South China Sea Disputes cont.

Chinese Coastguard vessels in the South China Sea

As discussed in an earlier post, the issue of territorial conflict in the South China Sea between China and its neighbors hasn’t solved itself; again animosity has been prompted by neighboring nations taking affront at Chinese fishing ships working and traveling through contested waters and the naturalized waters of various states. Most recently the Sino-Phillipines wrestling match over the Huangyan Islands/Panatag Shoal as they are known in China and the Philippines has witnessed angry and violent rhetoric and twin cases of dueling Chinese and Philippine public protests.

The issue, much like recent Chinese conflicts with Vietnam, Japan and South Korea arose when Chinese fishing boat captains  challenged coastguard vessels in non- Chinese or contested waters. In this situation a group of boats were seeking shelter from a storm (according the the CPC) when the Philippine coastguard found them and upon and inspection of their cargo attempted to arrest the fishermen on board for the taking of endangered species from the islands. The Chinese fishermen resisted and radioed for help, this then led to a stand off as more Chinese and Philippine coastguard and fishing ships arrived at the scene. Although the chance for further conflict has died down now, the CPC media is still responding strongly to the incident, but is mostly riled up about the Philippine’s territorial claim to the islands. In response to this issue the media has called for a permanent base on the island, has decried the US’s involvement and their enabling of the Philippines, threatened a military response to any Philippine escalation and has crowed over the how much damage China’s reaction has done to the Philippine economy. In spite of this, the CPC has also attempted to paint itself as the honest and good natured victim.

A short China Daily article written in May this year asked for the opinion of various Chinese policy wonks on the topic; their response was relatively uniform; Hong Guo Quan, a writer and director for the CCTV Military Channel said China should hoist “the national flag, establish… the monument of sovereignty, build… military bases, or… a fishery base on the island”. He went on to state that the Islands should pose as an example for “breaking the deadlock”, in all of the South China Sea disputes. Cao Xinglong a Chinese lawyer, stated that China must “win worldwide sympathy” via the use of diplomatic and economic ‘deterrents’ only, while Hu Xijin Editor-in-chief at Global Times very bluntly went a step further in stating “If the Philippines become too provocative and break(s) the peace, they can expect a punch in the face”. These views were not chosen for their differing in opinion; in effect they all make the same point; the CPC will not strike first, knows the Philippines cannot either, but it is willing to escalate the situation in other ways; namely by building a permanent testament to China’s claim on the island and through economic measures.

A China Daily article on the issue written on May 28th summarized the details of Beijing’s stance against the Philippines; stating that the issue is really about the Philippine president “trying to shift attention from his country’s domestic woes”. Further elaborating on this narrative of China’s position, the same article made the case for China’s claim to the islands. Noting that they had been “China’s undisputable territory for centuries”, they went on to argue that the Philippines “did not officially  lay rival claim over it until 1997”. However, in reality and outside of China, this claim is easily disputed; the Philippines placed a flag pole and lighthouse on the island in 1965, furthermore Spanish and American maritime maps from the 18th century back up the Philippine claim. Whereas the first concrete Chinese claim on the Islands was made back in 1935. In its defence of their claim on the islands, China seems aware of its position and the international skepticism towards it, and has rejected the Philippine’s repeated requests to take the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Nonetheless it is very ready to back up its claims with belligerence, People’s Daily states that “China’s determination to defend its territorial  sovereignty will not be hindered by the “China threat theory”, and that “any country that carries out vexatious acts is doomed to be hit hard no matter if it is weak,  no matter how pitiful it pretends to be”.

The reason for this conflict surfacing now, rather than 70 years ago when the dispute began is that as far back as the 1930’s neither China nor the Philippines (which was not yet outside American, protectorate status) had the resources to secure the islands, neither did they have much reason to, the islands, and in-fact all of the contested waters in the South China Sea weren’t worth much.  China’s coastal fishery stocks are now almost depleted; directly leading to the increase in conflicts between Chinese fishermen and their neighbors. At the same time, huge oil finds are being speculated for in the region; the result is that now Chinese fishing boats and research ships from a plethora of nations are being seen in areas they haven’t before, leading to an increase in confrontations. Increases in mainland pollution and unsustainable fishing practices, as well as the high price of oil and increases in Asian demand for it implies that the issue is only set to get worse as an increasing affluent Asian population seeks out resources.

