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China builds new military facilities on South China Sea islands: think tank | Reuters

30 June 2017

Summary:
  • China suspected of building new military facilities on islands in the South China Sea, following U.S. think tank report.
  • Satellite images show missile shelters and radar and communications facilities.
  • U.S. express concerns that this could impact trade.

DigitalGlobe | Getty Images
DigitalGlobe imagery of the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group

China has built new military facilities on islands in the South China Sea, a U.S. think tank reported on Thursday, a move that could raise tensions with Washington, which has accused Beijing of militarizing the vital waterway.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said new satellite images show missile shelters and radar and communications facilities being built on the Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands.

The United States has criticized China’s build-up of military facilities on the artificial islands and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement through the South China Sea, an important trade route.

Last month, a U.S. Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in a so-called freedom of navigation operation, the first such challenge to Beijing’s claim to most of the waterway since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

China has denied U.S. charges that it is militarizing the sea, which also is claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Chinese soldiers march past Tiananmen Square

Kevin Frayer | Getty Images
Chinese soldiers march past Tiananmen Square

Trump has sought China’s help in reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and tension between Washington and Beijing over military installations in the South China Sea could complicate those efforts.

China has built four new missile shelters on Fiery Cross Reef to go with the eight already on the artificial island, AMTI said. Mischief and Subi each have eight shelters, the think tank said in a previous report.

In February, Reuters reported that China had nearly finished building structures to house long-range surface-to-air missiles on the three islands.

On Mischief Reef, a very large antennae array is being installed that presumably boosts Beijing’s ability to monitor the surroundings, the think tank said, adding that the installation should be of concern to the Philippines due to its proximity to an area claimed by Manila.

A large dome recently was installed on Fiery Cross and another is under construction, indicating a sizeable communications or radar system, AMTI said.

Two more domes are being built at Mischief Reef, it said.

A smaller dome has been installed near the missile shelters on Mischief, “indicating that it could be connected to radars for any missile systems that might be housed there,” AMTI said.

“Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time,” it said.

 (This article is originally published on CNBC

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[Tension] China Cancels Military Meeting With Vietnam Over Territorial Dispute – by Mike Ives | New York Times

21 June 2017

by Mike Ives | New York Times – HONG KONG — State-run newspapers in Vietnam and China reported in recent days that senior military officials from the two countries would hold a fence-mending gathering along a border where their militaries fought a brief but bloody war in 1979.

One of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. A Chinese delegation unexpectedly cut short a trip to Vietnam 
after tempers flared during a closed-door discussion on disputed territories in the region. 
Credit Francis R. Malasig/European Pressphoto Agency

But Tuesday, the scheduled start of the gathering, came and went without any of the coverage in the state news media that readers in the two countries had expected. The Chinese Defense Ministry later said in a terse statement that it had canceled the event “for reasons related to working arrangements.”

Analysts, citing government sources, said that the Chinese delegation had unexpectedly cut short a trip to Vietnam after tempers flared during a closed-door discussion on disputed territories in the South China Sea.

The cancellation is highly unusual for the two Communist neighbors, and it comes as Beijing continues to build artificial islands in the South China Sea, where the Chinese seek to expand their military influence at a time of uncertainty over President Trump’s policies in the region.

“This was not what the Vietnamese expected from a polite guest,” said Alexander L. Vuving, a Vietnam specialist at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

“You can say both sides miscalculated,” he added. But another interpretation is that both countries are “very committed to showing the other their own resolve” on matters of territorial sovereignty.

The dispute happened during a visit to Hanoi this week by Gen. Fan Changlong of China. It was unclear what precisely roiled his meeting with Vietnamese officials, much less whether the general’s actions had been planned.

Analysts said he appeared to have been angry over Vietnam’s recent efforts to promote strategic cooperation with the United States and Japan. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc recently visited those two countries in quick succession, and the Vietnamese and Japanese coast guards conducted joint drills in the South China Sea last week focused on preventing illegal fishing.

Another reason, analysts said, could be Vietnam’s apparent refusal to abandon oil and gas exploration in areas of the South China Sea that both it and Beijing claim.

Mr. Vuving said a specific source of the dispute may have been the so-called Blue Whale project, a gas-drilling venture in the South China Sea by Vietnam’s state oil company, PetroVietnam, and Exxon Mobil. The companies signed an agreement during a January trip to Hanoi by John Kerry, the secretary of the state at the time.

The drilling site, which is expected to produce gas for power generation by 2023, is close to the disputed Paracel Islands and near the “nine dash line” that shows expansive territorial claims on Chinese maps. Mr. Vuving said that China probably resents that Vietnam has formed a partnership with an American oil company, particularly one whose previous chief executive, Rex W. Tillerson, is Mr. Trump’s secretary of state.

The project appears to set a “very damaging precedent for China’s strategy in the South China Sea,” Mr. Vuving said.

The Chinese and Vietnamese Foreign Ministries did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday, and an Exxon Mobil spokeswoman in Singapore could not be reached for comment.

Other analysts said that the source of tension may have been Vietnam’s recent decision to resume oil exploration in another disputed part of the South China Sea.

Carl Thayer, a longtime analyst of the Vietnamese military and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said that if General Fan had indeed asked Vietnam to cease oil exploration in that area, Vietnam would have considered the request “inflammatory”; it would have implied Chinese territorial control in the Exclusive Economic Zone off the Vietnamese coast.

“Vietnam’s leaders would have refused this request and responded by reasserting Vietnam’s sovereignty,” Mr. Thayer said in an email to reporters and diplomats.

There were unconfirmed reports on Wednesday that China had recently deployed 40 vessels and several military transport aircraft to the area. Vietnam accused Chinese ships of cutting the cables of one of its seismic survey vessels there in 2011.

Though China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and a longtime ideological ally, the neighbors have long been at odds over competing claims to rocks, islands and offshore oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea.

Tensions came to a head in 2014, when a state-run Chinese company towed an oil rig near the Paracel Islands and within about 120 nautical miles of Vietnam. No one was killed at sea, but a maritime standoff led to anti-China riots near foreign-invested factories in central and southern Vietnam, bringing relations between the countries to their lowest point in years.

A few days before General Fan’s Hanoi visit, Mr. Vuving said, China moved the same oil rig to a position in the South China Sea that is near the midway point between the Chinese and Vietnamese coasts, apparently seeking to pressure Vietnam to cease oil and gas exploration in disputed waters. Data from myship.com, a website affiliated with the Chinese Transport Ministry, showed that the rig has been about 70 nautical miles south of China and 120 nautical miles northeast of Vietnam over the past week.

The first fence-mending gathering, called the Vietnam-China Border Defense Friendship Exchange Program, took place in 2014 and was intended to promote bilateral trust. The meeting this week was expected to include a drill on fighting cross-border crime.

Xu Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing who specializes in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, said that the countries were expected to disagree over territorial claims in the South China Sea. But they have established frameworks to defuse disagreements through government channels as well as through the two countries’ Communist parties, he added.

In the end, the two countries “will come out and resolve this problem since both want stability,” Mr. Xu said.

Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the Iseas Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, agreed with that conclusion, but warned that new tensions could emerge in the short term. China appears increasingly eager to stop Vietnam from growing too close to Japan and the United States, he said.

“As Vietnam tries to achieve its economic growth targets, it is planning to exploit more oil from the South China Sea,” Mr. Hiep wrote in an email. “As such, the chance for confrontation at sea may also increase.”

(This article is originally published at The New York Times)

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South China Sea disputes: A review of ASEAN’s critical roles – Khuong Nguyen & Tri Vo | SEAS Issues

31 May 2017

Editorial Board: After years of efforts, May 18, China and ASEAN annonced an agreement on a draft framework for the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea disputes. Experts observed the limited basic elements of the COC without any constraint-based rules in this draft. SEAS Issues presents a review by Prof. Khuong Nguyen and Dr. Tri Vo on ASEAN’s roles in the dispute settlement.

by Khuong Nguyen & Tri Vo | SEAS Issues – The South China Sea (Bien Dong or East Sea in Vietnamese/Western Sea in the Philippines) is situated in the Pacific Ocean, covering an area of 3,448,000 square kilometres. It is surrounded by 9 countries (including China, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam) and a territory (Taiwan). The South China Sea has an important geopolitical location, and carries strategic importance in terms of politics, economics, maritime transport, environment, national security and defence not only for the contiguous nations in the Asia-Pacific but also for the rest of the world. The South China Sea has rich and diverse natural resources, enabling life activities and economic development, especially fishery resources, mineral resources and tourism potential. The South China Sea lies on the arterial route linking the Pacific Ocean – the Indian Ocean – Europe – Asia – the Middle East. Cargo traffic through the South China Sea accounts for 45% of the total value of shipping worldwide. In accordance with international law, the South China Sea is part of the national defence strategy of a number of coastal nations in particular and of ASEAN, with an aim to avoid acts that threaten security and ensure the general stability in the region and worldwide.

