Archive | Geopolitics

Vietnam and Russia expand joint South China Sea gas projects – TOMOYA ONISHI | Nikkei

30 November 2018

A Rosneft Vietnam worker stands on the Lan Tay gas platform in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

HANOI — Vietnam and Russia are working more closely together on gas development projects in the South China Sea as they seek to reduce their dependence on trade with China.

Locked in a bitter territorial dispute with China over islands in the area, Vietnam is trying to insulate itself from economic pressure by its giant neighbor. Russia, whose economy has been pummeled by Western sanctions, is also trying to avoid becoming too dependent on economic ties with China.

But cooperation between Vietnam and Russia to develop resources in the South China Sea could trigger a fierce backlash from Beijing.

Earlier in November, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Hanoi for talks with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The two reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to joint natural gas development projects in the South China Sea and other forms of economic cooperation. They also agreed to double bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2020.

At the meeting, local media reports said Phuc took a thinly veiled swipe at China’s naval expansion in the South China Sea, saying countries should try to settle issues peacefully, while respecting international law. Medvedev was reported as supporting Phuc’s call.

Vietnam’s state-owned oil company PetroVietnam and Russian state-controlled natural gas producer Gazprom have agreed to jointly develop gas in fields on the continental shelf in the South China Sea. But the project has been on hold due to strong protests from China, which claims most of the vast body of water and has been building military facilities in the area.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, second from right, and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, second from left, greet schoolchildren before talks in Hanoi on Nov. 19.   © AP

Russia is pursuing closer relations with Vietnam to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia. “We hope that these ties will strengthen,” Medvedev said of the cooperation between the two oil companies. “To achieve that, we will create favorable conditions for implementing joint and new projects involving Gazprom, Zarubezhneft [another Russian state-controlled oil company], PetroVietnam and other companies.”

Any projects involving the two countries are bound to irritate Beijing, which is vigorously pressing its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

Russia is not a major trading partner for Vietnam, accounting for less than 1% of its total trade. But Vietnam has become increasingly uneasy about its heavy reliance on China, which is its largest trading partner. This is driving Vietnam’s move to strengthen ties with Russia and other countries.

The Eurasian Economic Union, a Russian-led political and economic grouping of former Soviet republics, signed a free trade agreement with Vietnam in 2016. The union is also looking for greater economic cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations through its trade deal with Vietnam.

“Our two countries [Vietnam and Russia] will continue implementing the agreement for a free trade zone between Vietnam and the Eurasian Economic Union to maximize favorable conditions and preferences under that agreement,” Phuc said. “We will seek to achieve a breakthrough in bilateral trade and investment by increasing bilateral trade turnover to $10 billion by 2020.”

The South China Sea is rich in natural resources, such as oil and gas, and has become an arena of competition for China, Vietnam, the Philippines and others. In ASEAN, Vietnam has been the most vocal critic of China’s military muscle flexing the region.

The Russian economy has been battered by Western economic sanctions following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Moscow has tried to cushion the impact of the sanctions by strengthening ties with China, but it is wary of relying too much on its larger neighbor for its economic well-being.

During the Soviet era, Moscow had solid relations with Vietnam and other communist countries in Southeast Asia, wielding much influence. Russia is now pursuing closer ties with Vietnam and other fast-growing economies in the region to keep its options open.

In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear Russia’s ambitions to become a more active player in Southeast Asia. “We believe this is in our practical interest and represents an opportunity to strengthen our position in the region’s rapidly growing markets,” he said.

This article is originally published on Nikkei 

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Mattis pushes closer ties to Vietnam amid tension with China – Robert Burns | The Associated Press

14 October 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — By making a rare second trip this year to Vietnam, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is signaling how intensively the Trump administration is trying to counter China’s military assertiveness by cozying up to smaller nations in the region that share American wariness about Chinese intentions.

 Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich, left, review an honor guard Jan. 25, 2018, in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Tran Van Minh/AP) 

The visit beginning Tuesday also shows how far U.S.-Vietnamese relations have advanced since the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War.

