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New Book: “The South China Sea Arbitration: Understanding the Awards and Debating with China,” by Dr. Alfredo C. Robles Jr. – De La Salle University

20 January 2019

On ABS-CBN News:

MANILA — A new book on the South China Sea will be launched at the De La Salle University (DLSU) in Manila this week.

The book, entitled “The South China Sea Arbitration: Understanding the Awards and Debating with China,” is written by Dr. Alfredo C. Robles Jr. and jointly published by DLSU Publishing House and Sussex Academic Press in United Kingdom.

It will be launched on January 22, which is also the same day in 2013 when the Philippines formally transmitted to China a notification and statement of claim.

 

Among the information revealed by Robles’ book is that China has used disinformation and propaganda to undermine the Philippines’ win in the South China Sea arbitration.

In his book, Robles detailed how China attempted to influence the Tribunal without the knowledge of the Philippines, as well as dismissed the arbitration as non-binding, among other things.

“These claims were outrageous, but they could only be refuted using a scholarly approach,” Robles said.

 

Robles is a university fellow at DLSU Manila. He holds doctorate degrees in International and European Studies from Universite Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and in Political Science from Syracuse University.

 Source: ABS-CBN

On Politiko:

In a rare public engagement, Former President Benigno Aquino III will answer burning questions on the arbitration case that the Philippines won against China in 2016.

Aquino is the guest of honor at the launch of Alfredo Robles Jr.’s book called “The South China Sea Arbitration: Understanding the Awards and Debating with China” to be held on Tuesday (January 22) at the De La Salle University.

It was under Aquino’s administration that the Philippines questioned China’s nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea, which included the West Philippine Sea, before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Netherlands.

The Philippine argued that China’s sweeping claim over the South China Sea goes against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The PCA ruled in the Philippines’ favor on July 12, 2016, shortly after Aquino’s term ended.

Source: Politiko

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Is Vietnam adopting a tough South China Sea posture? | Xuan Loc Doan – Asia Times

18 January 2019

Over the past month, some international news outlets have reported that Vietnam is pursuing a strong stance on the South China Sea. Yet a closer look at Hanoi’s overall position – as well as those of other countries and international entities – vis-à-vis the maritime issue shows that is not the case.

A Vietnamese naval soldier stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Quang Le

On December 30, Reuters reported that Vietnam was pushing for tough provisions in the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea that Southeast Asian nations and China are negotiating. More precisely, according to this report, Vietnam wants the pact to outlaw Beijing’s controversial actions in the disputed area in recent years, including the building of artificial islands and military activities such as missile deployments.

It also pushes for a ban on any new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that China unilaterally announced over the East China Sea in 2013. It equally demands that disputing states clarify their maritime claims as per international law.

A day later, the South China Morning Post also claimed that Vietnam “takes [a] hard line” by making such demands. It described Hanoi’s request that “states clarify their maritime claims according to international law” as “an apparent attempt to shatter Beijing’s ‘nine-dash line,’ by which China claims and patrols much of the South China Sea.”

Last Friday, the Hong Kong-based newspaper ran an article headlined“Vietnam risks Beijing’s ire as it uses US freedom-of-navigation exercise to stake its claim in South China Sea.” That article referred to a freedom-of-navigation operation (FONOP) by USS McCampbell near the Paracel Islands on January 7 and remarks by a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman about it two days later.

Asked for her comments about the US guided-missile destroyer’s passage in a press briefing on January 9, Le Thi Thu Hang said Vietnam “has sufficient legal grounds and historical evidence testifying its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa [Paracel] and Trưong Sa [Spratly] archipelagoes in conformity with international law.”

She also stressed that as a member of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and a coastal state in the East Sea (Vietnamese name for the South China Sea), her country always respects the right to freedom of navigation and aviation in the area of other states in line with international law, especially the UNCLOS.

It could be that, as the SCMP’s article said, Beijing, which was angry about the USS McCampbell’s FONOP, was not pleased with the Vietnamese spokeswoman’s remarks and that Hanoi used the US military’s move to reaffirm its territorial claims in the area.

But Vietnam’s demands that states clarify their maritime claims, resolve their disputes and operate in the area in line with international law, notably UNCLOS, are not new.

In its own statements, joint declarations with its main partners – such as the United States, IndiaJapanAustraliaSouth KoreaIndonesia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and France – as well as talks with China, Vietnam has long and consistently maintained an international-law-based approach to the South China Sea issue.

For instance, in his keynote speech at the 2013 Shangri-La Dialogue, Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s then prime minister, urged China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “double efforts to formulate a COC that conforms to international law and in particular, the 1982 UNCLOS.” He also said: “As a coastal state, Vietnam reaffirms and defends its legitimate rights and interests in accordance with international law, especially the 1982 UNCLOS.”