In order to ensure harmonization of interests and build a united, solidary group promoting regional development programs, ASEAN has been taking steps to play a role in solving disagreements among nations in the South China Sea.

The first official declaration by ASEAN on the South China Sea issue entitled “1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea” was a milestone marking ASEAN’s interest. Since then, the South China Sea issue has become a central theme in ASEAN’s agenda, such as the development of values and customs, maritime security, defence cooperation and conflict prevention. The South China Sea is a key topic for ASEAN to engage in regional security dialogues with other countries such as the United States, Japan and India, and key terms such as “maritime security” and “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS) has been appeared several times in related official statements.

The South China Sea theme has become an important part of the dialogues and consultations between ASEAN and China. In 1996, ASEAN issued a communiqué endorsed “a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea which will lay the foundation for lone term stability in the area and foster understanding among claimant countries”. But China refused a such legal-based document with the reason that China and ASEAN has signed already “ASEAN-China Cooperation Towards the 21st Century“. In 2002, with determination and effort between ASEAN and China, the two sides agreed to sign the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea”, abbreviated as the DOC. This was the most significant agreement that ASEAN and China have reached regarding the South China Sea, and it is considered as a breakthrough in ASEAN-China relations which contributes significantly to the maintenance of peace and stability in the area.

In 2010, as a rotating Chairman of ASEAN, a country with direct disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnam and other countries issued a joint declaration containing 56 points on all areas of cooperation, which mentioned the declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

In 2012, ASEAN made its own declaration on 6 points about the South China Sea issue: (i) Fully implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea; (ii) Propose guidelines for the implementation of the DOC 2011; (iii) Soon achieve the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea – COC; (iv) Fully respect the fundamental principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); (v) All parties continue to control themselves and not to use violence; (vi) Peacefully settle disputes on the basis of the fundamental principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In 2015, at the annual ASEAN Summit in Malaysia, in addition to the dialogues and regional cooperation centred on ASEAN, the South China Sea issue was also a subject that ASEAN Ministers of Foreign Affairs paid special attention to. In 2017 in the Philippines, the issue of the South China Sea was mentioned in a joint announcement in view of the militarization and development in the area. At the same time, the Philippine ASEAN Chairman pledged that maritime disputes, the drafting of the Code of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea (COC), would be discussed at the ASEAN summit and between ASEAN and China.

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Heads of the delegations to the 16th ASEAN Summit, opened in Hà Nội on April 8, 2010, stand for a group photo – Photo: VGP/Nhật Bắc

Regarding the South China Sea and China – the South East Asia countries Relations: Disputes over sovereignty over the South China Sea, including disputes over the islands and waters, occurred after World War II. Initially, countries disputed over the strategic position of the South China Sea. After the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 provided for “Special Economic Zones”, the importance of resource extraction, particularly fishing and oil and gas extraction became additional reasons for disputes over sovereignty.

The South China Sea dispute critically escalated when China brought the HD-981 rig and more than 80 escorts into Vietnam’s Special Economic Zone in May 2014. Since then, China has stepped up its activities, expressing the desire to dominate almost the entire South China Sea. This is shown by the fact that China has declared the ownership of the “Nine Dash Line” which claims almost 80% of the South China Sea area, built and renovated islands, including submerged islands, floating islands, built infrastructures, airport runway, seaports for Chinese fishing vessels, formed the administrative unit of the so-called “Sansha city”, organized tourism activities to visit the illegally occupied islands, regulated the area fishery ban on other countries, and has been ready to confront, pick fight with other fishing vessels in the area. The acts of China have created tension throughout the region, with strong backlashes from the countries that are directly in disputes and the international community.

The northern section of China’s outpost on Cuarteron Reef, as of January 24, 2016 (Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, https://amti.csis.org/another-piece-of-the-puzzle/)

In relations with ASEAN, China has sought to put pressure on ASEAN to avoid the regional cooperation against them. In fact, in recent years, China has stepped up its policy of improving bilateral relations with ASEAN countries to ease tensions in the South China Sea. At the same time, it used its economic power by committing major economic investment and projects to exert pressure on the countries with less benefits in the South China Sea, to cause conflicts between internal ASEAN members on the issue of the South China Sea, as well as to avoid mentioning the South China Sea issue in ASEAN’s annual statement.

In the face of escalating tensions, the disputed Southeast Asian nations have relied on ASEAN as a mediator to resolve disputes between China and its member countries. The agreements between ASEAN and China include the commitments to inform each other of any military action in the disputed area, and to avoid building new infrastructures on the islands. China and ASEAN also conducted negotiations to create a code of conduct with an aim to ease tensions over the disputed islands, and to unite the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). ASEAN and China has been made joint efforts to formulate a framework for the Code of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea (COC).

Despite its efforts, the role of ASEAN in addressing the South China Sea issue seems limited, with the lack of unity between some countries on viewpoints as well actions due to differing national interests. Nevertheless, over the past years, ASEAN has been actively participating in addressing the tensions in the South China Sea, contributing to safeguard the overall interests of the region, building solidarity and strengthening mutual trust in ASEAN.

Khuong Nguyen and Tri Vo are members of the Association of Vietnamese Scientists and Experts (AVSE) and BDTP research group, which are both non-for-profit organizations. The ideas expressed in this article are entirely those of the authors. They do not necessarily represent the views of their affiliated organizations.

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 Is Trump Headed for a War With China? – Rajan Menon | The Nation

13 February 2017

by Rajan Menon | The Nation (New York/US) The brewing conflict in the South China Sea could become the next Cuban missile crisis.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks after his swearing-in ceremony, accompanied by Donald Trump in the Oval Office, February 1, 2017. (Reuters / Carlos Barria)

Forget those “bad hombres down there” in Mexico that US troops might take out. Ignore the way National Security Adviser Michael Flynn put Iran “on notice” and the new president insisted, that, when it comes to that country, “nothing is off the table.” Instead, focus for a moment on something truly scary: the possibility that Donald Trump’s Washington might slide into an actual war with the planet’s rising superpower, China. No kidding. It could really happen.

Let’s start with silver-maned, stately Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state. Who could deny that the former ExxonMobil CEO has a foreign minister’s bearing? Trump reportedly chose him over neocon firebrand John Bolton partly for that reason. (Among other things, Bolton was mustachioed, something the new president apparently doesn’t care for.) But an august persona can only do so much; it can’t offset a lack of professional diplomatic experience.

That became all-too-apparent during Tillerson’s January 11 confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was asked for his view on the military infrastructure China has been creating on various islands in the South China Sea, the ownership of which other Asian countries, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei claim as well. China’s actions, he replied, were “extremely worrisome,” likening them to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, an infraction for which Russia was slapped with economic sanctions.

The then-nominee for secretary of state—he’s since been confirmed, despite many negative votes—didn’t, however, stop there. Evidently, he wanted to communicate to the Chinese leadership in Beijing that the new administration was already irked beyond measure with them. So he added, “We’re going to have to send China’s leaders a clear signal: that, first, the island building stops and, second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.” Functionally, that fell little short of being an announcement of a future act of war, since not allowing “access” to those islands would clearly involve military moves. In what amounted to a there’s-a-new-sheriff-in-town warning, he then doubled down yet again, insisting, slightly incoherently (in the tradition of his new boss), that “the failure of a response has allowed them to just keep pushing the envelope on this.”

All right, so maybe a novice had a bad day. Maybe the secretary-of-state-to-be simply ad-libbed and misspoke… whatever. If so, you might have expected a later clarification from him or from someone on the Trump national-security team anyway.

That didn’t happen; instead, that team stuck to its guns. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made no effort to add nuance to, let alone walk back, Tillerson’s remarks. During his first official press briefing on January 23, Spicer declared that the United States “is going to make sure we defend our interests there”—in the South China Sea, that is—and that “if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yes, we are going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”

And what of Trump’s own views on the island controversy? Never one to pass up an opportunity for hyperbole, during the presidential campaign he swore that, on those tiny islands, China was building “a military fortress the likes of which the world has not seen.” As it happened, he wasn’t speaking about, say, the forces that Hitler massed for the ill-fated Operation Barbarossa, launched in June 1941 with the aim of crushing the Red Army and the Soviet Union, or those deployed for the June 1944 Normandy landing, which sealed Nazi Germany’s fate. When applied to what China has been up to in the South China Sea, his statement fell instantly into the not-yet-named category of “alternative facts.”

Candidate Trump also let it be known that he wouldn’t allow Beijing to get away with such cheekiness on his watch. Why had the Chinese engaged in military construction on the islands? Trump had a simple answer (as he invariably does): China “has no respect for our president and no respect for our country.” The implication was evident. Things would be different once he settled into the White House and made America great again. Then—it was easy enough to conclude—China had better watch out.

