense budget.

Increasing Chinese Pressure

China has been steadily increasing pressure on its neighbors in the ongoing South China Sea dispute, employing a variety of means. In March, Chinese and Philippine fishing vessels converged on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, reinforcing each side’s claim to the area. Thinking they had a bargain to de-escalate the conflict, the Philippines pulled out its ships. Although the Chinese did not deploy naval ships to the waters, Chinese fishing boats and civilian law enforcement vessels remained, despite an announced Chinese fishing ban on the area.

At the same time, the Chinese ratcheted up the pressure on Manila by discouraging tourism and imposing additional “inspections” on imports of Philippine bananas. Chinese foreign ministry spokespeople regularly mentioned the Scarborough Shoal in order to remind Manila that the Chinese saw this as a high-profile issue.

Then, in June, the China National Offshore Oil Company announced that it was opening nine new blocks in the South China Sea to bids for exploration and development. All of these blocks are in disputed waters directly off Vietnam’s coast, in some cases within 100 nautical miles of Vietnam’s shores. A few days later, the Chinese ministry of defense announced that it was preparing to start regular naval patrols in the waters around the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by not only China but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Beijing also exerted heavy pressure on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at its annual meeting to reject any statement regarding the South China Sea. Efforts to characterize discussion of the conflict between China and the Philippines led to “unprecedented discord” within ASEAN. “The row illustrated how Southeast Asian nations have been polarised by China’s rapidly expanding influence in the region.”[1] Consequently, for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history, no joint communiqué was issued, raising real concerns that the regional organization was in disarray due to Chinese pressure.

This was then followed by the announcement that the Nansha (Spratlys), Xisha (Paracels), and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) territories would all be administered by a new, prefectural-level political entity called Sansha City (Sansha is literally “three sands,” referring to the three “sha” of the disputed territories). This new political entity is higher than the previous city-level entity that had informally administered these territories. Even more worrisome, the new Sansha prefecture has a military garrison headed by a senior colonel (brigadier general equivalent).[2] Coupled with an earlier announcement that the PLA would now be mounting regular combat-ready patrols of the Spratlys, it would appear that Beijing is prepared to militarize its claims within the so-called “nine-dash line.”[3]

Growing Regional Chinese Military Capabilities

For Beijing, the two decades of nearly unbroken double-digit increases in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) defense budget provides them with additional military tools with which to underscore China’s claims to the region. For most of the 1990s and 2000s, the focus of the PLA was on Taiwan. Consequently, the best forces tended to be deployed to the Nanjing military region (MR) opposite the island.

As the resources available to the PLA have continued to flow, however, other parts of the PLA have benefited as well. While many analysts have tended to focus on the acquisition of certain new capabilities such as anti-ship ballistic missiles and the addition of a new aircraft carrier (now undergoing sea trials) and have raised concerns with them in association with a Taiwan contingency, the increased largesse has also been reflected in modernization of other portions of the PLA.

This extends to the Guangzhou MR, which is believed to have responsibility for the South China Sea region. A portion of China’s Su-27 fighter fleet, for example, is believed to be assigned to the Guangzhou MR Air Force. The Guangzhou MR has also seen a steady growth in infrastructure, including submarine tunnels on Hainan Island, as well as an array of airbases. (Indeed, in the 2001 EP-3 incident, the U.S. aircraft made an emergency landing at one such base.) Other reports suggest that new rocket artillery systems have been deployed with some units in the Guangzhou MR.[4]

More worrisome, senior PLA commanders have hinted that the Guangzhou MR will have additional serious responsibilities and have praised its crisis-response capacities. In April, Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie praised the MR for its efforts at littoral defense and defense mobilization work. He then stated that the MR will play a leading role in future vital missions (zai zhongda renwu zhong dang jianbing, 在重大任务中当尖兵).[5]

In some ways, the Guangzhou MR is the central repository of China’s forced entry capabilities. Both of China’s two marine brigades are assigned to the South Sea Fleet, which is part of the Guangzhou MR. Similarly, the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) three airborne divisions are all believed to be based in the Guangzhou MR (but are controlled by the PLAAF, notthe MR).

American Responses

It is in the American interest to help keep the peace in this area, especially as the economic lifelines of such key allies as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all transit the waters. The loud statements of a U.S. “pivot” to Asia would seem to have provided an opportune moment for underscoring U.S. ability to maintain regional stability.

Yet despite claims by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that more than half of the U.S. Navy would be stationed in the western Pacific, the reality is far more thread-bare. Half the U.S. carrier fleet is currently centered on the Middle East,[6] Meanwhile, there is only one carrier currently assigned to the Seventh Fleet in the western Pacific.