Considering this, the governments of South East Asia must feel great consternation and a very real sense of destabilization at the rise of China, despite its insistence towards a “peaceful rise”. Regardless of political alliances in the region, China sets its neighbors off balance and asks a lot of them regarding their foreign and domestic policies. Unfortunately the fact that China is willing to also be aggressive on issues like territorial disputes, human rights and diplomatic contact with the US only increases this dis-ease. In the South China Sea, Chinese coastguard vessels are still arresting Vietnamese fishermen for fishing in what they’ve known for generations as their maritime territory. In Korea, Taiwan and Japan, coastguard officers know that attempts to arrest illegal Chinese fishermen in their territories will result in vicious physical confrontations and indignant diplomatic confrontations with Beijing. For smaller nations like Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia, they now know that holding on to the contested territories that China claims of them puts their economies at extreme risk.

China’s stance on the expanded issue of the South China Sea territorial disputes with Vietnam, Thailand, India, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, as well as the Philippines have been historically similar. The CPC has claimed that their neighbors were the aggressor and then has limited diplomatic relations or sought to punish them economically whilst maintaining a minimum credible force in the area to guard against further action. In the case of the Philippines there has been diplomatic intimidation, with the Philippines ambassador being summoned to explain himself, there is also a very real sense of disproportion in China’s response; the Philippine Navy’s only modern ships are Cold War-era US coastguard vessels. Economic sanctions took the guise of hidden trade restrictions, with the CPC citing “tightening quality controls” on Philippine fruit and purposefully slowing down inspection times, this action has ended up costing Philippine businesses $33.6 million dollars to date. At the same time the CPC has greatly discouraged Chinese tourism to the islands and has implied that Chinese nationals in the country could be attacked. Despite this the Chinese media has been wont to portray China as the one de-escalating the confrontation, Peoples Daily stated that China has adopted an attitude of restraint and has “created a peaceful atmosphere in the South China Sea”. The same article also claimed that China alone should “make rules for the development of the South China Sea area and even the whole Asia”.

The US Navy’s 7th, East Asian Fleet

There are no prizes for guessing who the CPC thinks the guilty party responsible for all of this trouble is; it is of course the United States who is claimed to be provoking their neighbors. A People’s Daily article, entitled “No storm can shake China’s composure”, stated grandly on the topic of the South China Sea that; “China has won the respect and understanding of most neighboring countries for its ability to control itself”. This statement is possibly meant to imply that China’s lack of military action against the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan and Japan is to be lauded as that of a very mature actor; it is a fallacy, China knows it cannot act for fear of US intervention. The article went on to state that the Chinese nation’s “restrained, calm and constructive attitude” has now been taken advantage of by actors encouraged by the US. The previously mentioned China Daily Article from May summarises Beijing’s sentiment perfectly; “with the United States as the puppeteer behind the scenes,Vietnam and the Philippines have chosen to rebuff China’s friendly intentions”. In this statement we see the real quarrel China has with the US, although they have stated they will not get involved, the US Navy doesn’t need to in order to stifle Chinese military activities. The US has forced China to take a more convoluted and less sure path to victory in the South China Sea. It has also allowed the Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Philippines (and later if they choose to the Malays and Brunei’s as well) to contest China regarding their own territorial claims, and on a more equal playing field too. The same article states it bluntly; “the Philippines has been emboldened to run amuk… because it thinks it has the military might of the US behind it”. The fault is anyone’s but the US’s however, China’s behavior has obviously been anything but even-handed, and their flat-out refusal to seek mediation at the UN only discredits their “undisputable sovereignty” over the entire Sea further. The West is not trying to “create conflicts between China and its  neighboring countries”, as People’s daily bluntly states, the conflicts already existed and the West is trying to moderate them.

It is China’s behavior in South East Asia that has opened the door for the US’s warm re-entry into the region, despite its bullish behaviors in the past, the US can now play the ‘good guy’ and will win the battle for hearts and minds.