Standard campaign bombast? Well, Trump hasn’t changed his tune a bit since being elected. On December 4, using (of course!) his Twitter account, he blasted Beijing for having built “a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.” And it’s safe to assume that he signed off on Spicer’s combative comments as well.

In short, his administration has already drawn a red line—but in the way a petulant child might with a crayon. During and after the campaign he made much of his determination to regain the respect he claims the United States has lost in the world, notably from adversaries like China. The danger here is that, in dealing with that country, Trump could, as is typical, make it all about himself, all about “winning,” one of his most beloved words, and disaster might follow.

WHOSE ISLANDS?

A military clash between Trump-led America and a China led by President Xi Jinping? Understanding how it might happen requires a brief detour to the place where it’s most likely to occur: the South China Sea. Our first task: to understand China’s position on that body of water and the islands it contains, as well as the nature of Beijing’s military projects there. So brace yourself for some necessary detail.

As Marina Tsirbas, a former diplomat now at the Australian National University’s National Security College, explains, Beijing’s written and verbal statements on the South China Sea lend themselves to two different interpretations. The Chinese government’s position boils down to something like this: “We own everything—the waters, islands and reefs, marine resources, and energy and mineral deposits—within the Nine-Dash Line.” That demarcation line, which incidentally has had 10 dashes, and sometimes 11, originally appeared in 1947 maps of the Republic of China, the Nationalist government that would soon flee to the island of Taiwan leaving the Chinese Communists in charge of the mainland. When Mao Ze Dong and his associates established the People’s Republic, they retained that Nationalist map and the demarcation line that went with it, which just happened to enclose virtually all of the South China Sea, claiming sovereign rights.

This stance—think of it as Beijing’s hard line on the subject—raises instant questions about other countries’ navigation and overflight rights through that much-used region. In essence, do they have any and, if so, will Beijing alone be the one to define what those are? And will those definitions start to change as China becomes ever more powerful? These are hardly trivial concerns, given that about $5 trillion worth of goods pass through the South China Sea annually.

Then there’s what might be called Beijing’s softer line, based on rights accorded by the legal concepts of the territorial sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which took effect in 1994 and has been signed by 167 states (including China but not the United States), a country has sovereign control within 12 nautical miles of its coast as well as of land formations in that perimeter visible at high tide. But other countries have the right of “innocent passage.” The EEZ goes further. It provides a rightful claimant control over access to fishing, as well as seabed and subsoil natural resources, within “an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea” extending 200 nautical miles, while ensuring other states’ freedom of passage by air and sea. UNCLOS also gives a state with an EEZ control over “the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations, and structures” within that zone—an important provision at our present moment.

What makes all of this so much more complicated is that many of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea that provide the basis for defining China’s EEZ are also claimed by other countries under the terms of UNCLOS. That, of course, immediately raises questions about the legality of Beijing’s military construction projects in that watery expanse on islands, atolls, and strips of land it’s dredging into existence, as well as its claims to seabed energy resources, fishing rights, and land reclamation rights there—to say nothing about its willingness to seize some of them by force, rival claims be damned.

Moreover, figuring out which of these two positions—hard or soft—China embraces at any moment is tricky indeed. Beijing, for instance, insists that it upholds freedom of navigation and overflight rights in the Sea, but it has also said that these rights don’t apply to warships and military aircraft. In recent years its warplanes have intercepted, and at close quarters, American military aircraft flying outside Chinese territorial waters in the same region. Similarly, in 2015, Chinese aircraft and ships followed and issued warnings to an American warship off Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, which both China and Vietnam claim in their entirety. This past December, its Navy seized, but later returned, an underwater drone the American naval ship Bowditch had been operating near the coast of the Philippines.

There were similar incidents in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2013, and 2014. In the second of these episodes, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane, which had a crew of 24 on board, less than 70 miles off Hainan island, forcing it to make an emergency landing in China and creating a tense standoff between Beijing and Washington. The Chinese detained the crew for 11 days. They disassembled the EP-3, returning it three months later in pieces.

Such muscle flexing in the South China Sea isn’t new. China has long been tough on its weaker neighbors in those waters. Back in 1974, for instance, its forces ejected South Vietnamese troops from parts of the Paracel/Xisha islands that Beijing claimed but did not yet control. China has also backed up its claim to the Spratly/Nansha islands (which Taiwan, Vietnam, and other regional countries reject) with air and naval patrols, tough talk, and more. In 1988, it forcibly occupied the Vietnamese-controlled Johnson Reef, securing control over the first of what would eventually become seven possessions in the Spratlys.

Vietnam has not been the only Southeast Asian country to receive such rough treatment. China and the Philippines both claim ownership of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal/Huangyang Island, located 124 nautical miles off Luzon Island in the Philippines. In 2012, Beijing simply seized it, having already ejected Manila from Panganiban Reef (aka Mischief Reef), about 129 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Palawan Island, in 1995. In 2016, when an international arbitration tribunal upheld Manila’s position on Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sniffedthat “the decision is invalid and has no binding force.” Chinese president Xi Jinping added for good measure that China’s claims to the South China Sea stretched back to “ancient times.”

Then there’s China’s military construction work in the area, which includes the building of full-scale artificial islands, as well as harbors, military airfields, storage facilities, and hangars reinforced to protect military aircraft. In addition, the Chinese have installed radar systems, anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-missile defense systems on some of these islands.

Thesethen, are the projects that the Trump administration says it will stop. But China’s conduct in the South China Sea leaves little doubt about its determination to hold onto what it has and continue its activities. The Chinese leadership has made this clear since Donald Trump’s election, and the state-run press has struck a similarly defiant note, drawing crude red lines of its own. For example, the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper, mocked Trump’s pretensions and issued a doomsday warning: “The US has no absolute power to dominate the South China Sea. Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories.”

Were the administration to follow its threatening talk with military action, the Global Times added ominously, “The two sides had better prepare for a military clash.” Although the Chinese leadership hasn’t been anywhere near as bombastic, top officials have made it clear that they won’t yield an inch on the South China Sea, that disputes over territories are matters for China and its neighbors to settle, and that Washington had best butt out.

True, as the acolytes of a “unipolar” world remind us, China’s military spending amounts to barely more than a quarter of Washington’s and US naval and air forces are far more advanced and lethal than their Chinese equivalents. However, although there certainly is a debate about the legal validity and historical accuracy of China’s territorial claims, given the increasingly acrimonious relationship between Washington and Beijing the more strategically salient point may be that these territories, thousands of miles from the US mainland, mean so much more to China than they do to the United States. By now, they are inextricably bound up with its national identity and pride, and with powerful historical and nationalistic memories—with, that is, a sense that, after nearly two centuries of humiliation at the hands of the West, China is now a rising global power that can no longer be pushed around.

Behind such sentiments lies steel. By buying some $30 billion in advanced Russian armaments since the early 1990s and developing the capacity to build advanced weaponry of its own, China has methodically acquired the military means, and devised a strategy, to inflict serious losses on the American navy in any clash in the South China Sea, where geography serves as its ally. Beijing may, in the end, lose a showdown there, but rest assured that it would exact a heavy price before that. What sort of “victory” would that be?

If the fighting starts, it will be tough for the presidents of either country to back down. Xi Jinping, like Trump, presents himself as a tough guy, sure to trounce his enemies at home and abroad. Retaining that image requires that he not bend when it comes to defending China’s land and honor. He faces another problem as well. Nationalism long ago sidelined Maoism in his country. As a result, were he and his colleagues to appear pusillanimous in the face of a Trumpian challenge, they would risk losing their legitimacy and potentially bringing their people onto the streets (something that can happen quickly in the age of social media). That’s a particularly forbidding thought in what is arguably the most rebellious land in the historical record. In such circumstances, the leadership’s abiding conviction that it can calibrate the public’s nationalism to serve the Communist Party’s purposes without letting it get out of hand may prove delusional.

Certainly, the Party understands the danger that runaway nationalism could pose to its authority. Its paper, the People’s Daily, condemned the “irrational patriotism” that manifested itself in social media forums and street protests after the recent international tribunal’s verdict favoring the Philippines. And that’s hardly the first time a foreign-policy fracas has excited public passions. Think, for example, of the anti-Japanese demonstrations that swept the country in 2005, provoked by Japanese school textbooks that sanitized that country’s World War II–era atrocities in China. Those protests spread to many cities, and the numbers were sizeable with more than 10,000 angry demonstrators on the streets of Shanghai alone. At first, the leadership encouraged the rallies, but it got nervous as things started to spin out of control.

“WE’RE GOING TO WAR IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA…”

Facing off against China, President Trump could find himself in a similar predicament, having so emphasized his toughness, his determination to regain America’s lost respect and make the country great again. The bigger problem, however, will undoubtedly be his own narcissism and his obsession with winning, not to mention his inability to resist sending incendiary messages via Twitter. Just try to imagine for a moment how a president who blows his stack during a getting-to-know-you phone call with the prime minister of Australia, a close ally, is likely to conduct himself in a confrontation with a country he’s labeled a prime adversary.

In the event of a military crisis between China and the United States, neither side may want an escalation, to say nothing of a nuclear war. Yet Trump’s threats to impose 45 percent tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States and his repeated condemnation of China as a “currency manipulator” and stealer of American jobs have already produced a poisonous atmosphere between the world’s two most powerful countries. And it was made worse by his December phone conversation with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, which created doubts about his commitment to the One China policy the United States has adhered to since 1972. The Chinese authorities apparently made it clear to the White House that there couldn’t even be a first-time phone call to Xi unless the new president agreed to stick with that policy. During a conversation with the Chinese president on February 9, Trump reportedly provided that essential assurance. Given the new American president’s volatility, however, Beijing will be playing close attention to his words and actions, even his symbolic ones, related to Taiwan.

Sooner or later, if Trump doesn’t also dial down the rest of his rhetoric on China, its leaders will surely ratchet up theirs, thereby aggravating the situation further. So far, they’ve restrained themselves in order to figure Trump out—not an easy task even for Americans—and in hopes that his present way of dealing with the world might be replaced with something more conventional and recognizable. Hope, as they say, springs eternal, but as of now, in repeatedly insisting that China must do as he says, Trump and his surrogates have inserted themselves and the country into a complicated territorial dispute far from America’s shores. Washington’s hubris in acting as the keeper of world order but regularly breaking the rules as it wishes, whether by invading Iraq in 2003 or making open use of torture and a global network of secret prisons, is an aspect of American behavior long obvious to foreign powers. It looks to be the essence of Trumpism, too, even if its roots are old indeed.

Don’t dismiss the importance of heated exchanges between Washington and Beijing in the wake of Trump’s election. The political atmosphere between rival powers, especially those with massive arsenals, can matter a great deal when they face off in a crisis. Pernicious stereotypes and mutual mistrust only increase the odds that crucial information will be misinterpreted in the heat of the moment because of entrenched beliefs that are immune to contrary evidence, misperceptions, worst-case calculations, and up-the-ante reactions. In academic jargon, these constitute the ingredients for a classic conflict spiral. In such a situation, events take control of leaders, producing outcomes that none of them sought. Not for nothing during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 did President John Kennedy look to Barbara Tuchman’s book, Guns of August—a gripping account of how Europe slipped and slid into a disastrous world war in 1914.

There has been lots of anxiety about the malign effects that Donald Trump’s temperament and beliefs could have domestically, and for good reason. But in domestic politics, institutions and laws, civic organizations, the press, and public protests can serve, however imperfectly, as countervailing forces. In international politics, crises can erupt suddenly and unfold rapidly—and the checks on rash behavior by American presidents are much weaker. They have considerable leeway to use military force (having repeatedly circumvented the War Powers Act). They can manipulate public opinion from the bully pulpit and shape the flow of information. (Think back to the Iraq war.) Congress typically rallies reflexively around the flag during international crises. In such moments, citizens’ criticism or mass protest invites charges of disloyalty.

This is why the brewing conflict in the South China Sea and rising animosities on both sides could produce something resembling a Cuban missile crisis–style situation—with the United States lacking the geographical advantage this time around. If you think that a war between China and the United States couldn’t possibly happen, you might have a point in ordinary times, which these distinctly aren’t.

Take the latest news on Stephen Bannon, formerly the executive chairman of the alt-right publication Breitbart News and now President Trump’s chief political strategist. He has even been granted the right to sit in on every meeting of the National Security Council and its Principals Committee, the highest inter-agency forum for day-to-day national security deliberations. He will be privy to meetings that, according to a directive signed by Trump, even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence may not join unless “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise will be discussed.” Calling this a break with past practice would be an understatement of the first order.

So Bannon’s views, once of interest only to a fringe group of Americans, now matter greatly. Here’s what he said last March about China in a radio interview: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we? There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face—and you understand how important face is—and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.”

Think of this as Bannon’s version of apocalyptic prophecy. Then consider the volatility of the new president he advises. Then focus on the larger message: These are not ordinary times. Most Americans probably don’t even know that there is a South China Sea. Count on one thing, though: They will soon.

(Original version is available at The Nation)

 

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How America Can Take Control in the South China Sea – by Alexander L. Vuving | Foreign Policy

13 February 2017

by Alexander L. Vuving | Foreign Policy – A simple playbook to prove China is all bark and no bite over its disputed islands. 

Photo Credit: TED ALJIBE/ Staff

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.”

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating also reacted angrily, saying: “When the U.S. secretary of state-designate threatens to involve Australia in war with China, the Australian people need to take note. That is the only way Rex Tillerson’s testimony that a ‘signal’ should be sent to China that ‘access to these islands is not going to be allowed’ and that U.S. allies in the region should be there ‘to show backup’ can be read.” From Beijing to Sydney, a consensus formed — Tillerson’s position has no basis in international law, is tantamount to an act of war, and does not make strategic sense. In short, opponents argue, the posture the new U.S. secretary of state proposed is legally baseless, politically dangerous, and practically ineffectual.

This consensus rests on the belief that China is both willing and able to go to war over serious provocation. But this misreads Tillerson’s proposal and misunderstands the complex realities of the South China Sea. A naval blockade is not the only way to achieve Tillerson’s objectives, and China has a large stake in avoiding war with the United States in the region.

To see this, we need to use a “whole of capabilities” lens that is less U.S.-centric. From this perspective, Tillerson’s suggestion would not boil down to a military blockade as most commentators assume. Instead, the United States and its partners potentially have at their disposal a full spectrum of actions including diplomatic negotiations and economic sanctions and kinetic constraints that, directly or indirectly, can prevent further island building and Chinese militarization of those islands.

One such action is targeted sanctions against individuals and companies that support, facilitate, or participate in Beijing’s illegitimate operations in the South China Sea. The bill introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio last December exemplifies this approach. It would impose asset freezes and travel bans on people and entities who “contribute to construction or development projects” in the contested areas and those who “threaten the peace, security or stability” of the South China Sea or East China Sea. It would also prohibit actions that may imply American recognition of Chinese sovereignty over the contested areas in these seas and restrict foreign assistance to countries that recognize China’s sovereignty there. These primary sanctions could be augmented by secondary sanctions against those who do business with the offenders. The Rubio bill may or may not be adopted, but targeted sanctions remain an important tool to indirectly cause changes in China’s behavior.

A more direct option would be for the United States and its partners to borrow a page from China’s own playbook and emulate its “cabbage” tactic in denying Beijing’s access to the South China Sea islands. The cabbage tactic consists of wrapping contested islands in multiple layers of Chinese military and paramilitary power. Like the Chinese cabbage, the anti-China cabbage would also have three layers, surrounding the targeted islands with private civilian boats in the inner circle, followed by law enforcement vessels in the outer circle, all protected by warships over the horizon.

The anti-China coalition couldn’t match China’s use of paramilitary maritime militias in such operations. But it could invite civilian volunteers to man the first line of defense. Rather than shooting down Chinese aircraft and mining Chinese ports, the coalition can use drones — both unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles — launched from civilian and coast guard ships to seal off the entry to China’s airstrips and harbors on the fake islands.

Contrary to common belief, these actions can be fully consistent with international law. 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).

But the court does not possess the tools to enforce its rulings, so it’s up to the members of the international community to act on behalf of the common interest and to induce China to comply with its obligations. Fortunately, international law allows countries to conduct countermeasures against wrongful acts. As James Kraska, a professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College, has argued, challenging China’s rights to access its artificial islands is consistent with international law. After all, it’s fair game to do to China what China has done to others.

Many are concerned that regardless of its legality, blocking China’s access to its occupied islands would amount to an act of war and risk armed conflict as a response. This fear is overblown, however. When China blocked others’ access to the disputed Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal, nobody called it an act of war and no armed conflict ensued. Taking a leaf from China’s own book, the cabbage tactic of access denial would mute the casus belli and discourage Beijing from going to war.

Still, there is concern that, driven by the pressure of nationalist public opinion and in an effort to maintain national image and domestic legitimacy, Chinese leaders may escalate the conflict and engage in war with the United States. But as Jessica Weiss, a leading expert of Chinese nationalism, found in her study of China’s nationalist protests, nationalist public opinion is more of a tool in the government’s hands to signal resolve than a driving force of Beijing’s assertive foreign policy. A more recent analysis by Alastair Iain Johnston, a professor of Chinese foreign policy at Harvard University, also comes to a similar conclusion, showing a decline of nationalism among ordinary citizens since 2009.

