Battleland

The South China Sea: From Bad to Worse

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U.S. Navy photo / Lt. Cmdr. Denver Applehans

A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington during routine operations in the South China Sea last week.

TOKYO – Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are about to get a whole lot worse — and at the worst possible time.

Whether the U.S. can avoid being dragged into a shooting match will depend on how far Beijing and its unruly mix of military, maritime and natural resources agencies choose to push their claims. And whether China’s increasingly frustrated neighbors decide to push back.

Last week’s regional security talks in Cambodia were a step in the wrong direction. China refused to look at a written code of conduct being drafted to govern navigation, resources and related issues in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways. It also blocked discussion – let alone resolution — of the conflicting territorial claims in the region.

China claims exclusive rights to virtually all of the South China Sea, including its vast reserves of oil, gas and ocean resources; four other countries and Taiwan claim large parts of the region, as well. The disputes have led to increasingly tense standoffs between China and its neighbors.

The weeklong security talks, hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), dissolved amid charges of Chinese bullying, without even a customary closing statement. China made its point, but it may be a short-lived victory, says Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based maritime policy analyst and senior associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in San Francisco.

“What China is saying is, ‘We have this historic claim to the South China Sea and we own everything within it – islands, reefs, submerged areas, resources, you name it. That’s the way it is, and we’re not even going to talk to you about it.’ But they’ve painted themselves into a corner now, and that’s very dangerous for everybody,” says Valencia.

So far, the U.S. has stayed out of the territorial disputes. That’s wise. The U.S. cannot referee the welter of legal, historical and emotional arguments that accompany each dispute (all or parts of the Spratly Islands, for example, are claimed not only by China, but also by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, with evidence and documentation of varying degrees of credibility and relevance, dating back hundreds of years in some cases).

The primary U.S. interest in the region is in ensuring freedom of navigation. Half the world’s commercial shipping passes through the South China Sea — $5 trillion a year — and U.S. warships regularly transit the region on their way to and from the Persian Gulf, Southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean.

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China has promised not to interfere with any ships passing through region. But China has also signaled that it may require prior notice, and that military exercises and surveillance activities by foreign ships and planes may not be permissible. Those are hot-button issues for the U.S., which insists that under international law, nations cannot restrict activity other than economic development within most of their their 200-mile limits – assuming that those claims are internationally recognized to begin with.

An early test could be shaping up with Vietnam. In June, China issued an invitation for foreign companies to explore for oil in a region where Vietnam has already awarded exclusive contracts to U.S., Russian and Indian oil firms. The region is within Vietnam’s standard 200-mile exclusive economic zone. China’s move is likely in retaliation for a law enacted by Vietnam’s parliament earlier in the month that asserts sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands, which of course, China says it owns.

There’s little love lost between the two countries, which fought a short but bloody border war in 1979. Last year, a Chinese fishing ship and government fishery patrol boats cut the cables of a Vietnamese exploration vessel in an area claimed by both countries.

Valencia says he won’t be surprised if the latest dispute results in bloodshed.

“I don’t think it will be war, per se. But Vietnam has shown that it’s not afraid of China, so I can see them sending out their navy, and I can see China shooting back at them,” says Valencia.

A far more dangerous confrontation could be shaping up outside the South China Sea, with an even older and better-armed rival.

On the same day that Japan’s foreign minister was due to meet with his Chinese counterpart at the ASEAN security talks last week, three Chinese maritime patrol ships entered Japanese waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands.

The two governments have been sparring over the islands – which China calls Diaoyu – since 2010, when Japan seized a Chinese fishing vessel that it says rammed a Japanese patrol ship in territorial waters near the islands; the ship and crew were released only after intense economic and political pressure from China.

Japan Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba initially said he wasn’t sure whether the intrusion last week “just happened, or was timed to coincide with the bilateral meeting.” But all doubt seemed to disappear when another Chinese patrol boat entered Japanese waters the very next day. Tokyo summoned the Chinese ambassador and Genba complained again to Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who responded by repeating China’s claim to the islands, located in the East China Sea near Taiwan,  were “inherently” Chinese.

Although Tokyo has been publicly trying to tamp down the dispute, it’s clear that patience is wearing thin.

Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime security specialist with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a leading Tokyo think tank, said at a forum in Washington DC in late June that it is time for Japan’s naval forces to begin actively tracking Chinese submarines in the South China Sea, and to be prepared to intervene militarily.

“If an armed conflict results between the South China Sea claimants – for example, China and the Philippines, or China and Vietnam – we have to protect our ships in the South China Sea. And what I am proposing to the government is that if anything happens in the South China Sea, we have to send our self-defense forces to the vicinity of the conflict area to protect Japanese ships,” said Kotani, who is not affiliated with the government but who is believed to reflect government views.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force is designed largely for anti-submarines and anti-mine warfare and generally operates in home waters and the Western Pacific. Venturing into the South China Sea could be seen as a provocative move not only by China, but by some of the regions smaller powers, which still view Japan with suspicion. Japan’s constitution currently forbids the use of military force except in self-defense.

The South China Sea already is heavily militarized and is certain to become more so as the “re-balancing” of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific gains traction. The U.S. Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan, routinely operates there. Three U.S. littoral combat ships are scheduled to begin operating from Singapore next spring.  Japan is supplying the Philippines with 10 patrol boats. China has completed construction of a major naval base at Yalong, on the southernmost tip of Hainan Island, which can hold nuclear-powered ballistic missile and attack submarines and large surface warships, including aircraft carriers.

Although the U.S. does not have a security treaty with Vietnam, it does with mutual defense pacts with other nations that have disputes with China. U.S. officials said earlier this month that a Chinese attack directed at the Senkaku Islands would fall under the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, which requires the U.S. to come to the aid of Japan. The U.S. has a similar pact with the Philippines, which was involved in a months-long standoff with China earlier this year as the Scarborough Shoal, a collection reefs in the South China Sea.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report that the South China Sea has potential oil reserves as high as 213 billion barrels, larger than then Saudi Arabia.

In addition to the People’s Liberation Army Navy, at least four other government agencies or ministries operate patrol craft or have a degree of authority over maritime-related issues. At a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington DC, one Chinese participant stated that even if a procedure were developed to resolve the territorial disputes, it is not clear which agency within the Chinese government would have the authority to settle the issue.

And that’s how you go from bad to worse.

84 comments
FadhiliMtavangu
FadhiliMtavangu

china is china always wont perish because of some stupid things others do, a know it will remain stronger always

greenspan03
greenspan03

Nixon made the huge mistake of opening China. Look at all the job lost and technology transfer/thefts. War with Vietnam will not just involved navy, it will be fought on land as well, with both Hanoi and Beijing is within gun sight. Can you say fireworks? US should start arming Vietnam to keep China in check.

Xuan Thu
Xuan Thu

A Chinese maps published by the Qing dynasty in 1904 found that Hainan Island is China's southernmost point, not two archipelagoes of paracel islands and spratly islands. 

China invaded and took control  paracel islands and spratly islands in 1974 and 1988.

James Hollifield
James Hollifield

If, just if, China enters a war with Vietnam, both of those communist countries will be doomed and economy crushed.  Then US/Japan/Philippines will benefit the most.  So, 

US/Japan/Philippines might want to quietly  push everything to go to that direction.

If, just if, China enters a war with Philippines and/or Japan, US will be inevitably pulled into the big war, too.  No doubt, their economies will all be destroyed in the war.  Then Russia will benefit the most.   After the war, Russia would  become the sole superpower of the world, and would be able to conquer all of China.  So, Russia might want to quietly push all things to go to this direction.  

James Hollifield
James Hollifield

The author might not know how Asians bargain with each other.  The author seems to take everything by their face values (i.e. the asking/bidding prices), which can be very misleading to the minds that think in western ways.  

