Monday, June 1, 2015

South China Sea: The tiny islands that could lead to war

The territorial dispute in the South China Sea is building towards a flash point.  There is a persistent idea that it's about nothing more than tiny islands and useless reefs.

If that's all it is, then it's not worth a big argument between the US and China. And it's certainly not worth risking a war between the world's two biggest powers, most reasonable people would agree.

China has built land area of about 800 hectares, all reclaimed from the ocean, in the last year and a half, on atolls that are also claimed by other countries in the region – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Beijing is building airstrips and ports to "militarise" the islands, according to the US. 

The US President, Barack Obama, complained in April that China was using its "sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions".  

China didn't pay any heed. It said that it was within its sovereign rights and the reclamation proceeded apace, with hundreds of ships dredging and building. The US decided to press the point that it would not accept any intrusion into international air space. 

It sent military aircraft to fly over some of the islands last week. China's navy ordered the Americans to leave the area immediately. They did not. China protested angrily but didn't shoot.

Australia's Defence Secretary, Dennis Richardson, said last week: "It is legitimate to ask the purpose of the land reclamation – tourism appears unlikely."

And then, on the weekend, a Chinese admiral explained the purpose. He said the land reclamation projects, a thousand kilometres from China's coast, are not a land grab but intended for "international public services". 

Sun Jianguo listed disaster relief, maritime search and rescue and scientific research as the benefits it could offer.

But still the pressure builds. The US plans to sail and fly past and over the atolls to assert freedom of navigation.  Washington says it is offering $US425 million to the south-east Asian claimants to beef up their navies and coastguards. 

On the Chinese side, Beijing says it reserves the right to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone over the area.

This would mean that any aircraft would need to identify themselves before entering the airspace or risk being shot down.

"This has the potential to escalate into one of the deadliest conflicts of our time, if not history," said Malaysia's Defence Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, on the weekend.

Have the Americans taken leave of their senses? Is this shaping as another Iraq invasion a la 2003, a concocted excuse for a pointless war? In truth, the reason that China and the US are prepared to escalate this confrontation is that it is about much more than tiny islands and useless reefs.

On a strategic level, it's about control of the world's busiest shipping route. China is laying claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

About half the world's commercial shipping passes through the area, including 60 per cent of Australia's exports.

On a geological level, it's about some of the world's most prospective seabed oil and gas deposits. 

On a military level, it's about China's avid desire to push the US navy away from its coast. Beijing craves uncontested domain over its maritime approaches. 

The US Seventh Fleet has been unchallenged ruler of the Pacific since World War Two. A fast-rising China is now challenging.

And on the level of global governance, it's about whether there are any rules governing countries, or whether a country can get its way through use of force.

And we know that China isn't really building a string of islands just to be nice to other countries in the region.

If China cared about their interests, it wouldn't be riding roughshod over their claims.

China routinely dismisses critics by saying that it is negotiating a code of conduct with the South East Asian claimants, and everyone else should butt out.

But Beijing first agreed to negotiate a code of conduct with ASEAN in 2006. And what's happened? 

"There's been no sign of progress for nearly 10 years," observes Alan Dupont, a professor of international security at NSW University. "They can't even agree on the basis for  preliminary principles for negotiating."

 As China's Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi, said in 2013, "China believes that there should be no rush." And why would China want to rush?

In the meantime, it's changing the facts on the ground. A prominent Chinese general has described the approach to maritime territorial claims as a "cabbage strategy".

Major General Zhang Zhaozhong, a military theorist with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) National Defence University, has said that China puts down one "cabbage leaf"or layer of territorial assertion over another.  First might be ships of the fishing administration, then maritime surveillance vessels, then the Chinese navy. Adding extra layers, such as air defence zones or new bases, is consistent with this way of patiently building a thickening circle of claim by force.  

All that's happened in recent weeks is that the US has decided that it can't stand by and allow China to dominate the entire region against the will of its smaller neighbours and endanger international right of way.

The US position, which is also Australia's position, is that it doesn't take sides in the argument over territory, simply that it wants them settled by negotiation and not force.

The good news is that China's creeping invasion of the region is now being openly challenged for the first time by a country with the power to do something about it.

The bad news is that there is no solution in sight.

 Peter Hartcher is international editor. SMH




  1. The risks of US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea
    The US Secretary of Defense has ordered the US military to develop options for more assertive freedom of navigation (FON) operations around China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. There are significant legal, operational and political risks involved with these operations.
    The legal situation regarding China’s claimed features in the South China Sea is messy. The claims overlap with other countries that have also undertaken extensive reclamation works on their occupied features, including building airstrips and adding military fortifications. But the US only appears concerned with what China has done. The US thus risks giving the impression that it has moved away from a position of neutrality in the sovereignty disputes.

  2. Then there are issues associated with the status of the features before reclamation works were undertaken. Some were previously submerged at high tide, in which case — under international law — they are only entitled to a 500-metre safety zone around them. Others may have had a few rocks or sandbanks above water at high tide, which means they are entitled to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea with no right of overflight above them. Some land features could even be large enough to justify wider claims to maritime zones. The situation is further complicated by the fact that some of China’s occupied features are in close proximity to features occupied by other countries.
    The status of particular features in the South China Sea has long been a vexed issue for geographers. In undertaking FON operations, the US is going to have make decisions on a case-by-case basis about what type of challenge is being made around each feature. Is it exercising a right of innocent passage through a possible territorial sea, or is it flying or sailing close by a feature that is only entitled to a 500-metre safety zone? A clear judgment is possible with some features but uncertainty surrounds others.