And this is before further budget cuts hit.

Sequestration, with its imposition of another half-trillion dollars in additional cuts atop those already programmed, will clearly hollow out American ability to maintain substantial presence in the western Pacific. The budget slashes, made without regard to strategy, will affect every part of the U.S. military, from training and logistics to operations and maintenance to acquisition and R&D. The PLA can only hope for such opportunities.


  • Preserve American presence. As the ASEAN meetings amply demonstrated, China has the ability to pressure its smaller neighbors when there is no direct American countervailing pressure available. Unlike Europe, Asian diplomatic history is not one of balancing against hegemonic rise but of acquiescence. Without a substantial American presence, Asia is likely to fold its hand to China. But presence does not come cheaply—although many Asian allies provide substantial defrayal of costs.
  • Fully fund U.S. Navy acquisition. Presence requires tangible, physical capabilities. Nowhere is this more at risk than in the declining size of the U.S. Navy. The 286 ships of the current U.S. fleet is substantially below the 313 that Navy leadership says it requires to fulfill its current missions. Yet under sequestration, the fleet is likely to shrink to 230 ships—its lowest in over a century. When one also takes into consideration that a portion of that fleet is always in maintenance or rotation, the gap between reality and requirement becomes a yawning chasm.

A Perilous Flashpoint

The South China Sea is becoming an ever more perilous flashpoint as China increasingly asserts its control over the region and develops the means to back it up. Consequently, the U.S. needs to make clear that regional and global interests are at stake, that it remains committed to preserving the peace in this vital area, and—perhaps most importantly—that it will retain the capacity of its armed forces to do so.

Dean Cheng is Research Fellow in Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

South China Sea: Chinese, Philippine And Vietnamese Oil Tenders Escalate Tensions

China has given a go-ahead for its first major tender of oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea, close on the heels of Beijing establishing a military garrison on a disputed island in the waters.

China National Offshore Oil Corp., or CNOOC, a state oil giant, invited foreign companies in late June to bid on nine oil blocks in territories spread in 100,000 square miles of water, which are also claimed by Vietnam. Companies could decide whether to bid on the blocks until next June, Reuters reported.

China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea, including what is recognized by the U.N. as the exclusive economic zone of other neighbors, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei.

On July 23, China approved a military command to be based in Sansha City on Woody Island in the Paracels. The city was established June 21 in an area under the Chinese jurisdiction that is also claimed by Vietnam. The garrison was approved as 1,100 Chinese residents elected 45 legislators to the new city’s congress. The troops would be ”responsible for managing the city’s national defense mobilization, military reserves and carrying out military operations,” Xinhua news agency reported.

Vietnam’s state oil firm, Petrovietnam, has condemned Beijing’s oil exploration tender, calling it a “serious violation of international law” since the blocks lie well within the country’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. Hanoi called on energy firms to turn down the offer.

It was reported July 20 that India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp., or ONGC, would continue its oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, off the Vietnam coast, ignoring Chinese objection.

ONGC Videsh, the overseas arm of ONGC, accepted Vietnam’s proposal to continue investment in Block 128 after Hanoi offered additional data that would improve the economic feasibility and commercial viability of the Indian operations.

The plan to continue investment is a turnaround from ONGC’s decision in May to pull out from certain oil blocks citing “techno-commercial considerations” in Vietnamese waters, as the establishment seemed to be disinterested in continuing the project, which was not “economically viable.”

India’s decision to renew its contract with Vietnam is likely to strengthen the bilateral ties but has annoyed Beijing, which has always opposed Indian presence in the region.

“China must first insist on exerting political pressure over both India and Vietnam, warning them that their joint exploration in the South China Sea are illegal and violate China’s sovereignty,” a Chinese newspaper said Wednesday.

“If they conduct oil and gas exploration in waters under China’s sovereignty, China should give a strong response,” the Global Times wrote.

The Philippines Tuesday offered three blocks in South China Sea for bidding but received limited response for exploration rights signaling a lack of interest among foreign firms to get caught in the middle of the South China Sea dispute.

All three blocs off the coast of the western Philippine island of Palawan are part of Philippine territory, energy undersecretary Jose Layug has said, though China claims two of them.

CNOOC Chairman Wang Yilin said last month the tender was attracting interest from U.S. companies, without naming them.

“China does not have any well and oil production in the resource-rich mid-south area of the South China Sea, while other countries have produced more than 50 million tonnes of oil in the territory … that China claims,” Zhou Shouwei, a former vice president of CNOOC, said last month.


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