What is shown on the surface are usually far different from what's under the table.When bargaining, Asians ask insanely high prices and bid 

insanely low prices, all with plans to counter counter offers.  Deep in the mind, no one thinks/expects to get the asking/bidding price.  A final price can be satisfactory to both sides, ONLY after a very lengthy process.If a bargain process ends too quickly, then neither sides will have the same fulfillment feeling.   It is the way it is.  Let time do its work.  No need to worry.  No need to lose your sleep over those seemingly crazy asking/bidding prices of theirs.   In the end, everything will be fine.  

Mazzaroth Darkman
Mazzaroth Darkman

The Phillipines has to be sure a Georgia-Russia situation does not arise, much as it needs to stand up to being bullied - on he other hand the bully here needs to make sure it doesn't precipitate a perfect storm against itself by uniting its enemies against an overbearing demeanour, a tough act for China now - World War 3, methinks....LET'S GET READY TO RUUUUUUUMBLE!

jeezcak3
jeezcak3

WOW! Freedom of speech... so many China agents here. Like this if you agree with me!

Dave Asia
Dave Asia

HU JINTAO, President of China, says "We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China."

Go big China!

Dave Asia
Dave Asia

The Mighty Military of The Superpower can't defeat a few soldiers in Iraq...

Kevin Brent
Kevin Brent

The thing about playing maritime naval bully and claiming whole sections of a sea or ocean as your national play pen, is that you need a powerful navy to back that up. And, China just simply ain't got one. If China had anything to be worried about, they'd be sailing warships in gridlock just outside the territorial limit off Tokyo Bay. Not down in the SOCHI Sea picking on the PI and their one coast guard cutter with a pop gun. China is a joke and not even a funny one.

Joseph Tan
Joseph Tan

This is the worst kind of journalism we have ever seen.

1) In Cambodia, there is no consensus came out of the talk.

2) It is Vietnam and Philippine that refuse to adhere to the earlier code of conduct signed between the relevant parties with China.

3) US is being nosy and poked her nose in the internal affairs of this dispute only to be humiliated.

4) It is high time America should deal with with her homeland problems and let the parties here sort them out themselves as they had done thousands of years ago.

James Eward
James Eward

Vietnam has been tried too hard to bring other countries to be involved in the south china sea against China.  For example, Vietnam has invited three old firms. 1) from the U.S. 2) from the Russia, and 3) from the India. Vietnam hopes that three of those men will be its security umbrella.   

theonlygreat
theonlygreat

China is going on the same path as the japanese and germans did back in WW2 and we all know how that ended up it is not yet too late for the chinese people to wake up ! china is in dispute with almost all theirs neighbors except maybe North korea . that just only say one thing and you go figure it out !

thisistheotherjess
thisistheotherjess

This whole "China claims...virtually all of the South China Sea" shtick has become cliché. Even if you exclude the Gulf of Thailand as part of the South China Sea, the sea still extends westward to the coast of Peninsular Malaysia and southward to Singapore. I mean, really, pick up an atlas once in a while.

John Lone
John Lone

We should give and assist whatever the Filippinos and Vietnamese need to take care these CHITCOM and not getting our hands and feets dirty. China is very greedy, reckless, irrational, and erratic country. If we don't help others to deal these chinese now then we will have to face these same chinese later.

china_rules
china_rules

it's time China send its navy to kick some a s s

Ernesto Icogo
Ernesto Icogo

All your comments mean nothing ... All these things will turn to ashes with the way things are going ... Warfares, nowadays, are nukes and do you think one will let himself be outdone by the other? ... It's a holocaust and there is no escape ...

While China is talking and using the media with the propaganda, the Allies are already starting a massive military build-up and someone, just someone will start the strike and that's it, a deafening silence will follow.

Alex Wijaya
Alex Wijaya

For a nation that didn't sign up the UNCLOS treaty, it is "weird" the US care so much about the UNCLOS, especially since it is not even an involved party. 

freefallingbomb
freefallingbomb

China's claim to every country's Z.E.E. in the South China Sea is just BAT-CRAZY , and when I write “bat-crazy” I really mean “bat-crazy” as on a Kim-Jong-un- or Gaddafi- or Mussolini-level.

Just look at this crystal-clear presentation of China's maritime ambitions:

http://southchinaseastudies.or...

All of this preposterously claimed ocean surface (sometimes over nothing but fishing rights!) is obviously the closest, adjacent country's internationally recognized Z.E.E.: There is hardly even any free, international water left between all their well-defined Z.E.E.s, yet the Chinese pretend to have all foreign Z.E.E.s for themselves, foreign sea BOTTOMS included (for drilling) ! This is also extremely short-sighted, self-defeating Geo-Strategy: Not only does rich China forfeit the chance to surround itself with lots of sympathetic, humble neighbours of common heritage ( = any Super-Power's natural “backyard” = a bulwark against distant hostiles), with this extremely primitive behaviour China also disqualifies itself from ever becoming a GLOBALLY respected giant = a non-belligerent, predictable, trustworthy referee, like Russia is slowly morphing into today. This is a pity, the World badly needs more alternatives to the imploding, corrupt, conscience-less, psychopathic U.S.A. . The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tsu once taught: “He who turns down what's near will attain what's distant”, but the Chinese clearly aren't practicing what they preach to others. So, in regard to the South China dispute, any help from the U.S.A. isn't just another Fascist invasion or subversion abroad (like Syria), but a perfectly legitimate support for several free, bullied peoples. By mere coincidence.

Still, why do the U.S.A. feel mysteriously compelled to get up from the chair and to get directly, physically involved in their distant allies' military defense, for example by returning to the Philippines and to Vietnam and by creating rifts over naval manoeuvres and reconnaissance flights, etc., etc.? Why not catch two, three or even four birds with the same stone, just by making a few, sensible PEN STROKES back at home, not more??

For example, what's wrong with this alternative, profitable, deterrent and 100 % risk-free plan:

1) Declassify the literally breathtaking F-22 as a “vital” national secret (as you should have done with the F-15s, and from 1976 on, as a global replacement for absolutely all F-4 “Phantoms” everywhere), reopen its production line and sell HUNDREDS of F-22s to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand and other important, cash-rich, interested allies in a belt around China, and to all your defrauded F-35 customers in the West, too – maybe even to the U.S. Airforce. That should finally ram a stick through the hopelessly aborted F-35 program, too... all the while saving your face. Tip: Until you found the F-22s' O.B.O.G.S. defect, install some absolutely traditional oxygen bottles in them. They will enable F-22 pilots to fly in a formation with Chinese J-20 pilots.

2) Same with SM-3s, SM-2s and “Patriot” anti-everything missiles: Emergency mass-production + swift export (conventionally-tipped “Pershing” IIs and G.L.C.M. cruise missiles, too, à la Cold War in Europe...? Why not?!),

3) license-build Swedish, A.I.P.-driven A26- or older “Gotland”-class submarines for all your South Eastern allies and for the U.S. Navy, too. Just get over your mental dependency and that almost idolatrous, ridiculous veneration of SSN-fixated Admiral Rickover already: That long dead, buried and decomposed mummy never got a single chance in life to prove its megalomaniacal theories,

4) same with the modular, multi-purpose European “MEKO” frigates or the specialized, British Type 45 destroyers and Type 23 frigates. Your South East Asian allies and the U.S. Navy could well need a few dozens of these brilliant yet affordable designs (technology transfer, skilled workforce retention, economies of scale, local economies amp; elections, standardization, mutual use, yada yada...),

5) broaden A.S.E.A.N. (today a purely economic pact) to include Defense and teach its members how to coordinate their armed forces and all that sophisticated, new gear all by themselves = entirely without U.S. advice one day.

Such a plan, whether completely executed or just announced, would turn the tables in the South China Sea almost comically during the next 30 years, and at the same time it wouldn't even burden the U.S. Defense budget with a single additional soldier wage or veteran benefit, expose a single U.S. grunt to any health risk or even have him move one foot to the West, closer to China. On the opposite: Such truly game-changing FOREIGN arms deals ( = NO U.S. tax dollars spent on them!) would make belt-tightening U.S. arms companies drag cash bags to the banks and create thousands of jobs at home, etc.!

I find it twofold irresponsible that the U.S.A. deploy a “defensive missile shield” around Russia, allegedly against Iranian medium-range missiles (which are completely non-existent, or out-of-range, and entirely conventional), while neglecting the extremely real Chinese and Nork missile threats to all its South East Asian allies, and even prefer to jump into the fire line instead – without any need for that! Out of only two simple options, you U.S. Americans never get one right. That's why you're in the hole you are right now. And your last all-out war in your History, against China (over Vietnamese trawling rights) hasn't even broken out yet...

funnyboy911
funnyboy911

talking about bankrupting each other. 

Ed Lazar
Ed Lazar

I'm a recent USS submarine fan and have been reading some books about our country's supremacy over the world.  Tom Clancey's novel SSN is a must read.  It's a stroy of exactly what's going on with China.  China has no chance in winng this.  Their "superpower' subs were bought from the Russians, 1980's vintage.  They are noisy and our tropedos can nail then 40 miles away.  Oue battle in the China sea is a none issue.  GO GET'EM USSN's.  Also another great sub novel is "Blind Man's Bluff". Awesome.  US subs are so advanced, nothing can touch them or hear them. They are totally silent. The Chinese will soon find that out. Same goes ffor Iran and any other hotshot country.

dec101
dec101

The South China See prblems have existed for decades and have been kepted relatively quite.  US made a calculated move to stirup the issue in order to contain China.  There is no freedom of navigation issue, as long as US leave the area along.

Imran Pangilinan
Imran Pangilinan

LOL CHINA SENT A WARSHIP TO THE PHILIPPINES ONLY 60 MILES FROM PALAWAN

vstillwell
vstillwell

It's nice to see that we are footing the bill to keep the South China Sea open. We've spent trillions to keep the Gulf open so the world can have oil. Why not spend a few more trillion to keep Asia growing. 

davideconnollyjr
davideconnollyjr

China wants to deal with each of the claimants on a case by case basis so they can strong arm and short change them. In the case of Vietnam, China has clearly breached Vietnam's exclusive economic zone in violation of international maritime law. This entire case of the South China Sea should be referred to an international court for arbitration; but many nations -- including the United States -- have resisted empowering an international court for fear of losing sovereignty. Empowering China economically was a shortsighted thing for the world to have done; we should have traded more evenly and brought up the smaller nations which are struggling against the land and water grabbing communist state. No misunderstandings should be harbored concerning China -- they do not respect other cultures -- the Tibetan people, Uyghurs, and Mongolians have been systematically displaced and their land taken from them by the majority Han people through an ongoing, officially sponsored program by the Chinese state government. How much less the Chinese must think of everyone not from the mainland!

Vin Weathermon
Vin Weathermon

maritime claims graphic does not show Malaysia as the legend states.  

Bobserver
Bobserver

Freedom of navigation of the S. China Sea is not an issue and China has stated that on many occassions that it is not her intention to restrict shipping.  The issue is who owns the Spratley Islands and the Scarborough Shoal.  The overlapping claims for the former in alphabetic order are: Brunei, include China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam  and for the Scarborough Shoal are : China, Philippines, Taiwan.

The Japanese are sticking their noses in something that doesn't concern them but are using it as a convenient distraction to try and tie China down in the S. China Sea.  Most N. East Asians don't like the Japanese because of their imperial adventures in that part of the world from the late 19th century till they were defeated by the Americans in WW II.  This is  most clearly seen in the recently delayed(cancelled ?) Japan-S. Korea Defence pact.  S. Korea wouldn't actually benefit from this pact as the Japanese may in the future want to draw them into a confrontation with China.  S. Korea would then be the roast piggy (char siew) in the middle.

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