Similarly, in a speech at the 38th Singapore Lecture three years later, Tran Dai Quang, its then president, who died a few months ago, clearly and firmly stated Vietnam’s “consistent position” vis-à-vis the South China Sea – that is “to remain resolute and persistent in the defense of national independence, sovereignty and territorial unity and integrity” and “to settle disputes by peaceful means through the political, diplomatic and legal process on the basis of international law, including [UNCLOS].”

In line with what Quang said in that lecture, in a Vietnam-Singapore joint statement issued at the end of his official visit to the city-state, both sides “emphasized the importance of resolving disputes peacefully, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with international law, including as reflected in the 1982 [UNCLOS].”

Vietnam’s joint statements with the US in 201320152016 and 2017 stated, more or less, the same posture. For instance, in the 2017 statement issued during US President Donald Trump’s Vietnam visit, the leaders of the two countries “underscored the strategic importance to the international community of free and open access to the South China Sea” and “the need to respect freedom of navigation and over-flight, and other lawful uses of the sea.”

They also “reaffirmed their shared commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes.”

In his talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing in early 2017, Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, also clearly “asserted Vietnam’s consistent stance of persistently dealing with the dispute in the East Sea by peaceful measures in compliance with international law, including the 1982 [UNCLOS], and with respect to diplomatic and legal processes.”

Such an approach is also supported by other countries and international bodies, such as the Group of Seven advanced economies, which repeatedly says its members “are committed to maintaining a rules-based order in the maritime domain based on the principles of international law, in particular as reflected in the [UNCLOS].”

Of Vietnam’s demands reported by Reuters, the stress that disputing states “clarify their maritime claims in according to international law” is, without doubt, the most fundamental one. All nations, strong and weak alike, should, if not must, make their claims, resolve their disputes and act in accordance with international law.

In his remarks at the G7 summit in Canada last June, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, urged the member states (namely France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the US, Canada and Japan) to “demonstrate unity regarding the ongoing land reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea, as the international law must apply to all countries, big and small, on land and at sea.”

In this sense, Vietnam’s South China Sea posture is not tough at all. On the contrary, it’s very sensible, advisable and, as such, widely supported.

Yet for China, the provisions that its communist neighbor wants the COC to include – notably that “states clarify their maritime claims” in the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea “according to international law” – are tough.

As the December 31 SCMP article said, they are “likely to prove unpalatable to Beijing.” This is because such propositions would invalidate the Asian giant’s controversial, if not illegal, claims and actions in the resources-rich and strategically vital waters.

As ruled by a UNCLOS tribunal in 2016, if it is based on international law, notably the 1982 Convention, China’s “nine-dash-line” claim would be unlawful. And as that infamous line was already declared illegal by the international tribunal, many, if not most, of China’s contentious actions within it, including its recent land reclamation and military buildup or a future ADIZ declaration, are illegal.

That said, it may be true that Vietnam is adopting a tougher posture than it was, and that would be understandable.

A few years ago, the Philippines and Vietnam were the two regional countries that were mostly critical of China’s behavior in the area. But since Rodrigo Duterte became the Philippines’ president in 2016, Manila has pursued an accommodating, if not defeatist, attitude toward Beijing.

The maverick leader is now seen as “China’s voice in ASEAN.” It’s no coincidence that China, which was previously very reluctant to negotiate the COC, has recently vowed to conclude it before 2021. Both the Duterte presidency and the Philippines’ term as the coordinator of the ASEAN-China dialogue end in that year.

Against this backdrop, Hanoi needs to voice its position robustly if it wants to “remain resolute and persistent in the defense of [Vietnam’s] national independence, sovereignty and territorial unity and integrity.” An effective – if not, the most plausible – way to achieve that goal is to internationalize the issue and call for an international-law-based approach to it, because international law and many other countries are on its side.

By calling claimant parties as well as other interested countries to act according to international law in the South China Sea, Hanoi is, intentionally or not, urging China to practice what Xi Jinping, its core leader, repeatedly and, indeed, beautifully, preaches on the world stage.

For instance, addressing the United Nations Office in Geneva in 2017, the Chinese president quoted “an ancient Chinese philosopher [that] said, ‘Law is the very foundation of governance’” and then lectured that all countries should “uphold the authority of the international rule of law … ensure equal and uniform application of international law and reject double standards and the practice of applying international law in a selective way.”

In that speech, titled “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” Xi also vowed, “No matter how strong its economy grows, China will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence.”

Should Beijing apply all this to the South China Sea, the intractable maritime disputes would be easily and peacefully resolved.

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This article is originally published at Asia Times

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Vietnam Gains Bargaining Power Over China in Conduct at Sea Talks | Ralph Jennings – VOA News

18 January 2019

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Vietnam’s tough stance against China over sovereignty of the South China Sea will put Beijing on the defensive during regional talks on easing the regional maritime dispute, people who follow the process say.

 

FILE – People take part in an anti-China protest to mark the 43rd anniversary of the China’s occupation of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea in Hanoi, Vietnam, Jan. 19, 2017.

 

Officials in Hanoi have suggested establishing a code of conduct that, among other things, would bar construction on artificial islands in the South China Sea and ban militarizing disputed features, said Carl Thayer, a University of New South Wales emeritus professor, in an online commentary about a preview of a draft code text written last year. Vietnam, he added, wants to ban any blockades of vessels and nix the possibility of any single country’s air defense identification zone.

Vietnam also would deem “unacceptable” any agreement excluding the sea’s Paracel Islands, which it claims but China effectively controls, according to a report posted by Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative think tank project in the United States.

 

 

 

 

FILE – Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy.

 

 

China’s island building

Analysts say China has landfilled and militarized more of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea than any of the other five claimants. It will oppose the Vietnamese agenda, further setting back the 23-year-old code of conduct process but keep it at the bargaining table to show it’s a good neighbor, they expect.

“Chinese hegemony of the South China Sea is not accepted by any of the states within the region,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.

“The problem is, their asymmetric capabilities basically mean that they can’t push back,” he said. “The only way they can push back is to try to forge consensus on code of conduct or at least raising awareness that these issues still remain a core challenge to security and territorial sovereignty within the region.”

 

 

 

ASEAN leaders and delegates pose for a photo during a working lunch on the sidelines of the 33rd ASEAN summit in Singapore, Nov. 14, 2018.
 

Code of conduct

After 23 years of on-again, off-again efforts, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China decided in 2017 to restart talks on a code of conduct aimed at preventing accidents while leaving sovereignty issues aside. China has said a final code should be signed by 2021.

Four association countries and Taiwan dispute China’s claims to about 90 percent of the sea. China and Vietnam have gotten into three clashes there since the 1970s.

Vietnam’s suggestions for the code, if they carry forward, would affect China the most because of its reach over the sea valued for fisheries, shipping lanes and energy reserves. China has reclaimed about 1,200 hectares of land to build out tiny islets and placed military hardware such as aircraft on some, maritime scholars believe.

The wording from Hanoi would spotlight China’s expansion at sea, a trend Beijing seldom publicizes. It might also serve as a bargaining chip during later stages of talks about the code of conduct, they say.

“Vietnam is in a difficult position as perhaps the country that is pushing back most vociferously against the gradual expansion of Chinese control over the South China Sea,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow at Honolulu-based research organization the East-West Center.

“Hanoi must draw the attention for playing the role of standing up to China,” Roy said. “Otherwise China will meet less resistance from ASEAN. In that sense Vietnamese pushback might make a difference.”

Hanoi lost control of the Paracel chain of some 130 islets to China in the 1970s. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam vie with China sovereignty in the Spratly Island chain.

Chinese reaction

China would oppose Vietnam’s ideas for the code, experts say. Beijing is unlikely to show foreign policy “weakness” this year before celebrations of its 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

“I expect if the Vietnamese government continues to insist (on) putting language that the Chinese cannot tolerate, it would be more like a kind of bargaining chip,” he said. “It’s going to touch the nerve of the central leadership.” 

 

 

South China Sea Territorial Claims
 

China bases its maritime claims on fishing records it says date back some 2,000 years.

But China will keep negotiating the code of conduct because it’s under “tremendous pressure” to reduce tensions in Southeast Asia so it can focus instead on ties with the United States, Nagy said. The U.S. government helps train troops in the Philippines and periodically passes ships through the sea to show it’s open to all.

Despite historical jousting between China and Taiwan over territory, the two countries’ communist parties regularly discuss maritime issues. They have agreed the Paracel dispute should stay between them, said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Vietnam’s conditions for the code would delay code negotiations, he said.

“I think it will be slow, because the Chinese side already said three years’ time frame, so they will just go through the motions of having meetings,” Chalermpalanupap said.

This article is originally published at VOA News

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South China Sea: Vietnam Dares What Philippines Didn’t | Panos Mourdoukoutas – Forbes

02 January 2019

AP Photo/Kin Cheung – ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the South China Sea disputes, Vietnam dares to do what the Philippines didn’t: challenge China’s mission to turn the vast waterway into its own sea.

That’s according to a recent Reuters report, which claims that Vietnam is pushing for a pact that will outlaw many of China’s ongoing activities in the South China Sea.  Like the building of artificial islands, blockades and offensive weaponry such as missile deployments; and the Air Defence Identification Zone—a conduct code China initiated back in 2013.

This isn’t the first time Hanoi is challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea. Back in July of 2017, Vietnam granted Indian oil firm ONGC Videsh a two-year extension to explore oil block 128, according to another Reuters report.

And that’s something Beijing loudly opposed.

In recent years, China has considered the South China Sea its own. All of it, including the artificial islands Beijing has been building in disputed waters, and the economic resources that are hidden below the vast sea area. And it is determined to use its old and new naval powers to make sure that no other country reaches for these resources without its permission.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte understands Beijing’s determination very well. Back in April of 2018 he reversed his earlier decision to raise the Philippine flag in disputed islands, following Beijing’s “friendly” advice.

A year before that incident, the Philippines and its close ally, the U.S., won an international arbitration ruling that China has no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea. Yet Duterte didn’t dare enforce it. Instead, he sided with Beijing on the dispute, and sought a “divorce” from the U.S. 

Duterte’s flip-flops saved peace in the South China Sea by changing the rules of the game for China and the US, at least according to his own wisdom.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with Vietnam– which also claims parts of the waterway.

And it has a strong ally on its side: the US, which has been trying to enforce the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and save peace, too!

So far, financial markets in the region do not seem that concerned, at least for now. Instead, they have been focusing on the economic fundamentals rather than the geopolitics of the region; and on the rising interest rates in the US.

China, Vietnam, and Philippines Shares (KOYFIN)

But things may change in the future, as an escalation of South China Sea disputes could add to investor anxieties fueled by the US-China trade war.

Source: Forbes

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How Vietnam Benefits From US Strategy in the South China Sea – Gary Sands | The Diplomat

19 October 2018

The Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy is quickly gaining more definition.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) fires two Standard Missile (SM) 2 missile during a live-fire evolution.
Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Logan C. Kellums/Released

As Washington starts to counter Beijing on multiple fronts — economically, politically and militarily — the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy is quickly gaining more definition. The United States has struggled to define its FOIP, a regional construct also led by Australia, India, and Japan, ever since Trump signed on to the concept last November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit held in Da Nang.

In recent days, however, U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have started to comment publiclyon details of the strategy.  Another U.S. official, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall G. Schriver, recently visited Vietnam to speak on what the U.S. FOIP means for Hanoi. Schriver was making his third visit to Vietnam as part of the annual Defense Policy Dialogue between the United States and Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense, amid growing military ties between the two former combatants.

In his speech at the American Center in Ho Chi Minh City on October 5,  Schriver began by referring to the Indo-Pacific region as a “priority theater,” while highlighting some of the more aggressive actions undertaken by China in the region, particularly in the South China Sea (which Vietnam refers to as the East Sea). Schriver defined the new U.S. National Defense Strategy as based upon three pillars: 1) recognition of great power competition, primarily between China, Russia, and the United States; 2) the development and nurturing of defense allies and partners; and 3) structural reforms of the U.S. Defense Department to better undertake its mission.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.How Vietnam Benefits From the New U.S. Strategy

One of the ways in which Vietnam can gain from the FOIP strategy is through freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) conducted by major players in the region. These FONOPs are intended to show Beijing and the other littoral nations of the South China Sea that passage by naval vessels can be free and open — despite Beijing’s claim to some 90 percent of the waters and its determination to control rights to passage.

Schriver spoke at some length concerning one such recent U.S. FONOP involving the near collision between the USS Decatur, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and the Lanzhou, a Luyang-II class guided-missile destroyer, near the Gaven Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands (also claimed by Vietnam). During the FONOP, the Chinese destroyer reportedly passed within some 45 yards (40 meters) of the U.S. destroyer, causing the U.S. warship to alter its course in order to avoid a collision. This year, the U.S. has conducted four FONOPs in the South China Sea so far, compared to four in 2017, three in 2016, and one in 2015.

According to Schriver, the U.S. FONOPs are in response to the construction of artificial islands by Beijing — built around reefs and rocks to create “facts on the ground” in an effort to further China’s claims. Some of those rocks and reefs claimed by China (such as Gaven Reef) used to be submerged during high tide. Schriver suggested further action may be taken by the Trump administration against Chinese companies involved in the construction of these artificial islands — presumably through the implementation of economic sanctions.

In the airspace over the disputed waters, Schriver mentioned the FOIP policy would also resist any existing or new declarations by Beijing of Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ), one of the ways in which China attempts to assert its sovereignty in the region. Schriver stated that under a free and open Indo-Pacific “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” consistent with the previous policy of former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter under the Obama administration “pivot to Asia,” and revealing implicit support for the territorial claims of littoral states such as Vietnam.

With a Little Help From My Friends

While the new U.S. National Defense Strategy calls for the development and nurturing of defense partners such as Vietnam, Hanoi will not get too friendly thanks to its foreign policy of “Three Nos”: no foreign bases on its territory, no military alliances, and no involving third parties in its disputes.

While Hanoi does not officially involve third parties in its dispute over the South China Sea, Vietnam will stand to gain from an increase in FONOPs and other challenges to Beijing’s assertion of authority under the U.S. administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. Some of the naval vessels conducting FONOPs will continue to make port call visits at Cam Ranh Bay, furthering the development and nurturing of defense partnerships between Hanoi, the United States, and other major naval players in the region, while their FONOPs will show implicit support for the claims of Vietnam and other littoral nations.

Finally, with the potential for greater cooperation among the great naval powers in the region to promote and administer a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, in an era of greater economic, military, and political competition among China, Russia, and the United States, Hanoi may find it easier than ever to skillfully play all three partners off against each other to maximum advantage.

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. A former diplomat with the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, he has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, Asia Times, National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He is currently based in Taipei.

This article is originally published on The Diplomat

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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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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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US taking stronger stance in South China Sea – Vietnamese expert – by Niña P. Calleja | Inquirer Global Nation

06 June 2017

Niña P. Calleja | Inquirer Global Nation – HO CHI MINH CITY — The United States seems to be taking a stronger stance against China’s activities in the South China Sea, according to Dr. Ha Anh Tuan, director of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies (IFPSS) of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

Mischief Reef. (Photo from the Center for Strategic and International Studies)

Among the indications this, Ha pointed out, are the recently implemented Freedom of Investigation Operation (Fonop) implemented by the United States and the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on May 31.

On May 25, the USS Dewey, a guided missile destroyer of the US Navy, sailed within 12 nautical miles (22.22 kilometers) of Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef) in the Spratly Islands, where China has built one of its man-made islands. The reef is being claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, and China.

Fonop is meant to counter China’s assertion of de facto control over the South China China, where it has nearly finished building artificial islands and military bases.

“In the first month since Trump came into office, the US strategy towards the South China Sea was not clear,” Ha said in an email interview with the Inquirer. “The latest US Freedom of Navigation Operation campaign in May 2017, however, suggests that Trump’s position towards the South China Sea could be even stronger than the one adopted by Obama administration.”

Ha said the delivery of the six coastal patrol vessels to Vietnam, followed by the meeting between Trump and Nguyen on May 31, showed a stronger support of the US against China’s occupation in the South China Sea.

“All are signs of a US commitment, which Vietnam had feared was waning under President Donald Trump,” he said.

Nguyen went to the US for a three-day official visit from May 29 to May 31, which culminated in his first meeting with Trump at the White House. He is the first head of state in Southeast Asia to meet Trump since the latter’s inauguration this year.

Visiting to the US on Trump’s official invitation, the Vietnamese leader also hoped to boost relationship with the US, Vietnam’s top trading partner despite its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, the trade treaty which an export-oriented Vietnam would have likely benefited from.

Since diplomatic ties between Vietnam and US normalized 20 years ago, bilateral trade has flourished – reaching $36.3 billion in 2014 and $45 billion in 2016.

But the South China Sea was also on the Southeast Asian leader’s agenda. In a joint statement issued after their meeting, Nguyen and Trump called on all parties to “refrain from actions that would escalate tensions, such as the militarization of disputed features.”

In the same statement, Trump assured Vietnam that US  would continue to “fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.”

Ha noted that the land reclamation of China in the South China Sea was completed well before Trump’s presidency. This, he said, left the the US with “virtually no option to change that reality.”

China, meanwhile, condemned the US operation, saying the US ship did not ask permission to enter what it claimed to be its territorial waters.

But other claimants in the South China Sea, like Vietnam, were hoping to see more of the US presence in the region “as a way to maintain regional peace, stability and security,” Ha said.

Vietnam and the Philippines, along Malaysia and Brunei, have competing claims with China over the South China Sea.

After his US trip, the Vietnamese prime minister would go next to Japan for an official visit from June 4 to 8 at the invitation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

A meeting between President Rodrigo Duterte and Trump is also in the offing, as the US president had invited the Philippine leader to visit the White House.

Trump is also expected to visit Vietnam in November for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to be held there in Danang.

 (This article is originally published at Inquirer Global Nation)


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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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