Posts Tagged ‘James Shoal’

New book dips into toxic waters of the South China Sea

September 13, 2014

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. By Bill Hayton. Yale University Press; 298 pages; $35 and £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

THE rocks and coral known as James Shoal are not much: just a raised stretch of seabed 22 metres (72 feet) below the surface and 107km (67 miles) off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. Yet China, 1,500km to the north, regards it as the southernmost point of its territory, at the base of a vast U-shaped swathe of the South China Sea, demarcated by a “nine-dash line” on maps that now appear even in Chinese passports. To compound the apparent absurdity, the shoal’s inclusion on Chinese maps seems the result of a mistake by Chinese cartographers in the 1930s, who thought it was a land feature. But from such historical accidents and blunders has emerged an interlocking network of disputes in the South China Sea that poses one of the most serious threats to peace in Asia, and indeed to the American-led world order.

Bill Hayton’s splendid book lucidly covers these disputes in all their complexity from virtually every angle—historical, legal, political, economic and strategic. A journalist with the BBC and author of a previous book on Vietnam, he tells a good yarn, even when the topic is as dry as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Indeed, he may be the first person ever to have written an exciting account of a meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The book is nonetheless sobering, since it discerns no credible solution to the disputes. The Chinese nine-dash line is claimed also by Taiwan, as the descendant of the “Republic of China” whose mapmakers produced it. It sweeps through the “exclusive economic zones” asserted under UNCLOS by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines is challenging its legal validity. But even if it wins, UNCLOS cannot adjudicate on sovereignty over islands, rocks or shoals. And China will ignore it anyway.

Tiny islands and otherwise uninhabitable rocks dotting the sea have been turned into mini-fortresses to bolster territorial claims. China and Vietnam fought a bloody sea-battle in 1988 in the Spratly Islands, named after the captain of a British sailing barque who visited in the 1840s in the hope of filling her hold with whale oil. And earlier this year a different sort of oil provoked water-cannon skirmishes and boat-rammings, when a Chinese rig drilled in waters near another set of islands claimed by Vietnam, the Paracels.

Yet it may not be resources that are fuelling dissension. Mr Hayton reports that oil-industry experts are sceptical of claims that the sea’s hydrocarbon reserves will make it “the next Persian Gulf”. Most of the recoverable oil and gas reserves are under undisputed waters in any case. And the sea’s once fabulous fish stocks are, in the absence of any mechanism to manage them, frighteningly depleted.

What makes the disputes so dangerous is a toxic mix of domestic and international politics. In China the nine-dash line has been elevated into a nationalist symbol of the country’s efforts to overturn the humiliations it suffered at foreign hands in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But in Vietnam, for example, about which Mr Hayton writes with particular perceptiveness, the government faces pressure from critics eager to seize on any instance of “softness” towards China. Criticism of China has become a proxy for criticism of Vietnam’s own ruling Communists.

Most alarming is the fact that the sea has become the theatre for a battle of nerves between China and America. China believes America is encouraging the littoral states to stand up to it over its territorial claims, and bitterly resents America’s insistence that it has the right to send its spy ships to the edge of China’s territorial waters, 22km off its coast. American power depends on the freedom of navigation, both for its navy and for commercial traffic through the sea. The South China Sea has become the test of America’s strategic “rebalancing” towards Asia and of its willingness to protect its friends and allies from Chinese bullying. As Mr Hayton sombrely notes: “The logic is towards conflict.”

The author adds, however, that in the final stage of his research he changed his mind. When Mr Hayton began working on his book, he believed that some kind of conflict over the sea was imminent. He subsequently became convinced that Chinese leaders understand they would lose a shooting war and are desperate to avoid it, using instead what they call “the period of strategic opportunity” to build up China’s strength. Since they know the other side must grasp this, however, they have to appear belligerent. This is an intriguing argument. But this strategy is so vulnerable to miscalculation, misperception and sheer bad luck, that it is not a very reassuring one.