As the weaker party and the party that depends far more on traffic in the South China Sea, China actually has a larger stake in avoiding war in this region than the United States does. Indeed, avoiding large-scale conflict is one of the imperatives of China’s long-term strategy in the South China Sea. China has become more aggressive in recent years because of a U.S. deterrence deficit in the gray areas between war and peace. Beijing’s preference for gray-zone activities is also a testament to the working of nuclear and conventional deterrence. The trick of avoiding war while getting China to comply with international law lies in a two-pronged approach that skillfully combines the strengths of sticks with those of carrots while neutralizing their weaknesses.

In considering conflict over the islands, we don’t have to imagine China and the U.S. military as the only parties involved; a full range of actions and players exists, including sanctions, negotiations, regional countries, and international civil society. It might be tricky in the current diplomatic climate, but in the best possible world, the combined effect of actions on this full spectrum has a good chance of persuading China to comply with international law, especially if it involves a concerted effort of the United States, major powers such as Japan and India, and regional states such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Commenting on Tillerson’s remarks, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said: “If [the United States] wants to do that, they have the force to do so, let them do it.” A cabbage approach to deny China’s access to Scarborough Shoal or Mischief Reef would be more legitimate and effective if it involved the Philippine Coast Guard and civilian volunteers from the Philippines and other countries. Southeast Asian states often hedge between America and China with a tilt toward the one that is more powerful and more committed to them. If the Trump administration increases U.S. presence in the South China Sea, is committed to defending the Philippines as much as Japan and South Korea, and refrains from criticizing Manila’s domestic agenda, it could sway the pragmatic President Rodrigo Duterte to back the United States.

Targeted sanctions against Chinese persons and companies involved in projects in the South China Sea would also be much more effective if they were supported not only by the United States but also by other major economies and regional states. With its large state sector, China is particularly vulnerable to targeted sanctions. Its construction and development projects in the South China Sea have involved several large state-owned companies that are eager to make profit abroad. If designed cleverly, sanctions could hit hard big companies such as China National Offshore Oil Corporation, which moved a giant oil rig to drill in the Vietnamese EEZ in 2014; China Southern and Hainan airlines, which fly planes to the artificial islands; China Mobile, China Telecom, and China United Telecom, which operate communication networks on the disputed islands; and China Communications Construction Company, which dredged sand to build artificial islands in the Spratlys — thereby creating an incentive inside China to drop its illegitimate claims in the South China Sea.

Signaling a readiness to prevent Chinese island building and restrict China’s access to the fake islands is the logical response if the United States really wants to restore deterrence in the South China Sea. Part of the failure to put a limit on China’s expansion lies in the myth of an ever-looming war with China, which makes the use of logical deterrents unthinkable. This creates a self-restraint that is not only unnecessary but also strategically disastrous.

 Alexander L. Vuving is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government or any U.S. government agencies.

 (This article is originally published at Foreign Policy)


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The South China Sea Is Not China’s – Gareth Evans | Project Syndicate

28 July 2016

(MELBOURNE – Gareth Evans | Project Syndicate) – To no one’s surprise, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague has upheld all the key arguments of the Philippines in its case against China on the application of theUnited Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea. In its ruling, which employed even tougher language than most expected, the tribunal cut the legal heart out of China’s claim that the sea is, in effect, a Chinese lake.


Poll to change the South China Sea name to Southeast Asia Sea (C) Change.org

The PCA ruled that China’s “nine-dash line,” a 1940s-era delineation that implies ownership by China of 80% of the South China Sea, is legally meaningless. It also made clear that China’s recent land-reclamation activity, turning submerged or otherwise uninhabitable reefs into artificial islands with airstrips or other facilities, confers no new rights to the surrounding waters or any authority to exclude others from sailing or
flying nearby.

Official Chinese statements on the nine-dash line have never stated precisely what it is intended to encompass. Some refer to “historic rights,” others to “traditional Chinese fishing grounds,” while still others suggest that it is merely shorthand for describing all the land features in the South China Sea over which China claims sovereignty. But every variation has provoked others in the region, by signaling China’s willingness to encroach on perceived fishing rights (as with Indonesia), rights to exploit resources (as with Vietnam), or their own rights to the land-features in question

The PCA’s decision punctures any notion that international law now recognizes “traditional” or “historic” maritime claims not directly associated with recognized sovereign ownership of relevant types of land. Recognized ownership of a habitable island, as with mainland territory, includes a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone or EEZ and rights over any associated continental shelf (subject to any overlapping rights of others).

Recognized ownership of an uninhabitable rock or permanently protruding reef includes the surrounding 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. Nothing more. Without land, a state cannot claim rights to the sea.

China can and will continue to claim that, despite competing claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, and others to the land features in question, it is the sovereign owner of habitable islands and permanently protruding rocks or reefs in the Spratly and Paracel Island groups and elsewhere. In making its case, it can invoke accepted legal criteria like effective occupation or acquiescence. When added to its own coastal entitlements, China might well end up with a sizeable and entirely defensible set of rights in the South China Sea.

But the PCA addressed none of these underlying sovereignty issues in the Philippines case. And, crucially, even if all of China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea were one day accepted – whether through negotiation, arbitration, or adjudication – the total area, including territorial sea, EEZs, and continental-shelf rights, would still not approach the size of the vast zone encompassed by the nine-dash line.

The PCA’s decision also rules out China’s claim to an unlimited right to pursue and stare down any close surveillance of its massive reclamation activity and construction of military-grade airstrips, supply platforms, communications facilities, and in some cases gun emplacements. Such construction has occurred on seven previously unoccupied locations in the Spratlys: Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, and Hughes Reef (all previously submerged at high tide), and Johnson South Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef (all previously part-exposed at high tide, but uninhabitable).

Under UNCLOS, states may construct artificial islands and installations within their own EEZs, and also on the high seas (but only for peaceful purposes). In neither case can this have the legal effect of turning a previously submerged reef into a “rock” (which might allow a 12-mile territorial sea to be claimed), or an uninhabitable rock into an “island” (which might allow for a 200-mile EEZ as well). The Philippines case confirmed these basic principles.

In doing so, the PCA also made clear that China had no right whatsoever – at least in the case of the previously submerged Mischief Reef – to engage in any construction activity, as the territory it claims is within the Philippines’ EEZ.

China seems unlikely to abandon occupancy of any island, reef, or rock where it currently has a toehold, or to stop insisting on its sovereign ownership of most of the South China Sea’s land features. But everyone with an interest in ensuring regional stability should encourage China to take several steps that would not cause it to lose face.

These steps include a halt to overtly military construction on its seven new artificial islands in the Spratlys; not starting any new reclamation activity on contested features like the Scarborough Shoal; ceasing to refer to the “nine-dash line” as anything other than a rough guide to the land features over which it continues to claim sovereignty; submitting these claims at least to genuine give-and-take negotiation, and preferably to arbitration or adjudication; advancing negotiations with ASEAN on a code of conduct for all parties in the South China Sea; and an end to dividing and destabilizing ASEAN by putting pressure on its weakest links, Cambodia and Laos, on this issue.

The alternative course, already being promoted by hotheads in the People’s Liberation Army, is to take a dramatically harder line by, say, renouncing UNCLOS altogether and declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over most of the South China Sea. Declaring an ADIZ, which the United States would certainly ignore, would sharply increase the likelihood of military incidents, with wholly unforeseeable consequences.

Walking away from UNCLOS would also be wrongheaded. China would still be effectively bound by its terms, now almost universally recognized as customary international law, irrespective of who adheres to it. The gesture of defiance would damage both its reputation and other territorial interests, not least its claims against Japan in the East China Sea, which rely on UNCLOS’s continental-shelf provisions.

If China takes a hardline path, or fails to moderate its behavior significantly in the months ahead, the case for further international pushback by countries like mine – including freedom-of-navigation voyages within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef and other artificial islands in that category – will become compelling. But right now it is in everyone’s interest to give China some space to adjust course and to reduce, rather than escalate, regional tensions.

This article is originally published on Project Syndicate.

 

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China’s accelerated militarisation in the South China Sea – by Choe Nam-suk – Korea IT Times

03 April 2016

Korea IT Times - Right on the threshold of the US-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in Sunnylands on February 15 and 16, where US President Barack Obama raised concerns about China flouting international law in the East Sea with its militarising activities, China did challenge public opinion by deploying HQ-9 missiles on Phu Lam (Woody Island) in Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago.

That threatening behavior was officially condemned by Vietnam and the US. Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to protest China’s violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa archipelago. At the same time it proposed that the UN circulate the diplomatic note among diplomatic missions at its agencies.

On February 23, Reuters carried a story saying that recent satellite images showed that China may be installing a high-frequency radar system in Chau Vien (Cuarteron) Reef, one of the seven entities in Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago that were illegally occupied by China in 1988 and 1995. Two radar towers may have been built by China in the northern and southern portions of Chau Vien Reef. High-frequency radar installations would enable China to bolster its ability to illegally monitor air and marine traffic and activities from the Malacca Strait to the East Sea. Similar radar systems, together with helicopter pads and gun emplacements, may have been installed in Ga Ven (Gaven Reef), Tu Nghia (Hughes Reef), and Gac Ma (Johnson South Reef).

