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.


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.