  3. Further problems arise if the US decides to exercise innocent passage around features that may have a legitimate territorial sea. Patrolling into another country’s territorial sea, loitering in the territorial sea, or diverting from the normal passage route between points A and B just to demonstrate a right of passage, do not constitute innocent passage. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) makes clear that innocent passage should be ‘continuous and expeditious’, and should not involve ‘any threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of the coastal State’.
    FON operations are inherently dangerous. They may lead to close encounters both between warships and between aircraft. Before embarking on more assertive activities, the US must be confident that its ship and aircraft captains are capable of exercising the high standards of seamanship and airmanship required. But this may not be the case. Even in the best run organisations, adrenalin can start flowing with a close encounter and misjudgements occur without top-level skills and experience. Manoeuvring a warship safely near to other vessels requires different skills to those needed for operating its weapons and systems.

  4. Then there’s the issue that just like on the road, a good driver can still be involved in an accident caused by a bad driver. The US has often criticised Chinese vessels for lacking professionalism and failing to follow the international rules for preventing collisions. But the US Navy has experienced several accidents in recent years as a consequence of its own navigational errors and poor seamanship.
    In the air, an error of judgment by one pilot can lead to a collision and both aircraft crashing. But while the US and China have agreed to a supplementary agreement relating to rules of behaviour for managing encounters between surface ships, they have not yet come to a similar agreement for air encounters. This is unfortunate as air encounters carry the highest operational risks.
    Politically, while more aggressive US actions might play to the American domestic audience, there is no certainty that regional audiences will be as supportive. After initial reports of more assertive FON operations by the US, a spokesman for the Vietnamese foreign ministry urged all parties concerned to respect the sovereignty and jurisdiction of coastal states in accordance with international law and not to further complicate the status quo. Both the US and China may have been his target. With its own excessive claims to maritime jurisdiction under international law, Vietnam is often also the target of American FON operations.

  5. As we have seen in the past with the littoral countries’ reaction to the Regional Maritime Security Initiative in the Malacca Strait, and regional implementation of the Proliferation Security Initiative, the US can fail to appreciate regional sensitivities to maritime sovereignty and law of the sea issues. More assertive FON operations could similarly be regarded as an overbearing unilateral assertion of rights by Washington. The US is particularly vulnerable to these criticisms because it is not a party to UNCLOS.
    The US may be giving insufficient consideration to the impact of more assertive FON operations in the South China Sea on regional stability. By provoking China in such an aggressive and unnecessary manner, it can only make the current situation worse. For all these reasons, I hope that Washington will tread carefully on the issue of implementing a more aggressive FON program in the South China Sea. It was encouraging in this regard that US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter took a less confrontational tone in his address to the recently concluded Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore.
    Sam Bateman is an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

  6. A War Waits to Happen in South China Sea
    There’s a fast spreading notion among think tanks and pundits in the West that war is inevitable between the US and China.
    That’s because the US regards itself the necessary force for freedom of navigation, while China is an immovable object when it comes to asserting its claim to sovereignty over 80 percent of the South China Sea.
    The US can’t be a credible champion of freedom of navigation if it allows China to control virtually the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory.
    On the other hand, China can’t exercise sovereignty in a theater where any ship can pass and over which any aircraft can fly in the exercise of the freedom of the commons. Never mind that there are other state claimants to land features and parts of the South China Sea. Never mind if nobody else thinks China’s claim has any basis in international law.
    What’s important to China is that it’s able to assert its claim and back it up with military force if necessary. Even against the mighty US? Precisely. China has devised a strategy aimed at winning an asymmetrical war against the US. Military analysts call the strategy “A2/AD,” meaning “anti-access area denial.”

  7. The idea isn’t to catch up with the US in terms of military hardware, which China can’t do in many years anyway. It’s enough to wield the war technology, including guided missiles, silent submarines and computer jamming systems, that can inflict havoc on US forces as they barrel towards China’s coasts or to the “first island chain,” which include the contested land features and waters in the middle of the South China Sea.
    Will it work? China is confident that it will. Retired major general and top foreign policy adviser Xu Guangyu speaks for his country when he says, “The US cannot expect China to back off under pressure. It needs to know that the consequences would be unthinkable if it pushes China into a corner.”
    As a riposte to the A2/AD strategy of China, in 2009 American military planners devised the strategy called “Air and Sea Battle (ASB).” The idea is to frustrate emerging war technologies that would deny US forces’ access to a likely battle area. Early this year, however, the Pentagon dropped Air and Sea Battle in favor of a strategy called Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC). The only add-on in this new strategy is that, finally, the army gets a role, which was absent in the ASB.

  8. How the US intends to use the army to help get access for a mixed force into a maritime area should be of interest to Southeast Asian countries with relatively large armies, and underdeveloped navies and air forces struggling to catch up.
    So far, there has only been a war of words between China and the US. Thank God. A2/AD vs. JAM-GC isn’t inevitable. But an incident at sea could spark the war.
    A US surveillance boat or plane could take a bullet made in China. A regional partner of the US could be involved in the incident. Vietnam, for instance. Or the Philippines, with which the US has a mutual defense treaty.
    It hasn’t happened yet. But there’s no denying that for as long as China keeps stonewalling the talks toward a code of conduct in the South China Sea, as long it keeps manufacturing land in the middle of the sea from crushed coral reefs, and as long as it attempts to control through force some 80 percent of the South China Sea and considers the matter non-negotiable, there’s a Pacific War that’s waiting to happen.
    Unless diplomacy is given a chance in the South China Sea.
    Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy.