Brewing trouble in Asian waters

Posted on August 22, 2012


Chinese Navy is upgrading its submarines and combat vessels with latest air defence and anti-ship missile capabilities to “assume missions other than Taiwan

Although Americans wish to focus on the anemic economy and upcoming election, the wider world may intervene. Competing claims over sovereignty in the waters around China — the East China Sea and the South China Sea — threaten to transform from rhetoric into military conflict.

Territorial issues have became embroiled in partisan politics within many countries in the region, as leaders seek to bolster their domestic positions by taking a tough stand on issues related to national pride. Governments have engaged in provocative acts, such as sending warships into disputed waters, and have encouraged their citizens to escalate the conflict through protests.

Given the economic importance of the region and the United States’ security commitments to any countries around China, Americans should be worried.

It was not always like this. For much of the post-World War II era, countries of the region made claims to parts of the East and South China seas, but they lacked the military capability or interest in pressing claims aggressively. Ten years ago, China and its neighbors took a cooperative approach. The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by Southeast Asian nations and China in 2002, called for mutual consultation and confidence-building measures by all parties to the dispute. Japan, Taiwan, and China, which contested small islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkakus (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese), did not let competing claims hamper trade or diplomacy.

What has changed? China has become more powerful and assertive, and every country in the region needs the oil that may exist under those contested seas.

China’s growing economic and military power has bolstered its national pride and confidence. Beijing has increased its military budget by over 10 percent per year for well over a decade now, and many Chinese are eager to see their country treated as a great power. This attitude is clear in strident territorial claims in the waters around China. Nations stretching from Japan to Vietnam responded by reiterating that many of the tiny islands in the region (and the waters around them) belong to them. Many nations are increasing their own defense spending and enhancing military cooperation with the United States.

The possibility of oil under these seas only intensifies competition. China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, the nations most involved in the East and South China seas claims, rely on imported oil. Since 2009, China has been the world’s second largest market for imported oil (after the United States), followed closely by Japan. South Korea and Taiwan are also among the top 10 oil importing nations.

Over the past few months, China has upped the ante in the South China Sea. First, a series of Chinese vessels moved among islands claimed by the Philippines. Tensions grew when a Chinese frigate ran aground only 90 miles west of Palawan, the western-most island in the Philippines. Second, in late July Beijing announced that it will increase its military presence on small islands claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. Leaders of both countries fear domestic criticism if they do not take a strong stance on this issue, but they lack the military and economic clout to block China. Both countries seek to upgrade their military ties to the United States as a hedge against Beijing.

Most recently, Sino-Japanese conflict over the Senkakus, currently under the jurisdiction of Tokyo, heated up as Japanese and Chinese activists sought to bring attention to their nation’s claims. Supporters of China traveled to the islands and were arrested by Japanese authorities. Tokyo opted to quickly return the protesters, but that has done little to reduce tensions, as rallies in China included attacks on Japanese businesses. Some politicians in both countries sought to score points by talking tough. Perceptions that the Japanese have not acknowledged their aggression and atrocities during World War II only increase hostility toward Tokyo.

Given the heated nationalist passions that come with territorial claims, Americans should not delude themselves into thinking they can easily solve these problems. China is the key. Ideally, the Chinese government would tone down its statements and stop expanding its presence in the region. Beijing would build good-will by offering a freeze on efforts to build military outposts on disputed islands. That is not likely to occur.

The Obama administration has advocated multilateral negotiations even as it promises to build-up military might in the region to deter China. In an era of budget problems, however, increasing the American military commitment may not be practical. The United States must ensure that nations around China do not become “free riders” who expect Washington to bear the primary cost of protecting their interests. Instead, the United States should foster cooperation among the states around China and promote their economic prosperity. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement now under negotiation, could be one way to achieve these goals. Washington should also encourage multi-national efforts in oil exploration to create economic incentives for cooperation. Prosperous allies in East and Southeast Asia can deter China with less American commitment.

Steve Phillips

Taiwan and the South China Sea

Oh, dear. First I congratulate our Taiwanese friends on their deft use of soft power. Now I must take them to task for a bit of ill-considered South China Sea diplomacy. Asia Timesreports that James Chou, deputy director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently insisted that the region’s contested islands are “undisputed territory” of the Republic of China.

Chou was restating longstanding policy, as manifest in the “ninedashed line” enclosing most of the region’s waters. The much-discussed map containing the nine-dashed line originated not with the Chinese Communist Party but with the Nationalist government headed by Chiang Kai-shek. The ROC published it in the late 1940s, shortly before decamping to Taiwan. That the islands represent undisputed Taiwanese property is untrue on its face. Several South China Sea governments—including Beijing, of course—unabashedly dispute it.

But more importantly, Chou’s words needlessly call attention to the chasm between Taiwan’s power and ambitions. The ROC armed forces have their hands full trying to defend Formosa proper. Their capacity to hold faraway real estate like Taiping Island—let alone the remainder of Taipei’s extravagant claims—is doubtful in the extreme. Speaking loudly with no big stick to swing amounts to “monstrous imprudence,” aspundit Walter Lippmann put it seven decades ago. Better to remain silent than advertise one’s shortcomings.

Let’s review Taiping’s 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. Taipei has duly outfitted it with one and is contemplating extending the runway to accommodate larger aircraft. 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. Mahan extolled Jamaica as a naval base but pointed out that nearby Cuba overshadowed it. A fleet based in Cuba could sever sea communications between Jamaica and the Atlantic Ocean. Only a dominant fleet stationed in Jamaica, then, could break an enemy blockade and tap the island’s full potential.

Similarly, only dominant naval and air forces can impart value to Taiping. Beijing could make good use of it; Taipei, not so much.

James R. Holmes

Five Nations Claim Disputed Island Chains

Rival Claims 

China’s recent establishment of Sansha city, an administrative municipality based on three islands in the South China Sea, has led to increasing tensions in recent weeks over which of six different governments has a legitimate claim to all or parts of the Spratly and Paracel island chains.

The islands and their surrounding waters, uninhabited except for a few troops meant to establish claims to the territory, are rich in natural resources and home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, making them attractive real estate.

But among the governments of China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, which claims are the most valid? What are those claims based on?

China claims all of the islands, saying that for more than 2,000 years, the Chinese people have considered the islands as part of their nation. Beijing also points to a 1947 political map drawn up by the then-Nationalist Kuomintang government that marks all of the islands as its territory.

Vietnam also claims the islands on a historic basis, saying it has occupied the islands at least since the 17th century, before any nation had declared sovereignty over them, giving it a rightful claim to the territory. It points to an 1838 Vietnamese map showing the islands as part of its territory.

But the three other nations – plus Taiwan – each claim parts of the territory based on what is known as UNCLOS, or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which says nations can claim an Exclusive Economic Zone extending 200 nautical miles into the waters surrounding their coastlines. They may also make further claims based on the continental shelf extending from their shores.

Law of the Sea

Dr. Suzette Suarez, director of the Center for International Ocean Law, notes that determining title to a territory is anchored on two factors. “There must be an intentional display of power and effective control, and the exercise of state functions must be peaceful and continuous,” says Suarez.  She says that under UNCLOS, China’s claim doesn’t have any standing, because many features within the line haven’t been continuously occupied and not all of the line is adjacent to a land feature.


After a series of recent clashes between naval vessels and fishermen over fishing rights in the disputed territories, there has been some worry about the possibility of a violent confrontation and further escalation involving China and other claimant states.

One expert at the Council on Foreign Relations was quick to respond to fears that the dispute may spiral out of control. Southeast Asia expert Joshua Kurlantzick notes, “I think it’s likely to escalate, but that violent conflict is unlikely. China is quite pragmatic.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department took the unusual step of weighing in on the matter, issuing a statement encouraging the claimants to work out a long-delayed code of conduct on the region in negotiations between China and the regional bloc Association of South East Asian Nations.

Some observers say Beijing does not want the 10-member bloc to unify on the matter because China would rather deal with its smaller rival claimants separately.  China says such allegations are Western attempts to stoke mistrust and enmity between China and its neighbors.

If history is any indicator, rival territorial claims in the South China Sea are likely to last far into the future. But at least for the moment, the area is at an uneasy peace.


Posted in: Economy, Politics