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China’s rise has upset the global balance of power, and the first place to feel the strain is Beijing’s back yard: the South China Sea. For decades tensions have smoldered in the region, but today the threat of a direct confrontation among superpowers grows ever more likely. This important book is the first to make clear sense of the South Sea disputes. Bill Hayton, a journalist with extensive experience in the region, examines the high stakes involved for rival nations that include Vietnam, India, Taiwan, the Philippines, and China, as well as the United States, Russia, and others. Hayton also lays out the daunting obstacles that stand in the way of peaceful resolution.

Through lively stories of individuals who have shaped current conflicts—businessmen, scientists, shippers, archaeologists, soldiers, diplomats, and more—Hayton makes understandable the complex history and contemporary reality of the South China Sea. He underscores its crucial importance as the passageway for half the world’s merchant shipping and one-third of its oil and gas. Whoever controls these waters controls the access between Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific. The author critiques various claims and positions (that China has historic claim to the Sea, for example), overturns conventional wisdoms (such as America’s overblown fears of China’s nationalism and military resurgence), and outlines what the future may hold for this clamorous region of international rivalry.

Bill Hayton is a longtime reporter with BBC News, specializing in contemporary Asia. He has also written for the Times, Financial Times, and Bangkok Post. He lives in Colchester, UK.

Will Vietnam Seek International Arbitration Like The Philippines, Now That China Has Renewed Its Interest in Vietnam’s Oil?

May 9, 2014

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If China continues its current activities in the Paracels without let-up, it is providing a pretext for key countries in Southeast Asia to unite in pushing harder for the immediate conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea

By Rommel C. Banlaoi

Security tensions in the South China Sea have flared up again when Vietnam’s naval vessels collided with Chinese ships on Wednesday, May 7, in a serious attempt of Hanoi to prevent Beijing from stationing a US$1-billion oil rig, HD-981, in the Northwest Triton Island of the Paracels.

For Vietnam, the location of China’s oil rig belongs to Hanoi’s Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (EEZ/CS). Therefore, Vietnam considers the oil drilling activities of HD-981 as an apparent derogation not only of the sovereignty of Vietnam but also of the United Nations Convention of the Law of Sea (UNCLOS).

Both Vietnam and China are parties to UNCLOS. Vietnam warned China that it would take “all necessary measures” to compel China to remove the oil rig.

For China, however, the activities of HD-981 were normal petroleum activities of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) in China’s territorial waters. China warned Vietnam not to disrupt CNOOC’s oil drilling projects in the Paracels, which the Chinese call the Xisha Islands.

The oil rig incident started on May 1, 2014, at around 5:22 am, when Vietnam discovered the deep water activities of HD-981, which was supported by 3 Chinese vessels. The location of the oil rig is around 130 nautical miles from the coast of Vietnam and 120 nautical miles from Vietnam’s Ly Son Island, which represents the 1 base point of Vietnam. This point falls within Vietnam’s petroleum Lot. 143 that belongs to its 200 nautical miles EEZ/CS.

To protect the activities of HD-981, China has deployed at least 80 vessels in the waters surrounding Triton Island.

Tipping point?

Tensions in the South China Sea are high again as the oil rig incident in the Paracel Islands can provide the tipping point of military encounters between the two parties. This military situation is something that all littoral states and user states in the South China Sea do not want to develop.

But China and Vietnam had the history of military battle in the Paracels in 1974, which started when Vietnam’s navy attempted to expel Chinese fishing vessels from the waters surrounding the Paracels. China retaliated by sending the warships of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the contested island.

China won the battle resulting in China’s control of the Paracels. The battle caused the death of more than 50 Vietnamese soldiers and almost 20 Chinese soldiers. But Vietnam never surrendered its claims to the Paracels. In fact, Vietnam entered into direct negotiations with China to settle their territorial disputes peacefully in accordance with existing international laws, particularly the UNCLOS.

Since China started the operation of HD-981, Vietnam has conducted 6 bilateral meetings with China at various levels both in Hanoi and Beijing. But China remains intransigent in its position and reiterates its stand that the location of the activities of HD-981 is under the sovereign jurisdiction of China.

There is no doubt that the ongoing oil rig incident in the Paracels is destroying both countries’ strategic trust with each other. It is therefore imperative for Vietnam and China to rebuild their strategic trust if they want to maintain their good political relationship.

Otherwise, the deterioration of their political relationship will push Vietnam to follow the international arbitration option chosen by the Philippines. Vietnam can either join the Philippines in the case or submit a separate case.

If China continues its current activities in the Paracels without let-up, it is providing a pretext for key countries in Southeast Asia to unite in pushing harder for the immediate conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, particularly in the context of China’s activities in the Second Thomas Shoal being claimed by the Philippines, James Shoal being claimed by Malaysia, and Natuna Island being claimed by Indonesia.

What will Beijing do if Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam build a united front to deal with China in the South China Sea? Will China pursue strategic restraint or will it push more strategic assertions of its sovereignty claims?

Let’s continue to watch how this whole saga in the South China Sea will unfold. – Rappler.com

Rommel Banlaoi is the vice president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and Head of the Center for Intelligence National Security Studies (CINSS) of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR).

http://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/57583-china-vietnam-paracel-islands

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A Chinese ship (L) uses water cannon on a Vietnamese Sea Guard ship on the South China Sea near the Paracels islands, in this handout photo taken on May 2, 2014 and released by the Vietnamese Marine Guard on May 8, 2014. REUTERS-Vietnam Marine Guard-Handout via Reuters

A Chinese ship (L) uses water cannon on a Vietnamese Sea Guard ship on the South China Sea near the Paracels islands, in this handout photo taken on May 2, 2014 and released by the Vietnamese Marine Guard on May 8, 2014.  REUTERS/Vietnam Marine Guard/Handout via Reuters

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Vietnam-China-Oil-Rig

China deployed as many as 80 ships to accompany the oil rigs, including 7 military ships, 33 marine patrol boats and surveillance ships

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A Chinese ship, right, used a water cannon on a Vietnamese flotilla on May 3. Credit Vietnam Marine Guard, via Reuters

Vietnamese sea surveillance officer injured by China’s water cannon attack. Screen shot from Vietnam TV

The South China Sea (called the east Sea by the Vietnamese) is rich in resources — and not just fish.

Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea

Vietnam Navy warship HQ-011 Dinh Tien Hoang
Vietnam’s Navy is capable and growing. Pictured: a Kilo class submarine built in Russia

Photo: Chinese marine surveillance officers stop and search fishermen in international waters in the South China Sea

A Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago, which is closer to Malaysia, the Phillipines and Vietnam, than it is to China. – Reuters pic, February 27, 2014.

Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard at Thuyen Chai island in the  Spratly archipelago, which is closer to Malaysia, the Phillipines and  Vietnam, than it is to China. – Reuters pic, February 27, 2014.

 

Photo: Captain Pham Quang Thanh on the fishing boat that was fired at by a Chinese naval boat off Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands of Vietnam on March 20, 2013

Chủ tàu Trần Văn Quang và chiếc mỏ neo bị tàu lạ đâm lút vào mũi tàu. Ảnh: Đức Nguyễn.

Chủ tàu Trần Văn Quang và chiếc mỏ neo bị tàu lạ đâm lút vào mũi tàu. Ảnh: Đức Nguyễn.

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Vietnamese boat captain Vo Van Tu said his boat was attacked by China early in 2014

In recent years, Vietnamese protesters have become more outspoken in accusing China  of piracy and lawlessness in the South China Sea.

Photo: Protesters in Hanoi object to China’s claim to take over the South China Sea last year

A China Coast Guard ship (top) and a Philippine supply boat engage in a stand off as the Philippine boat attempts to reach the Second Thomas Shoal, a remote South China Sea a reef claimed by both countries, on March 29, 2014. The largewr Chinese ship seems to totally out class the Filipino craft. (AFP Photo/Jay Directo )

 

The chart above shows how Vietnam views the South China Sea (which many Vietnamese call the East Sea)

China views the South China Sea and East China Sea as vital areas with “must have” resources. And China also wants to control the maritime domain to protect the free movement of what it needs from the sea — even in a crisis or war.

Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.

Map of South China Sea

China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself —  claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.

 

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law.

The Philippines Seeks Support from International Law in the South China Sea — But It Could Be Sailing into the Wind Against China

April 26, 2014

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The Philippines has put its disputed territorial claims before an arbitration tribunal in The Hague. According to Gregory Polin, Manila’s arguments against China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and rival claims are entirely justified. It’s now up to the tribunal to weigh in and convince Beijing of these ‘facts’.