The information came a day before Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in the US. Meanwhile, the Chinese People’s Daily was equivocal about the possibility of its country’s deployment of four SU-35s, the first batch purchased from Russia, to “patrol the East Sea”.

All these moves are trampling on international law, including the UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982.

1. How did China spark tensions in the East Sea?

In 1947, the Chinese administration drew the so-called “dot-line”, claiming its “sovereignty” over more than 80 percent of the East Sea. This claim is also called the “U-shaped” or the “cow-tongue” line.

The “cow-tongue” line includes Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes, sovereignty over whom was established and exercised in an uninterrupted, peaceful and legitimate manner by the Vietnamese State from the 17th century, when they were not subject to any public or individual ownership. The line also encompasses the exclusive economic zones and continental shelves belonging to Vietnam as well as other littoral countries in the East Sea as prescribed in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, to which China is a signatory country.

 

The introduction of the “cow-tongue” line formed part of China’s attempts to expand its boundaries with the use of force. Earlier, China launched bloody naval attacks to invade the western portion of Vietnam’s Hoang Sa archipelago in 1974 after illegally occupying a cluster of islands in the eastern area of the archipelago in 1956.

In March 1988, China dispatched troops to invade six entities belonging to Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago. The move came amid China’s war on Vietnam’s northern border, which started on February 17, 1979, still not ended.

The two fierce naval fights claimed the lives of 74 Vietnamese in Hoang Sa in 1974 and 64 others in Truong Sa in 1988. Today, similar actions are likely to be repeated as China is pursuing a scheme to scale up militarisation in the East Sea.

In 2014, China’s illegal placement of its oilrig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in Vietnam’s legitimate exclusive economic zone and continental shelf triggered a terrible crisis in the two countries’ relationship. The action, however, created a diversion, allowing Chinese vessels to sail to the seven entities China illegally acquired in 1988 and 1995 in Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago and conduct a massive land reclamation to develop man-made islands.

2. China has been unilaterally occupying the East Sea using force and threats:

The use of force and threats to use force are the main paths China has taken to actualise its scheme to control the East Sea.

China deployed forces three times in invading Vietnam’s Hoang Sa archipelago:

- In 1909, China launched a force-backed blitz on several islands in Hoang Sa archipelago for the first time, debuting its involvement in a dispute over the sovereignty of this archipelago with Vietnam;

- In 1956, the People’s Republic of China took advantage of the transitional time for territorial management rights under the Geneva Accord to dispatch a military force to secretly take up the eastern portion of Hoang Sa archipelago;

- In 1974, when the US troops were forced to leave Vietnam and the US-backed army of the Republic of Vietnam was weakened, China acquired the western part of Hoang Sa archipelago with military force.

For Truong Sa archipelago:

- In 1946, when Japan disarmed its military as ordered by the US and other allied forces, the Chinese administration took advantage of the situation and sent a fleet, commanded by Admiral Lin Zun, to Truong Sa archipelago to take over a number of islands, including Ba Binh (Itu Aba Island). The event marked China’s initiation of a sovereignty claim with Vietnam over Truong Sa archipelago;

- In 1988, the People’s Republic of China used force to seize six shoals and reefs, which almost were submerged, in the northwestern area of Truong Sa;

- In 1995, the People’s Republic of China dispatched forces to occupy Vanh Khan (Mischief  Reef), which was held by the Philippines then, in the northern portion of Truong Sa.

Immediately after taking over Hoang Sa and part of Truong Sa, irrespective of responses from Vietnam and regional and international communities, China has continually embarked on construction and expansion on occupied features to turn them into offensive military bases providing services for attacks to be launched from Hainan to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. With these activities, China aimed to develop these occupied entities in the two archipelagoes into unsinkable “aircraft carriers” in the East Sea. Recent reclamation work to create islands and turn shoals in Truong Sa into man-made islands, and build airstrips, port wharfs, outposts and trenches there has bred concern from the public. Other activities undertaken by China that are worrying the public are the deployment of more soldiers, weapons and vehicles in key positions in the two archipelagoes – in particular the installation of modern surface-to-air missiles in Hoang Sa and high-frequency radar in Chau Vien. These moves unveiled a scheme to militarise the East Sea, which China has long sought to conceal from the international public through excuses and promises.  It even tried to implicate other countries in that scheme. The above-said activities have definitely served China’s attempt to monopolise the East Sea by force and by threats of force. With these activities, China aims to use the East Sea as a springboard to achieve its dream to replace the US as a world superpower.

With these moves, China has showed that it has always used force or threatened to use force to monopolise the East Sea. In the coming time, if responses and policies by regional and international countries see no progress, China will make other moves, including dispatching more military forces and war vehicles to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. In the short run, China will demonstrate its strength to scare weaker countries in the region if the superpower countries maintain their might in a balanced manner. This is meant to challenge concerned countries like the US, Japan and Australia. China could use its power to expand the area it illegally occupied in Truong Sa or acquire a number of shoals in the East Sea where military forces are absent; monitor and control air and marine traffic in the East Sea; hinder law-abiding oil and gas production, and fishing operations conducted by regional countries; and continue conducting natural resource research activities. It’s likely that China will carry out oil and gas exploitation in several oil blocks lying within the continental shelves of Vietnam or other countries bordering the East Sea.

Regarding diplomacy and communication, China keeps applying the “stick and carrot” tactic, as well as making more promises to please the public. It will use political and economic relations to buy, divide and pressure the public so it can easily implement the motto “peaceful rise”.

3. What is the purpose of China’s recent activities?

3.1. A current priority that China is pursuing is to take control of all international air and marine activities through the East Sea as soon as possible. In the meantime, public opinion is divided on whether China will establish the “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) in the East Sea or not.

China has explained that it applied the ADIZ for the East China Sea with the aim to control and prevent international surface and marine crossing in the sea and considered it a military measure taken to win a territorial claim in the East China Sea. If the zone is applied for the East Sea, it will serve China’s ambitious “cow-tongue” claim in the waters. From what happened in the East China Sea, China realised that if it announces the ADIZ for the East Sea now, it will be strongly protested by the international community. However, there is a possibility that when it finds the time and conditions are ripe, China will ignore public opinion as it did recently in the East Sea and debut the ADIZ in the area, likely for Hoang Sa archipelago first.

3.2. The fresh deployment of the surface-to-air missile system in Phu Lam island of Vietnam’s Hoang Sa archipelago is one of the military escalations thoughtfully calculated and taken by China in a well-designed scenario to monopolise the East Sea, which could enable it to rise and take over the US’s role as the world superpower. Public opinion is hardly alien to the military moves that China had taken or is taking in the East Sea. Of course, there are also those who are “thoughtless”, intentionally turning a blind eye, supporting and extolling the move in exchange for economic and political gain. At present, though, militarisation has triggered worries and disagreement, and a number of countries have promptly voiced their condemnation for the following reasons:

China has deployed the HQ-9 surface-to-air missile in Phu Lam Island of Hoang Sa archipelago

- It is a continuous, serious violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa archipelago, defying international law and disrespecting political commitments reached between the two countries, aside from Chinese leaders’ commitments to the regional and international communities that “China is not militarising the East Sea and pledges to work together with the ASEAN community to create a Code of Conduct soon”. This has again helped the public realize that what China has done is not what China said it would do. It clearly showed that China is inconsistent in its attitude in international relations, not to say irresponsible, as it is in its role as one of the most powerful countries in the world. Complications are taking place and people are on the brink of war due to disputes pertaining to borders; territory; religion; race; and geo-political, geo-economic and strategically geographical interests between countries, especially super powers, and the fight for interests among international arms traders.

- It can be said that this action manifested China’s military threat that targeted ASEAN countries at a time when inter-bloc relations and the relations between ASEAN and the US are enjoying gains, especially after the ASEAN-US Leaders’ Summit. These gains are not welcomed by China, as they will likely hinder China’s efforts to implement its ambitious “China dream”.

- It can be said that with this adventurous military action, China challenged and sent a warning to countries outside the region, especially the US, Japan, India and Australia, which are making efforts to counter China’s attempts to control and prevent international surface and marine operations through the East Sea by sending warships and surveillance crafts to operate in the radius of 12 nautical miles surrounding the submerged shoals and reefs currently occupied by China.

- The above-mentioned move clearly constitutes a new military escalation of extreme danger, disclosing the East Sea militarisation strategy that China has endeavored to hide. This poses a real danger to defense and security of the East Sea-shared countries, directly that of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, and threatens marine and aviation security and safety in the East Sea. That situation would definitely lead to a new arms race, in which countries will purchase more arms equipment and vehicles to fortify their defense capacity to protect their rights and interests. And that situation will trigger possible clashes and conflicts in the East Sea.