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Obsolete Carrier, the herald of an arms race

During the month of August, both the foreign and CPC media have made much of the progress on the refitting of China’s first aircraft carrier. Previously bought from Ukraine, the CPC media have praised its recent maiden voyage as a coming of age for the PLA Navy, while they attempt to placate news reports discussing the possible aggressive motives behind its inception. Foreign media have taken interest in the case particularly after the previously named “Varyag” took off for its maiden voyage on the 10th, with many discussing the regional/political ramifications of its deployment considering recent clashes in the disputed South China Sea. This conflict seems set to intensify with many journalists stating that; despite the ship being outdated and slated for training and research purposes only, the CPC currently has three more, modern carriers under construction. The prospect of an arms race in the South China Sea seems to be resulting consensus by the many who see China attempting to throw its weight around in the South while keeping the US Navy on the back foor in the East through its modern nuclear attack submarines and “carrier killer” missile programmes.

An article by Guo Jlanyue in People’s Daily via the Chinese Military Media on the 12th of August discusses questions and apprehensions about the new interest in carriers on the mainland in a frank, if not conciliatory way. Guo states that, when it comes to the three new ships plus “Varyag” that China has currently at dock that the “deterrent of the carrier is usually larger than its practical effectiveness”. He goes on to imply that the PLC is banking on the deterrent of its naval strength to “play a significant role in protecting both the high seas and coastal waters”, simply read: it plans to intimidate its neighbors rather than fight. Blatantly citing the conflict in the South China Sea, Guo then goes on to backtrack with the statement “If we do not have the courage or will to use” (carriers) “to solve territorial disputes, why would we have built it?”

Currently the CPC sees large swathes of the South China Sea as its own inalienable territory, putting it into conflict with at least half a dozen nations, this is all despite there being conflicting historical possession of the islands in the sea and the fact that some of China’s ‘claimed’ maritime areas come inside the mandated territorial waters of its neighbours. As such the argument that a Chinese carrier fleet would seek to change the balance of power in the South China Sea, as propagated by some in the foreign press, seems more than likely. Again Guo backs this summation in claiming the Sea for China; he calls China’s maritime territory “vast” and assures China’s determination to secure “territorial integrity or its capacity to fight any country with ill maritime practices”.

Another article from Xinhua on August 11th, citing a Russian military “expert”, argues that the single Chinese carrier in operation will not prove a threat to the balance of power in the region. The unnamed source goes on to note the imbalance of naval power strongly favors the West and considering the ship is old and obsolete, casts the sole “Varyag” as nothing more than a source of national pride for China. No mention is made of the three CPC carriers currently under construction however and the article makes the implication that only the US Navy would be coming into conflict with the new CPC ships when in all likelihood it would be significantly weaker nations like Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei that would have to contest them.

A second Xinhua article released the same day carried reports from Western sources confirming that the new carriers could, both in the interim and long term, increase tensions notably in the South China Sea and also with the US and Japan. Through Xinhua, Cao Weidong from the PLA Navy Research Institute noted that the Carriers were a defensive and “necessary tool for the country to safeguard territorial waters and maritime transport routes”, despite the fact that Aircraft Carriers are universally recognised as tools of ‘force projection’ rather than of defence. The Navy Research Institute’s comments regarding ‘China’s territorial waters’ are also duplicitous however; as according to past statements by the PRC this area of ‘territorial water’ also means large, contested areas of the South China Sea; as such China seems to be openly making callously deceptive statements. The carriers will be used only to ‘defend’ PRC territory; in some cases “territory” that China, but not necessarily the rest of the world, sees as legitimately theirs.

The PRC’s ambiguous statements on its carrier programs have done nothing to allay international worries, with both the US and Japan openly asking China to explain why it needs them. Meanwhile, Taiwan in response, has touted the development of new, powerful and longer range “carrier killing” missiles in it’s media. Regardless, the obvious fact remains that for the time being the PRC will not have the technology, equipment or know-how to bring any carrier based capabilities to bear in the South China Sea, but the message its carrier program has sent is still a destabilising influence on its neighbours and possibly cause for an enlarged East Asian arms race.