Mattis, a retired general who entered the Marine Corps during Vietnam but did not serve there, visited Hanoi in January. By coincidence, that stop came just days before the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Tet was a turning point when North Vietnamese fighters attacked an array of key objectives in the South, surprising Washington and feeding anti-war sentiment even though the North’s offensive turned out to be a tactical military failure.

Three months after the Mattis visit, an U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, made a port call at Da Nang. It was the first such visit since the war and a reminder to China that the U.S. is intent on strengthening partnerships in the region as a counterweight to China’s growing military might.

The most vivid expression of Chinese assertiveness is its transformation of contested islets and other features in the South China Sea into strategic military outposts. The Trump administration has sharply criticized China for deploying surface-to-air missiles and other weapons on some of these outposts. In June, Mattis said the placement of these weapons is “tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.”

This time Mattis is visiting Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s most populous city and its economic center. Known as Saigon during the period before the communists took over the Republic of South Vietnam in 1975, the city was renamed for the man who led the Vietnamese nationalist movement.

Mattis also plans to visit a Vietnamese air base, Bien Hoa, a major air station for American forces during the war, and meet with the defense minister, Ngo Xuan Lich.

The visit comes amid a leadership transition after the death in September of Vietnam’s president, Tran Dai Quang. Earlier this month, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party nominated its general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, for the additional post of president. He is expected to be approved by the National Assembly.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, listens during talks with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong Jan. 25, 2018, in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Tran Van Minh/AP)
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, listens during talks with Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong Jan. 25, 2018, in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Tran Van Minh/AP)

Although Vietnam has become a common destination for American secretaries of defense, two visits in one year is unusual, and Ho Chi Minh City is rarely on the itinerary. The last Pentagon chief to visit Ho Chi Minh City was William Cohen in the year 2000; he was the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Vietnam since the war. Formal diplomatic relations were restored in 1995 and the U.S. lifted its war-era arms embargo in 2016.

The Mattis trip originally was to include a visit to Beijing, but that stop was canceled amid rising tensions over trade and defense issues. China recently rejected a request for a Hong Kong port visit by an American warship, and last summer Mattis disinvited China from a major maritime exercise in the Pacific. China in September scrapped a Pentagon visit by its navy chief and demanded that Washington cancel an arms sale to Taiwan.

These tensions have served to accentuate the potential for a stronger U.S. partnership with Vietnam.

Josh Kurlantzick, a senior fellow and Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview that Vietnam in recent years has shifted from a foreign and defense policy that carefully balanced relations with China and the United States to one that shades in the direction of Washington.

“I do see Vietnam very much aligned with some of Trump’s policies,” he said, referring to what the administration calls its “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.” It emphasizes ensuring all countries in the region are free from coercion and keeping sea lanes, especially the contested South China Sea, open for international trade.

“Vietnam, leaving aside Singapore, is the country the most skeptical of China’s Southeast Asia policy and makes the most natural partner for the U.S.,” Kurlantzick said.

Vietnam’s proximity to the South China Sea makes it an important player in disputes with China over territorial claims to islets, shoals and other small land formations in the sea. Vietnam also fought a border war with China in 1979.

Traditionally wary of its huge northern neighbor, Vietnam shares China’s system of single-party rule. Vietnam has increasingly cracked down on dissidents and corruption, with scores of high-ranking officials and executives jailed since 2016 on Trong’s watch.

Sweeping economic changes over the past 30 years have opened Vietnam to foreign investment and trade, and made it one of fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia. But the Communist Party tolerates no challenge to its one-party rule. Even so, the Trump administration has made a focused effort to draw closer to Vietnam.

When he left Hanoi in January, Mattis said his visit made clear that Americans and Vietnamese have shared interests that in some cases predate the dark period of the Vietnam War.

“Neither of us liked being colonized,” he said.

This article is originally published on Military Times

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Neighbors square off with Beijing in South China Sea | Christopher Bodeen, The Associated Press

27 August 2018

by Christopher Bodeen, The Associated Press  (BEIJING) — A look at recent developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves:

A Vietnamese protester holds up a placard and shouts slogans along with dozens during a 2014 protest rally against China outside the Chinese Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Vietnam’s government stated its concerns to Ukraine over plastic globes being sold in the country that showed the Vietnamese province of Quang Ninh as Chinese territory. (AP)


VIETNAM UPSET AT CHINESE GLOBE

Vietnam’s government stated its concerns to Ukraine over plastic globes being sold in the country that showed the Vietnamese province of Quang Ninh as Chinese territory.