By Gregory Poling for Pacific Forum CSIS

Editor’s note: This article was reposted from PacNet #28 published by Pacific Forum CSIS and originally appeared in “Southeast Asia from Scott Circle” on April 3, 2014.

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On March 30, the Philippines submitted a memorial detailing its arguments and evidence against China’s nine-dash line and other aspects of Beijing’s South China Sea claims to an arbitration tribunal at The Hague. The 10-volume, nearly 4,000-page document marks a bold step by Manila, and one that Beijing seems to have believed never would actually happen. The Philippines chose the right course. Now the international community must weigh in and convince China of that fact.

China has refused to take part in the case since it was first brought by the Philippines in January 2013. It has also exerted considerable pressure on Manila to abandon the arbitration proceedings. As the deadline for the memorial approached and pressure failed to alter the Philippine position, Beijing switched to the carrot. It reportedly offered Manila incentives to drop the case, including trade benefits and a mutual withdrawal of ships from Scarborough Shoal, which China occupied in April 2012. But the Philippines did not budge. An incident near a reef in the Spratly Islands on March 29 helps explain why.

Second Thomas Shoal is a submerged reef, part of which breaks the waterline at low tide. It lies on the Philippines’ presumed continental shelf but, like every feature within the nine-dash line, is claimed by China. The Philippine Navy intentionally grounded the BRP Sierra Madre on the reef in 1999 to garrison troops as a deterrent to further Chinese expansion in the area.

Every few months for 15 years, the Philippine Navy has sent fresh troops and supplies to Second Thomas Shoal. Last year, with memories of the Scarborough Shoal seizure still fresh, Chinese ships began regularly patrolling near Second Thomas and harassing Philippine ships that approached. It escalated these provocations in early March by running off a vessel carrying supplies and, allegedly, construction materials, for the Filipino garrison. Manila responded by dropping supplies to its troops from the air.

On March 29, the Philippines sent another ship, but this time it invited foreign press along to document the Chinese response. The resupply ship was harassed by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel that demanded it leave the area and repeatedly turned across the smaller boat’s path, forcing it to veer away to avoid a collision – all while foreign journalists watched. Eventually the Philippine ship entered shallower waters and escaped, delivering long-overdue supplies and troops to replace the garrison at Second Thomas Shoal.

The incident underscored a lesson that the Philippines learned well after Scarborough Shoal: China has no intention of compromising on its claims, restricting them to the bounds of international law, or treating fellow claimants as equal parties to the disputes.

Despite frequent insistence from Beijing that its claims in the South China Sea are based on international law and encompass only the “islands and adjacent waters” within the nine-dash line, Chinese actions tell a different story. Second Thomas Shoal is not an island or even a rock. It is a low-tide elevation that is not subject to any independent territorial claim under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or customary international law. The shoal belongs to whomever has sovereignty over the continental shelf on which it rests – by all indications the Philippines.

China has not restricted its underwater claims to the continental shelf of the Philippines. In January three Chinese ships patrolled James Shoal, a completely submerged feature on Malaysia’s continental shelf, and held a ceremony swearing to defend Chinese sovereignty over it. Where Beijing makes tenuous legal arguments for its claims to Scarborough Shoal and disputed islets in the Spratlys, it offers none for its claims to Second Thomas or James Shoal.

Such claims, along with increasingly aggressive tactics by Chinese maritime forces, have pushed more complacent nations closer to the Philippine position. Malaysian officials have grown increasingly vocal in meetings with ASEAN counterparts since the Chinese patrols at James Shoal. Even in Indonesia, which had previously tried to distance itself from the dispute, officials appear to be growing concerned. On March 12, an official with the office of the coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs acknowledged that the nine-dash line does in fact illegally overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone north of the Natuna Islands. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa tempered that statement a week later, but reiterated that Indonesia considers the nine-dash line unacceptable. Officials in Jakarta seem to be recognizing that, if allowed, Beijing will stake claim to everything within the nine-dash line – islands, waters, and the seabed beneath.