As analysed above, this action has clearly posed a serious threat to sovereignty and interests of countries surrounding the East Sea – especially Vietnam, a country with sovereignty over Hoang Sa archipelago, which is illegally being occupied by China and where China is brazenly positioning its war vehicles. This move infringed on Vietnam’s sovereignty, put the country’s defense and security under threat, hampered the traffic and natural resource exploitation being undertaken by Vietnam in its legally recognised waters, and threatened the life and assets of Vietnamese fishermen.

4. What should Vietnam and other countries do to deal with that situation?

4.1. Before this action, we couldn’t do anything but voice our strong and clear opposition through the highest diplomatic channels. Vietnam should send a diplomatic note to the UN requesting it to intervene and take tough measures against China. It’s time for the UN to join in protecting its Charter and international law in the East Sea. Under the light of international conventions, especially the UN Charter, the 1974 Hoang Sa and 1988 Gac Ma events featured serious violations of international law, especially as China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

More dangerous was the likely repetition of the use of force and the threat to use force in the East Sea. That could harm not just Vietnam, but also the entire Southeast Asia and many other countries around the world who rely on the maritime route through the East Sea.

The UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) have never been brazenly challenged and trampled as China has done in the East Sea, regardless of protests from concerned parties.

Even international tribunals like the one established under UNCLOS 1982’s appendix VII, which is processing the Philippines’s lawsuit against China in the East Sea, are being disrespected and opposed by China.

If we let China continue taking aggressive action in the East Sea that threaten other countries and disregard international law built to protect peace worldwide, it is likely that Beijing will throw basic principles and universal values of humankind, as well as the UN Charter, into the rubbish bin.

It’s time for concerned parties like Vietnam, the US, the Philippines and Japan to raise their voices at UN forums to deter destructive consequences of escalating tensions in the East Sea and protect laws and justice, especially concerning the UN court that is handling the Philippines’ lawsuit against China in the East Sea.

I believe that the Barack Obama administration would consider taking the East Sea issue to the UN Security Council and other forums. Justice and public opinion are as important and efficient as the weapons China has positioned in the East Sea, but the remaining issues are to have unanimity, unity and joint action.

4.2. Vietnam should step up communication campaigns in and beyond its borders to help the public grasp a thorough understanding of China’s militarising operations in the East Sea. It should point out that these actions violate international law, and threaten security, peace, and marine and air freedom in the East Sea. It should also confirm Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes. This would garner international friends’ support and create an internal consensus in the fight to defend the country’s sea and island sovereignty, and promote the peace-loving spirit. On the other hand, we should be prepared and remain ready, even with our forces, for the worst circumstances that could arise.

4.3. Vietnam needs to reinforce cooperation and push ASEAN member countries to build and implement measures to build trust. It should deliver initiatives to maintain the status quo, hinder conflicts, and maintain peace, stability, and aviation and maritime freedom in the East Sea.

4.4. Vietnam also needs to rally the nation’s strength for the protection of the country’s sea and island sovereignty, along with reinforcing its defenses, boosting the defensive capacity of its forces, and increasing the legal fight through diplomatic channels and proper international arbitrators to protect its legitimate sovereignty and interests in the East Sea against China’s unilateral actions infringing its national interests and sovereignty in the waters. These are strategic and decisive solutions.

This article is originally published  at Korea IT Times

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China imposes fishing curbs: New regulations imposed Jan. 1 limit all foreign vessels from fishing in a zone covering two-thirds of the South China Sea.

The Return of China’s Small-Stick Diplomacy in South China Sea – by James R. Holmes | The Diplomat

09 January 2014

by James R. Holmes | The Diplomat. With a new directive China has appointed itself the sheriff over most of the South China Sea. 

Associated Press reporter Christopher Bodeen chooses his words well in a story on China’s latest bid to rule offshore waters. Beijing, he writes, is augmenting its “police powers” in the South China Sea. That’s legalese for enforcing domestic law within certain lines inscribed on the map, or in this case nautical chart.


China imposes fishing curbs: New regulations imposed Jan. 1 limit all foreign vessels from fishing in a zone covering two-thirds of the South China Sea.

China imposes fishing curbs: New regulations imposed Jan. 1 limit all foreign vessels from fishing in a zone covering two-thirds of the South China Sea. Source: The Washington Free Beacon


The Hainan provincial legislature, that is, issued a directive last November requiring foreign fishermen to obtain permission before plying their trade within some two-thirds of the sea. Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon supplies a map depicting the affected zone. It’s worth pointing out that the zone doesn’t span the entirewaterspace within the nine-dashed line, where Beijing asserts “indisputable sovereignty.”

A few quick thoughts as this story develops. One, regional and extraregional observers shouldn’t be too shocked at this turn of events. China’s claims to the South China Sea reach back decades. The map bearing the nine-dashed line, for instance, predates the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It may go back a century. Nor are these idle fancies. Chinese forces pummeled a South Vietnamese flotilla in the Paracels in 1974. Sporadic encounters with neighboring maritime forces — sometime violent, more often not — have continued to this day. (See Shoal, Scarborough.) Only the pace has quickened.

Henry Kissinger notes that custodians and beneficiaries of the status quo find it hard to believe that revolutionaries really want what they say they want. Memo to Manila, Hanoi & Co.: Beijing really wants what it says it wants.

Two, Bodeen’s police-powers terminology is apt. Lawyers define the police power as a twofold thing. It means enforcing order on national territory, in the usual sense of the word police. And it means helping provide for the health, welfare, and morals of the people. The new rules fall into the former category. China is trying to enforce its laws in waters and islands over which it asserts sovereignty, as though the question of sovereignty is a done deal. And it is using non-military assets, not the PLA, to punctuate its message that there are no legitimate challenges to Chinese jurisdiction.

This is what I’ve been calling “small-stick diplomacy” for the past couple of years. China’s small stick — the China Coast Guard and other law-enforcement instruments — outmatches Southeast Asian militaries by most measures. So why not police contested sea areas with inoffensive-seeming vessels while holding the big stick, the PLA, in reserve should things go wrong? If no one pushes back effectively, you create a new normal over time.

Three, in all likelihood Hainan lawmakers’ diktat presages no challenge to freedom of navigation, the stated U.S. interest in the region. Chinese spokesmen take pains to disavow any such challenge. But for them, navigation means navigation and nothing more. Barring foreign fishing vessels from select areas means compelling their home governments to accept Chinese domestic law in waters under dispute. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? In effect Beijing wants foreign shipping, private and publicly owned, to obey the same rules the law of the sea ordains for the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. That’s the offshore belt where the coastal state’s laws and regulations apply with the same force they do ashore. This adds up to selective access denial. China, that is, will make the rules governing access to seas it deems its own — and others will comply.

But four, the South China Sea is a huge waterspace for any force to police. Bodeen estimates the area covered by the new rules at 1.35 million square miles. That’s five times the land area of Texas. And everything’s big in Texas, as denizens of that state will tell you (over and over again). Readers of these pixels are familiar with J. C. Wylie’s axiom that the man on the scene with a gun — Wylie’s metaphor for armed assets of various types — is the true guarantor of control over a given territory. Does China boast enough seagoing policemen to monitor what’s happening throughout two-thirds of the South China Sea, and shoo away or apprehend those who defy Chinese law? Color me skeptical.

Which means enforcement efforts may be scattershot, PLA assets may have to pick up the slack for law-enforcement services, or both. Deploying military assets to police supposedly sovereign islands and waters would crimp the narrative that China exercises indisputable sovereignty there. So would widespread disobedience.

It’s hard to envision Southeast Asian governments — heck, any government with a stake in the maritime order — accepting what Beijing is pushing. What if China passed a law and no one obeyed? We may see.

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Joint Development

Joint Development in the South China Sea – by Huy Duong | cogitASIA

12 July 2013

Huy Duong | cogitASIA - With the South China Sea disputes remaining intractable, the need to manage them is paramount. Worldwide, joint development of disputed areas has proved to be a hallmark for managing disputes, yet this continues to elude the claimants to the Paracels, Spratlys, Scarborough Reef, and the central part of the South China Sea.

Successful dispute resolutions and joint developments

Dispute resolutions and joint development are not new to the South China Sea countries. These countries have successfully demarcated a number of maritime boundaries, including Indonesia-Malaysia, Malaysia-Thailand, Thailand-Vietnam, China-Vietnam, Indonesia-Vietnam, and Brunei-Malaysia. In the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have agreed to an area of “joint historic waters” since 1982. Around the entrance to this gulf, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam have agreements on three areas of bilateral and trilateral joint development, the first of which dates to 1979.

Joint Development

Boundaries and joint development areas in southern South China Sea. Source: Huy Duong, all rights reserved.

These successes depend on the conflicting claims being clear and reasonable—which results in small well-defined overlaps—on negotiations in good faith, and on the absence of sovereignty disputes over islands.