The state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper quoted the Ukrainian company that sold the globes as saying they were purchased from Chinese traders in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city. It said Vietnam’s embassy in Ukraine had sent letters to the Ukrainian foreign ministry and the company involved and that sales had been discontinued.

The issue was reported in a briefing paper produced by a consultancy run by Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia and emeritus professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales.

Quang Ninh borders China and is home to the famed Ha Long Bay scenic area.

China’s military seized islands claimed by Vietnam in the Paracels group in a bloody 1974 battle and the two continue to feud over the chain and other South China Sea territories.

In May, Vietnamese anger was sparked by a group of Chinese tourists who arrived in the country wearing T-shirts featuring the so-called “nine-dash line” demarcating Beijing South China Sea claims, many of which overlap with Vietnam’s own.

 

A Taiwan Coast Guard ship, left, and cargo ship take part in a search-and-rescue exercise off of Taiping island in the South China Sea as part of Taiwan's efforts to cement its claim to a key island in the strategically vital waterway in 2016. Taiwan’s coast guard said annual live-fire exercises conducted at Taiping island in the Spratly island group were routine and didn’t endanger shipping. Neighboring countries were informed in advance of the exercises carried out on last week, the coast guard said. (Johnson Lai/AP)

 

 

A Taiwan Coast Guard ship, left, and cargo ship take part in a search-and-rescue exercise off of Taiping island in the South China Sea as part of Taiwan’s efforts to cement its claim to a key island in the strategically vital waterway in 2016. Taiwan’s coast guard said annual live-fire exercises conducted at Taiping island in the Spratly island group were routine and didn’t endanger shipping. Neighboring countries were informed in advance of the exercises carried out on last week, the coast guard said. (Johnson Lai/AP)

 

TAIWAN REASSURES OVER DRILLS

Taiwan’s coast guard said annual live-fire exercises conducted at Taiping island in the Spratly island group were routine and didn’t endanger shipping.

Neighboring countries were informed in advance of the exercises carried out on last week, the coast guard said.

Taiping island, also known internationally as Itu Aba, is Taiwan’s sole possession in the highly contested Spratly chain. It is the largest naturally occurring islet in the group but has been dwarfed by China’s construction in the area of seven man-made islands atop coral reefs equipped with airstrips and other military infrastructure.

China, the Philippines and Vietnam also claim Taiping, and Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Tra last week had said her country “resolutely opposed” the drill. Tra said the exercises violated Vietnam’s sovereignty and posed a threat to navigation and aviation security in the region, Vietnam’s official news agency reported.

Taiwan’s formal claim to virtually the entire South China Sea mirrors that of China’s, but it has limited its activities to Taiping and the Pratas group to the north.

 

Taiwan's Ministry of Defense shows an aerial view of Taiwan's Taiping island, also known as Itu Aba, in the Spratly archipelago, roughly 1,000 miles south of Taiwan in 2016. Taiwan’s coast guard said annual live-fire exercises conducted at Taiping island in the Spratly island group were routine and didn’t endanger shipping. Neighboring countries were informed in advance of the exercises carried out on last week, the coast guard said. (Taiwan's Ministry of Defense via AP)

 

 

Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense shows an aerial view of Taiwan’s Taiping island, also known as Itu Aba, in the Spratly archipelago, roughly 1,000 miles south of Taiwan in 2016. Taiwan’s coast guard said annual live-fire exercises conducted at Taiping island in the Spratly island group were routine and didn’t endanger shipping. Neighboring countries were informed in advance of the exercises carried out on last week, the coast guard said. (Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense via AP)

 

PHILIPPINES CONCERNED ABOUT DEPLOYMENTS

The Philippines says it is concerned about possible Chinese nuclear deployments in the South China Sea following the issuing of a Pentagon report warning Beijing could use nuclear energy to provide power to man-made islands.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said last week that Manila was “concerned about the entry of any and all nuclear weapons into the Philippine territory because our constitution provides that we are a nuclear-free zone.”

Roque also cited an Association of Southeast Asian Nations treaty designating the entire region a nuclear-free zone.

“We are concerned about the possibility that any foreign power, be it American, Russian, Chinese may bring nuclear warheads into our territory and into ASEAN,” Roque said.

In its 2018 annual report to Congress on military and security developments involving China, the Pentagon said China’s plans to use floating nuclear power plants to power its islands “may add a nuclear element to the territorial dispute.

“In 2017, China indicated development plans may be underway to power islands and reefs in the typhoon-prone South China Sea with floating nuclear power stations; development reportedly is to begin prior to 2020.”

The report said nothing about the possibility of China deploying nuclear weapons in the South China Sea.

MALAYSIA CANCELS CHINESE PROJECTS

Malaysia has suspended a multibillion-dollar raft of construction projects financed by Chinese loans, possibly stymieing Beijing’s drive to strengthen its hold over Southeast Asia’s economy.

China has sought to downplay the move announced by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on the final day of a visit to Beijing on Aug. 20, but it is still seen as a blow to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature “Belt and Road” initiative.

Mahathir said he was seeking support from China’s leaders over Malaysia’s situation as it deals with a mass of debt and other economic problems created under previous administrations.

Mahathir is a vocal critic of large-scale investment in his country backed by loans from Beijing and has tested Malaysia’s ties with China by suspending Chinese-financed infrastructure projects. The suspended projects comprise a Chinese-backed $20 billion East Coast Rail Link and two energy pipelines worth $2.3 billion.

Malaysia has claims to territory in the South China Sea that overlap with those of China, but under Mahathir’s predecessors, took a low-key approach to asserting those in deference to strongly positive ties with Beijing.

Mahathir is seen as possibly taking a firmer approach.

Associated Press writer Tran Van Minh contributed to this report from Hanoi, Vietnam.

This article is originally published on Navy Times

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Australia, Japan And U.S.: The South China Sea Isn’t China’s Own Sea – Panos Mourdoukoutas | Forbes

09 August 2017

Panos Mourdoukoutas | Forbes – Australia, Japan and the U.S. have a clear and loud message for China: The South China Sea isn’t China’s own sea. It’s an international sea. That’s why the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Beijing must establish a set of rules that were “legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law.”

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (3rd R) arrives at Manila International Airport in Manila on August 5, 2017 to attend the 50th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting. (NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The message, which came at a recent gathering of the foreign ministers of the three countries in Manila, echoes a similar message America and its naval allies, France, Japan and Britain sent to Beijing six months ago stating that the South China Sea should be open to all military vessels.

That’s according to a recent Chinatopix.com report. “Japan and the United States are worried by China’s efforts to exercise unilateral control over the South China Sea, a concern shared by France, which controls several Pacific islands, including New Caledonia and French Polynesia.”

Financial markets in the region do not seem that concerned, at least for now, focusing on the economic fundamentals rather than the geopolitics of the region.

Fund 1-Month Performance 3-Month Performance
ishares MSCI China (FXI) 8.72% 14.22%
iShares MSCI Philippines (EPHE) 2.18 -1.99
Market Vectors Vietnam ETF (VNM) 1.37 5.79

Source: Finance.yahoo.com 8/8/2017

Meanwhile, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called himself a “humble” friend of America in Southeast Asia, suggesting that he is getting ready for another in a series of flip-flops in the South China Sea dispute.

China considers the waterway its own sea, and is building artificial islands, defying international tribunal rulings, though Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte isn’t prepared to stop Beijing — Philippines is the country that won an international tribunal ruling against China.

Nonetheless, the ruling fueled a wave of blunt messages and naval demonstrations between China on the one side and America’ and its close ally, Japan, on the other. Last August, for instance, China told Japan to stay away from its “own” South China Sea, as three China Coast Guard vessels entered Japanese waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, according to the Japan Coast Guard.

And there’s China’s warning to Japan a month earlier, when Beijing told Japan “not to send Self-Defense Forces to join U.S. operations that test the freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea,” according to a Japan Times editorial.

While it is still unclear whether America and its allies will manage to tame China’s South China Sea ambitions, investors should keep a close eye on the ongoing disputes in the region, as accidents can and do happen, taking financial markets for a wild ride.

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Will a China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct Really Matter? – Prashanth Parameswaran | The Diplomat

05 August 2017

by Prashanth Parameswaran | The Diplomat – As we hear an agreement being talked up, it’s worth being clear about what it means.

Image Credit: Indonesia Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs

Ahead of the next round of Asian summitry led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) set for Manila later this week, reports have surfaced that, as expected, ASEAN countries and China will endorse a framework on the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea that had first been agreed to in May.

Even though we ought to recognize any amount of diplomatic progress, however small, when it comes to the contentious South China Sea disputes, we also need to keep things in perspective by asking: what does the so-called ASEAN-China draft framework on a code of conduct in the South China Sea actually mean, and to what extent does it matter?

Three main things are clear in this respect: there is no real meaningful breakthrough between Southeast Asian states and Beijing on the South China Sea; there is no real code of any kind to speak of; and even if this agreement is built out, evidence suggests it will do little to regulate actual Chinese conduct in the maritime realm.

In other words, the draft framework as it stands now, and even an eventual, concluded COC for that matter, may not really matter that much if the past is any guide to how the future will play out.

No Real China-ASEAN Breakthrough

First, there is no real breakthrough between China and ASEAN states on the South China Sea. Instead, what we have seen thus far is more of the same.

China’s trumpeting of a new “cooling down” period in the South China Sea is nothing new. It is consistent with its tendency to calibrate its maritime assertiveness between coercive actions to enforce its extensive claims and periods of charm to consolidate gains it has made and to manage the losses it has incurred with ASEAN states, major powers, and the international community (See: “Will China Change its South China Sea Conduct in 2015?”). Or, as one Southeast Asian official in an ASEAN claimant state put it to me much more darkly in a candid conversation last summer, “like an abusive husband” with the repeated cycles of hits and makeups.

It is no coincidence, for instance, that China only conceded to a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in 2002 after it had executed the first seizure of a feature from an ASEAN member state (Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995) and had tested the resolve of Southeast Asian states as well as Washington and encountered more pushback than expected.

Similarly, China is now playing up this “cooling down” period after both completing its island-building activities and sensing that a number of fortuitous events – most notably the weakening of the Philippine South China Sea position under Rodrigo Duterte – gives it a way to “turn a page” (to borrow a favorite phrase among Chinese officials over the past year) from the humiliating defeat in last year’s arbitral tribunal ruling (See: “Beware the Illusion of ASEAN-China South China Sea Breakthroughs”).

Meanwhile, Beijing has shown no signs of departing from its decades-long goal in the South China Sea: to acquire the capabilities and to undertake calibrated actions that will allow it to eventually enforce its extensive (and now unlawful) claims in the South China Sea at others’ expense while not entirely alienating neighboring states and jeopardizing its rise.

China’s construction of military facilities on the Spratly Islands has continued, along with other familiar sorts of behavior such as the coercion of other claimant states (most notably Vietnam on energy exploitation) and pressure on other regional and extraregional states not to “interfere.” Meanwhile, Chinese leaders continue to restate, as President Xi Jinping did this week at his speech during the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), that China will not cede an inch of territory, a rather unhelpful stance as it only hypes up nationalist sentiment at home and makes agreements like joint development harder to strike abroad.

We are seeing more of the same from ASEAN states as well. Beyond the diplomatic niceties, claimant countries and interested parties, to varying degrees and though still being aware of their limitations relative to China and the divisions within ASEAN, continue to speed up their own unilateral, bilateral, and minilateral steps to safeguard their interests while acceding to the slow progress in the multilateral realm that Beijing has agreed to.

There is no doubt that Duterte’s seemingly sudden about-face on the South China Sea during the Philippines’ ASEAN chairmanship, and, to a lesser degree, other factors as well like the uncertainty over the U.S. role under President Donald Trump, have combined to water down the degree of ASEAN consensus for now (though, as I have pointed out previously, this tends to ebb and flow because of the divided nature of the grouping). (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”).

But the steps we have seen from individual Southeast Asian states of late, be it Indonesia’s recent announcement of the North Natuna Sea designation, Vietnam’s attempt at furthering energy exploitation earlier this year, or even for that matter Malaysia’s hardening rhetoric and tougher enforcement against maritime encroachments even as Prime Minister Najib Razak continues to engage Beijing economically, illustrate that we are far from any kind of ASEAN-China understanding or cooling down period of any sort (See: “Beware the Illusion of South China Sea Calm”).

No Real Code of Conduct

Second, there is not yet any meaningful code of any kind to speak of.

The so-called draft framework for a COC is a continuation of a quarter century of “agreeing to disagree” between ASEAN and China on some form of binding framework to regulate conduct in the South China Sea. In that time, a 1992 ASEAN declaration was ignored by China; the quest for a binding COC among some Southeast Asian states in the mid to late 1990s was eventually watered down to a non-binding DOC in 2002; and China has since then been dragging its feet on a binding COC up till recently, with the draft framework introduced this May.

Considering that we are now a quarter century into discussing a framework on the South China Sea and 15 years have passed since the DOC, the draft framework is quite simply an embarrassment. The working version that I had seen was essentially a skeletal one-page outline, consisting of a series of bland principles and provisions, some of which China has already violated, and a few operational clauses – the ones that ought to be the focus of a meaningful, binding COC of any sort – that have been left vague.

Southeast Asian officials familiar with the issue and ongoing discussions no doubt realize that this all amounts to very little substantively. Though there have been a series of sobering analogies I have heard in the region, my favorite came from one diplomat from an ASEAN claimant state at the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this year, who said that this was the equivalent of submitting a table of contents to an editor years after a much-delayed manuscript was expected and then attempting to pass that off as progress.

Of course, this is at least a start, and ASEAN countries and China have been clear that this is a framework to build on, rather than a final document. But that misses the point. The issue is the extent to which diplomatic progress achieved in regulating the conduct of claimants and other relevant actors in the South China Sea is keeping pace with the changing facts on the water, primarily driven by Beijing’s actions.

The past quarter century has shown that the former has proceeded glacially while the latter has advanced blazingly, to the benefit of China and at the expense of other ASEAN claimant states and interested parties like the United States who have a stake in the issue as well. The draft framework does not even come close to changing that grim reality, and it will take a lot more work before it does.

No Real Regulation of Behavior

Third and finally, even if a draft framework is built out and we eventually do see a COC concluded in the distant future, the reality is that it is unlikely to actually help regulate China’s behavior in the South China Sea.

The past quarter-century has shown that China has not just been blatant about its foot-dragging on future commitments, but is equally unafraid to flout commitments it has already made in order to realize its goal of acquiring capabilities and undertaking actions to eventually enforce its extensive claims in the South China Sea at others’ expense.

Even as China continues to call for the full implementation of the DOC – mostly as a delaying tactic to stall the negotiation of a binding COC – it has itself violated the DOC through various actions including land reclamation activities. Other indicators, from Xi’s violation of his pledge in Washington not to militarize the Spratlys to Beijing’s reluctance to comply with the binding arbitral tribunal ruling, also do not inspire confidence in this regard.

Nor, by the way, do the artful diplomatic dodges and endless legal loopholes that Chinese officials and scholars, along with their proponents, continue to use. To seasoned observers, this is nothing more than duplicity under the guise of intellectual masturbation.

Some continue to hope for future shifts in China’s position in this respect, be it an eventual clarification of the notorious nine-dash line or a gradual acceptance of binding frameworks. But that (seemingly endless) wait misses the point. The issue is not whether the extent of Chinese compliance will evolve at all, but whether it will evolve to a degree that will keep pace with the facts on the water.

So far, what we have seen instead is that the elusive quest to regulate Chinese behavior (or to get Beijing to regulate its own behavior) has been vastly overtaken by the facts on the water. If this continues to be the case, even if we eventually get a binding and meaningful COC, it would have been rendered meaningless because Beijing would essentially have de facto control of the South China Sea by then.

Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, a shrewd South China Sea observer, has been warning that even as the focus is on getting to Beijing to agree on a COC, we should not discount a scenario where China eventually does agree to do this, along with further steps like a freeze by all claimant states on island-building, reclamation, and militarization — once it achieves its objective of assuming control of the South China Sea through steps like reclaiming Scarborough Shoal and developing the capabilities for an effective, enforceable (and perhaps undeclared) air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

In other words, China may indeed accede to the COC once it succeeds in achieving its goal in the South China Sea. And by that time, a COC will not really matter much.

Even as we acknowledge the incremental progress — real or imagined — being touted in the diplomatic realm on the South China Sea disputes between Southeast Asian states and Beijing, these broader realities as important to keep in mind.

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Trump just approved a plan for the US Navy to check Beijing in the South China Sea – Alex Lockie | Business Insider

23 July 2017

Alex Lockie | Business Insider – President Donald Trump approved a plan to check Beijing over its continued militarization of and actions in the South China Sea, Breitbart News Kristina Wong reports.

USS Lassen (DDG 82) patrols the eastern Pacific Ocean. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Huey D. Younger Jr.

Over the last few years, China has ambitiously built up islands on reefs and atolls in the South China Sea and militarized them with radar outposts, military-grade runways, and shelters for missile defenses.

Military analysts believe China hopes to expand its air defense and identification zone into the western Pacific and build a blue-water navy to rival the US’s, but six other countries also lay claim to parts of the region.

In 2016, an international court at The Hague deemed China’s maritime claims unlawful and excessive, but China rejected the ruling outright and has continued to build military installations and unilaterally declare no-fly and no-sail zones.

When a country makes an excessive naval claim, the US Navy challenges it by sailing its ships, usually destroyers, close to the disputed territory or through the disputed waters as a way of ensuring freedom of navigation for all. In 2016, the US challenged the excessive claims of 22 nations — China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping passes, were the most prominent.

China has responded forcefully to US incursions into the region, telling the US the moves were provocative and that they must ask permission, which doesn’t align with international law or UN conventions.

“China’s military will resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and regional peace and stability,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in response to US bombers flying in the region.

Photo(C)Reuters

Under former US President Barack Obama, the US suspended freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea from 2012 to 2015. In 2016, the US made just three such challenges. So far, under Trump, the US has made three challenges already.

“You have a definite return to normal,” chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told Breitbart News.

“This administration has definitely given the authority back to the people who are in the best position to execute those authorities, so it’s a return to normal,” she said.

Freedom of navigation operations work best when they’re routine in nature and don’t make news.

They serve to help the US establish the facts in the water, but in the South China Sea, those facts all indicate Chinese control.

When Chinese military jets fly armed over head, when Chinese navy ships patrol the waters, and when Chinese construction crews lay down the framework for a network of military bases in the South China Sea, the US’s allies in the region notice.

An increased US Navy presence in the area won’t turn back time and unpave runways, but it could send a message to allies that the US has their back and won’t back away from checking Beijing.

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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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Southeast Asia tends to defenses in South China Sea – by Atsushi Tomiyama | Nikkei Asian Review

02 June 2017

by Atsushi Tomiyama | Nikkei Asian Review – HANOI — With Vietnam welcoming foreign warships to a key port and the Philippines building on a disputed island, Southeast Asian nations are working to reinforce their South China Sea claims in the face of an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Japan’s Izumo destroyer at Cam Ranh Bay on May 20. © Kyodo

Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier — one of the country’s largest naval ships — made port in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for the first time May 20 as part of the Pacific Partnership annual humanitarian mission by such countries as Japan and the U.S. A state-affiliated newspaper expressed Hanoi’s hope for Japanese involvement in the region.

Located 550km from both the Spratly and Paracel islands, Cam Ranh Bay is a key stronghold in the South China Sea. Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships first entered the port in April 2016, followed by American and Chinese vessels in October, as the Vietnamese government seeks to strike a diplomatic balance between various countries.

The U.S. granted six patrol ships to Vietnam on May 22. Two days later, America conducted its first freedom-of-navigation operation — a sail-by through disputed waters — in the South China Sea since President Donald Trump took office.

Trump “stressed that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows” in a Wednesday meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the White House said in a statement.

Vietnam knows that even as Washington seeks cooperation with the Chinese on North Korea, it is still working to curb Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea. U.S. Sen. John McCain met with Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich here shortly before the summit. McCain requested that more American vessels be allowed to enter Cam Ranh Bay, according to Vietnamese sources.