Negotiations have failed so far to make much progress on managing, much less resolving, the South China Sea disputes. No other claimant has the military capabilities to resist determined Chinese aggression, the Philippines least of all. And the United States will not intervene militarily except in the case of an outright act of war. That leaves the Philippines only one recourse – the law. Manila is paying a cost for its case, but it has correctly determined that the cost of complacency would be higher.

Many of the Philippines’ neighbors, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, have vouched for Manila’s right to pursue legal action but have shied away from more forthright support for the arbitration case. Extraregional players have been more vocal, especially Japan and the United States. The US government grew more explicit in its criticism of the nine-dash line this year, with Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel calling it illegal during testimony before Congress. On the same day that the Philippines filed its memorial, the State Department issued a press statement supporting the effort for “greater legal certainty and compliance with the international law of the sea.”

US support for the Philippines’ case against China is about more than supporting a treaty ally or curbing the atavistic tendencies of a rising power. It is about defending an international system of law and norms. Nearly every nation, including China, is a signatory to the Law of the Sea. Even those that have not ratified it, including the United States, operate under its rules. And the most fundamental of those rules have been recognized by the International Court of Justice and others as customary international law.

Nations large and small have restricted their maritime claims to the bounds of international law, even in those areas where they consider themselves to have a special prerogative, such as the Caribbean for the United States and the Arctic for Russia. If China, by virtue of size or force of arms, is free to ignore that framework, then the entire edifice risks being discredited. And no nation, China included, would find its security and prosperity better served by a return to the pre-20th-century system of might-makes-right relations.

Whether the arbitration tribunal will find that it has jurisdiction in the Philippines’ case is uncertain. But if it does, the judges will rule at least partially in the Philippines’ favor. That ruling will not restrict China’s claims to above-water features in the nine-dash line, but it will likely invalidate its claims, such as to Second Thomas Shoal, that clearly violate customary international law.

Beijing maintains that it will not abide by any such ruling. The Philippines can only hope to protect its interests by pursuing the case anyway. That leaves the international community, and the United States in particular, to convince China that preserving the international rule of law and playing the part of a responsible power will serve its interests better than will thumbing its nose at the community of nations.

Gregory Poling is a fellow at the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. This article originally appeared in “Southeast Asia from Scott Circle” on April 3, 2014.

http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=178925

Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.

Map of South China Sea

China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself —  claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.

 

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law.

U.S. Builds Up Marines in Asia in Response To Allies, China

April 3, 2014

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Chinese Navy’s amphibious landing ship Jinggangshan is seen during a training mission with a hovercraft near James Shoal in March, 2013. Photo: Xinhua

By Yuka Hayashi
The Wall Street Journal

POHANG, South Korea—The U.S. Marine Corps is rebuilding its forces in East Asia, beefing up amphibious fighting capabilities that had been eroded during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The effort, which Marines showed off this week in exercises with South Korean forces, is meant to underscore the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, which has come into question as the U.S. downsizes its military overall.

Even amid Pentagon spending cuts, the Marine Corps is moving ahead with a plan to increase its troops in Asia to levels not seen since 2003, U.S. officials say.

The exercise in Pohang, on South Korea’s southeastern coast, was also meant to reassure allies in the region where some officials have voiced doubts about the U.S.’s commitment to protect them as Washington grapples with its own budgetary constraints and war-weary population.

Such concern has grown amid Beijing’s aggressive military buildup. China’s People’s Liberation Army has strengthened its own Marine Corps in recent years, defense experts say.


Photo shows a hovercraft which was independently developed by China. Dubbed “wild horse at sea,” the high-speed amphibious landing craft conducted its first coordinated training with its mother ship “Jinggangshan” on March 20, 2013. [Photo/Xinhua]

“Truth be told, the U.S. can no longer afford to play the world’s policeman,” said Yosuke Isozaki, a senior Japanese lawmaker who advises Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on national-security issues, at a symposium last week. “This is no longer an era when Japan can do nothing and count on America to protect us for free.”

The U.S. has also expanded joint-exercise programs with Japan as well as Australia, regional allies that are building their own amphibious forces to counter Beijing’s.

For the U.S. Marine Corps, which has been teasingly called “a second land army” after operating only on land in Iraq and Afghanistan, the shift represents a chance to return to its core.

U.S. and South Korean forces engaged in joint landing exercises this week. The Marine Corps plans to have 22,000 troops stationed in the Asian Pacific by 2017. Zuma Press

“We’ve kind of forgotten how to do large-scale amphibious operations,” Brig.-Gen. Paul Kennedy, commanding general of the Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said in an interview. “Now we are back.”

Symbolizing the new emphasis was a beachhead landing exercise in Pohang on Monday. With more than 13,000 troops participating, it was the largest amphibious-warfare drill between the two countries in more than two decades and more than double the scale of last year’s. Nearly 10,000 of the troops were Americans, including 7,500 Marines from bases in Okinawa and California—distinguishable by their desert-sand uniforms. The rest were South Korean troops and some Australians.

The exercise, known as Ssang Yong, or Twin Dragons, was a significant display of force. The main event of the two-week session, it featured thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops emerging on three beaches from amphibious assault vehicles dispatched from some of the 11 ships. Once ashore, they dashed to fight unidentified “aggressors” hidden behind rows of trucks.

The U.S. brought in 55 aircraft for the exercise, including nearly two dozen MV-22 Ospreys, aircraft with vertical landing and takeoff capabilities. While unpopular among local residents in Okinawa due to their noise and a perception they are prone to crashes—a claim the U.S. denies—the Ospreys are a key component of the Marine Corps’ new Asia strategy because of their ability to operate flexibly in areas with small islands and during disasters such as last year’s typhoon in the Philippines.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such large-scale exercises were difficult. For example, three of the four Marine infantry battalions previously stationed in Okinawa were deployed elsewhere, said Lt. Gen. John Wissler, commander of Marine Forces Japan, at a news conference aboard USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship, during this week’s drill. All four battalions are now back on Okinawa. The Marine Corps is close to completing its rebalancing, with 19,000 troops already stationed in the Asian Pacific. The goal is 22,000 troops by 2017. This year, Marines are expected to train or engage in 21 of the 36 nations it counts in the region, Gen. Wissler said. “We see this as a significant rebalance.”

North Korea on the same day as the landing drill fired hundreds of artillery shells off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula, prompting South Korea to fire back. None of the shells hit land.

While U.S. and South Korean military officials said the exercise wasn’t targeted at North Korea or any specific nation, some military experts say such joint drills are conducted to build deterrence against potential aggression while preparing for emergencies.

“If the situation in North Korea becomes unstable, it would be a critical task for the U.S. and South Korea to land and secure its nuclear facilities,” said Masayuki Masuda, a senior fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, an arm of the Defense Ministry.

The U.S. Marines have been working with emerging amphibious forces in Japan and the Philippines, two countries entangled in bitter territorial disputes with China.

In Australia, rotational deployment and training of U.S. troops have started.

The marine force of China’s PLA, with more than 10,000 troops, has acquired more amphibious ships and conducted exercises more frequently in recent years, military experts say. The PLA is already “capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan,” said the Pentagon in its latest annual report to congress on China’s military developments.

“I am of a view that in the coming era, we should have the Marines as widely deployed and as often as we can in the region as a way of showing the flag,” said Wallace Gregson, a retired Marine lieutenant general who served as assistant secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. “It’s not warmongering. It’s deterrence.”

Write to Yuka Hayashi at yuka.hayashi@wsj.com

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Philippines Moves Ahead With International Arbitration in South China Sea Dispute With China

March 28, 2014
The Pagasa (Hope) Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines is seen in this July 20, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Rolex Dela Pena

The Pagasa (Hope) Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines is seen in this July 20, 2011 file photo. Credit: Reuters/Rolex Dela Pena

(Reuters) – The Philippines will file a case against China over the disputed South China Sea at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague next week, subjecting Beijing to international legal scrutiny over the increasingly tense waters for the first time.

Manila is seeking a ruling to confirm its right to exploit the waters in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as allowed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), its team of U.S. and British lawyers said.

A ruling against China by the five-member panel of the Permanent Court of Arbitration could prompt other claimants to challenge Beijing, experts said. But while legally binding, any ruling would effectively be unenforceable as there is no body under UNCLOS to police such decisions, legal experts said.