Lessons for the current conflicts

Why have these successes not been repeated for the disputes in the central part of the South China Sea?

First, these disputes involve unresolved sovereignty disputes over islands, which add complexity to the maritime disputes and often carry political and emotional undercurrents. However, this should not matter for the provisional arrangements of joint development because their raison d’être is the existence of unresolved disputes; arrangements for joint development normally define the limits of the disputed areas and a means to share the resources in a way that is independent of the relative strengths of the claims.

Most importantly, there is no agreement on where the limits of the disputed areas are. Joint development of the disputed areas is not possible if there is no agreement on their limits.

China’s actions at various points along the U-shaped line suggest that it is setting the stage for claiming certain rights within the area approximately indicated by that line. This area extends beyond the equidistance line between the disputed islands and other territories, therefore China’s position is inconsistent with international law because according to jurisprudence on maritime delimitation, the waters belonging to these islands would fall far short of this line. China’s position creates a large, asymmetric, ill-defined area of overlapping claims that would make joint development in this area disadvantageous to the other claimants.

Vietnam and the Philippines see the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending from their undisputed territories as sacrosanct and unaffected by the potential EEZ entitlement of the disputed islands, but neither has stated whether it claims EEZs for these islands elsewhere. Malaysia has been silent on the question of potential EEZ entitlement of the disputed islands. Brunei only claims Louisa Reef, and is unlikely to demand EEZs for other features.

Comparing this situation with successful dispute resolutions and joint developments elsewhere suggests that these successes have not been repeated here because the following factors are missing: clear and reasonable claims by all parties, an agreement on where the disputed areas are, and good faith.

A possible definition of the joint development areas

Despite the unknowns, it is clear that China seeks to maximize the disputed areas, while the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are likely to seek to minimize them. Vietnam seeks to reduce the disputed areas, but its need to reduce them to the 12 nautical mile territorial sea around the disputed islands is probably less acute than that of the Philippines and Malaysia. This is because most of the disputed islands do not lie deep in the 200 nautical mile EEZ emanating from Vietnam’s undisputed territories. Nevertheless, it would be beneficial for Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei to take a common position, so their views are likely to converge.

The greatest difference will be that between China’s wish to maximize the disputed areas and the other countries’ wish to reduce and minimize them.

SCS_QuarterEEZ_620

Could the “quarter distance” lines, in black, be the maximum limits for the disputed waters? Source: Huy Duong. All rights reserved.

A compromise might be for the claimants to define the areas of joint development along the lines used by the International Court of Justice in its solution to the Nicaragua-Colombia dispute, which gives Colombia’s small offshore islands no EEZ, and larger ones an EEZ that extends a quarter of the distance to Nicaragua’s coastal islands. If a similar arrangement is applied to the South China Sea, then the maximum limits of the areas of joint development will be the black lines in Map 2, which seems to be a reasonable compromise for all parties.

The question is whether every claimant has enough good faith to define the areas of joint development in any reasonable manner.

Mr. Huy Duong contributes articles on the South China Sea to several news outlets including the BBC and Vietnam’s online publication VietNamNet. See more by this author.

 

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Fishermen are silhouetted against the early morning light as they return from fishing in Karachi

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Tensions rapidly escalating around South China Sea – by Joel Brinkley | Politico

24 February 2013

by Joel Brinkley  | Politico - China’s assertion that almost all of the South China Sea and adjacent waters are part of its territory seems to be growing more dangerous with each passing week.

Fishermen are silhouetted against the early morning light as they return from fishing in Karachi's China Creek. | Reuters

China’s territorial assertions have alienated almost everyone in its neighborhood. | Reuters

China and Japan are scrambling fighter jets in their faceoff over disputed islands. Last month, China “painted” a Japanese military helicopter and destroyer with weapons-lock radar — bringing harsh criticism from Japanese and American military officials.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and several other states are responding angrily to their own territorial disputes with China, so that a common refrain among analysts and observers has become “one stupid mistake could start a war.” Already, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, has told the state’s military to “prepare for war.”

But as this crisis continues and worsens month after month, the one player seldom heard from is the United States. And China is making it plain that Beijing is little worried about America.

“From a Chinese perspective, 2013 appears to bear similarities to 1913,” Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s official think tank, said last month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.

One century ago “marked the rise of the West,” he intoned. But today, “the opposite is happening with money, power and influence flowing away from America and the West into Asia.

“It’s déjà vu all over again” — except in reverse, he said.

Ruan, like many other Chinese, also blames the United States military’s “pivot” to Asia for stirring trouble in the region. But in fact, China’s aggressive expansionism began even before that — born of two domestic political needs.

Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, noted in an interview that a few years ago some in the military were growing restless and wanted to start some kind of military conflict with Japan, China’s longtime adversary, to regain their relevance. President Hu Jintao was unwilling to go along with that.

But as China’s social and economic situation continued to deteriorate, Xia and others said, in the spring of 2009 another opportunity arose for re-establishing military relevance — while also distracting disgruntled Chinese with a new foreign conflict. That’s when most nations had to file papers with the United Nations stating their offshore jurisdictions as part of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Much earlier, in 1946, pushed by the West to clarify its maritime position, the Republic of China had issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Few paid attention then because a few years later the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang and seized control of the country.

But in 2009, when it came time for each nation to give the United Nations documentation of its claim to maritime territory, the Chinese government officially submitted that 1946 map. Since then, it has repeatedly asserted that nearly the entire sea and adjacent waters are “an inherent part of Chinese territory.”

“This was the first time China had brought this up since 1946,” Yann-huei Song, a research fellow at the Institute of European and American studies in Taipei, Taiwan, said in an interview.

So China’s claim that U.S. provocation is responsible for the South China Sea dispute is wrong. President Barack Obama didn’t first raise his notion of the pivot from the Middle East to Asia until late in 2011. And since then, the State Department has repeatedly said it would not take sides in the debate — even after China changed the map of its territory printed in Chinese passports to include 80 percent of the South China Sea. (Vietnam refuses to stamp those new passports. Instead, it stamps a piece of paper and inserts that into the passport.)

Visiting the region last fall, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Asian states to draw up a code of conduct for the nations bordering the South China Sea but added: “The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims or land features” — even though the farthest point China now claims is more than 1,200 miles away from the Chinese mainland. (One reason the U.S. may be deferring is that Congress never ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty. Republicans blocked ratification once again last year. )

That’s just fine with Beijing. “China doesn’t want the U.S. involved in any way,” said Jose Cuisia Jr., the Philippines’ ambassador to the United States, at a Stanford University conference.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and several other states are responding angrily to their own territorial disputes with China, so that a common refrain among analysts and observers has become “one stupid mistake could start a war.” Already, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, has told the state’s military to “prepare for war.”

But as this crisis continues and worsens month after month, the one player seldom heard from is the United States. And China is making it plain that Beijing is little worried about America.

“From a Chinese perspective, 2013 appears to bear similarities to 1913,” Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s official think tank, said last month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.

One century ago “marked the rise of the West,” he intoned. But today, “the opposite is happening with money, power and influence flowing away from America and the West into Asia.

“It’s déjà vu all over again” — except in reverse, he said.

Ruan, like many other Chinese, also blames the United States military’s “pivot” to Asia for stirring trouble in the region. But in fact, China’s aggressive expansionism began even before that — born of two domestic political needs.

Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, noted in an interview that a few years ago some in the military were growing restless and wanted to start some kind of military conflict with Japan, China’s longtime adversary, to regain their relevance. President Hu Jintao was unwilling to go along with that.

But as China’s social and economic situation continued to deteriorate, Xia and others said, in the spring of 2009 another opportunity arose for re-establishing military relevance — while also distracting disgruntled Chinese with a new foreign conflict. That’s when most nations had to file papers with the United Nations stating their offshore jurisdictions as part of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Much earlier, in 1946, pushed by the West to clarify its maritime position, the Republic of China had issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Few paid attention then because a few years later the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang and seized control of the country.

But in 2009, when it came time for each nation to give the United Nations documentation of its claim to maritime territory, the Chinese government officially submitted that 1946 map. Since then, it has repeatedly asserted that nearly the entire sea and adjacent waters are “an inherent part of Chinese territory.”

“This was the first time China had brought this up since 1946,” Yann-huei Song, a research fellow at the Institute of European and American studies in Taipei, Taiwan, said in an interview.

So China’s claim that U.S. provocation is responsible for the South China Sea dispute is wrong. President Barack Obama didn’t first raise his notion of the pivot from the Middle East to Asia until late in 2011. And since then, the State Department has repeatedly said it would not take sides in the debate — even after China changed the map of its territory printed in Chinese passports to include 80 percent of the South China Sea. (Vietnam refuses to stamp those new passports. Instead, it stamps a piece of paper and inserts that into the passport.)

 

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