Foothold in the Spratlys

The Philippines is cementing its control over an island in the disputed Spratly group, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures to China. Manila abruptly resumed efforts to build coastal facilities and repair the runway at Pag-asa Island, which had been delayed for several years, when its military started transporting cement and wood there early last month. The project is expected to cost a total of 1.6 billion pesos ($32.1 million).

Pag-asa is home to 100-plus Filipinos and a Philippine military presence. By building there, the Philippines is demonstrating its claim of sovereignty over the island, which lies within China’s “nine-dash line” claim over most of the South China Sea.

Duterte said at one point that he would visit Pag-asa to raise the Philippine flag. He later changed his mind in a likely effort to secure economic aid from China but is expected to maintain his country’s claim over the island.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is believed to have deployed five F-16 fighters and three to five naval frigates to its Natuna Islands. The country is building up a base there, with plans to finish a runway and expand a military port by the end of the year. Indonesia is also considering deploying submarines and buying additional fighters from Russia.

Beijing is steadily expanding its area of effective control in the South China Sea, taking such steps as installing air defense systems on seven artificial islands in the Spratlys. With both Washington and Manila warming up to Beijing, little progress was made on a legally binding code of conduct in the waters at a May meeting between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asian security summit starting in Singapore on Friday, will likely focus on North Korea’s continued missile tests. Group of Seven leaders expressed concern over the maritime disputes in May — provoking a rebuke from Beijing. This time, most countries are expected to shy away from antagonizing China, given its role in restraining Pyongyang.

 (This article is originally published at Nikkei Asian Review)


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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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South China Sea: Red Lines And Propaganda Wars Flare Up Tensions – Panos Mourdoukoutas | Forbes

13 February 2017

by Panos Mourdoukoutas | Forbes (New York/US) Investors seem to be spending too much time these days analyzing the Fed’s next interest rate move and Washington’s next fiscal and deregulation measures, and not enough time watching the gathering of geopolitical storms that may take a toll on their global investment holdings.

(AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File)

One of those storms is gathering over the South China Sea, and it’s threatening to disrupt one of the world’s largest trade routes with devastating consequences – for the economies of the region and the multinational companies that draw a big chunk of their revenues from there.

The South China Sea disputes began as a regional tug of war between China and its neighbors, but they quickly turned into a showdown of economic and military might between China and the US.

Almost three years ago, China elevated the tensions in the region by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. America countered by expanding its naval presence in disputed waters, and by advancing its missile capabilities in South Korea.

In the beginning, China confined its response to a few loud statements about America’s “violation” of international law, and by recruiting American allies with the AIIB initiative.

Then, Beijing raised the stakes by announcing that it would send nuclear submarines into the area to “deter” US presence.

Compounding the dispute was an international arbitration ruling last July, which determined that China has no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea–a ruling, serving to limit China’s drive to control trade and resources in the region.

Defiant of the ruling, Beijing flared up tensions, reaffirming its determination to continue the artificial build up, setting “red lines” and sending loud messages to neighborhood countries. Beijing, for instance, warned Japan to “not send Self-Defense Forces to join U.S. operations that test the freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea,” according to a Japan Times editorial.

Last month, following a show of naval force in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan sent a blunt message to China by preparing its military forces to fend off Beijing’s threats.

Taiwan’s defense minister Feng Shih-kuan told Taiwan Central News Agency that the “enemy’s threats are increasingly expanding” as he issued orders for the military to step up training exercises.

Last week, America drew its own red line in the China Sea by asserting its determination to defend Japanese islands claimed by China, drawing Beijing’s angry protests.

In the meantime, allegations have surfaced that Japan has launched a propaganda war against China, further flaring tensions between the two countries. That’s something Tokyo has yet to refute.

Still, financial markets fixated on central bankers’ easy money and the prospects of a massive US stimulus have been treating the South China Sea disputes as a noise rather than as something more serious. But for how long?

Index/Fund 12-month Performance 2-year Performance
iShares China (FXI) +26.24% -12.29%
iShares MSCI Japan (EWJ) +16.34 +10.20%
iShares Philippines (EPHE) +8.30 -16.10%

Source: Finance.yahoo.com

(Original version is available at Forbes)

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