China, which has refused to participate in the case, claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, displaying its reach on official maps with a so-called nine-dash line that stretches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the potentially energy-rich waters.

The U.N. convention gives a country 12 nautical miles of territorial control with claim to sovereign rights to explore, exploit and manage natural resources within 200 miles. China claims several reefs and shoals in Manila’s EEZ.

The head of the Philippines’ legal team, Paul Reichler, a lawyer at U.S. law firm Foley Hoag, told Reuters a submission would be sent electronically on Sunday, meeting a March 30 deadline set by the tribunal. Manila filed an initial complaint in January 2013.

Legal experts said it could take months for the panel to weigh the case.

Diplomats and experts who follow the tensions in the South China Sea said Manila was going ahead despite pressure from China to delay or drop its submission.

“They’ve crossed a significant line here … the pressure to withdraw before actually mounting an argument has been intense but they’ve stayed the course,” said Carl Thayer, from the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

Arbitration would clarify Manila’s rights to fishing and other resources in its EEZ as well as rights to enforce its laws in those areas, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said.

“We see arbitration as an open, friendly and durable solution to the dispute,” del Rosario told a business forum recently.

China reiterated this week that it would not take part.

“We demand the Philippines ends it mistaken actions and stop going further down this wrong path to prevent bilateral relations from being further harmed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news briefing on Wednesday.

“China’s determination and resolve to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering.”

TENSIONS GROWING

Diplomats said the case was the focus of growing interest across East Asia and beyond given China’s assertiveness in both the South and East China Seas.

Washington has stiffened its rhetorical support for Manila’s action, even as it insists it does not take sides in regional territorial disputes.

The State Department warned this month of the “ambiguity” of some claims to the South China Sea and called for disputes to be solved legally and peacefully, through means such as arbitration.

Tensions have been on full display in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, Manila protested action by Chinese coastguard ships to block two Philippine civilian vessels resupplying marines on the disputed Second Thomas Reef.

The Philippines instead air-dropped supplies to the marines, who live on an old military transport ship rammed onto the reef in 1999 to mark Manila’s territory. While Chinese vessels regularly surround the reef, it was the first time China had blocked a routine re-supply mission, a move Thayer said could have been related to the arbitration case.

Further north, the two sides have traded angry words over the Scarborough Shoal, where in January Philippine officials said a Chinese coastguard ship fired water cannon at Filipino fishermen.

Manila says both reefs lie within its EEZ. China says they are part of its territory.

Much further to the south, Chinese naval ships staged exercises in January at the James Shoal, a submerged reef within Malaysia’s EEZ.

Less visibly, China has applied pressure behind the scenes, attempting to isolate the Philippines within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), one regional diplomat said.

“China has let us all know that they are very angry … The message is clear – you must not support this in any way,” said the envoy, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Diplomatic sources in Vietnam have told Reuters that China put pressure on Hanoi over joining the case at the tribunal. A Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman last month said Hanoi reserved the right to apply “all necessary and appropriate peaceful means” to protect its sovereignty.

Malaysian officials have given no indication they are planning to join the action or launch their own case.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Stuart Grudgings in Kuala Lumpur. Editing by Dean Yates)

China conducts full-scale island assault exercise with massive amphibious vessels

March 4, 2014

For the first time, all of the PLA Navy’s three gigantic Type 071 Amphibious Transport Dock vessels were deployed last week in a large naval exercise in the tense South China Sea, simulating in full an island-taking assault.

Chinese Type 071 Amphibious Transport Dock ship.

Chinese Type 071 Amphibious Transport Dock ship.

Also participating in the drill were PLAN’s destroyers, frigates, military helicopters and possibly submarines.

The Yuzhao-class Type 071 amphibious transport dock ships are the PLAN’s largest vessels, except for its lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

With 20,000-ton displacement, each measures 689 feet long and 92 feet wide.

It can carry 15-20 amphibious assault vehicles and 500-800 troops, an ideal vessel for island taking operations.

From World Tribune

http://www.worldtribune.com/2014/03/03/china-conducts-full
-scale-island-assault-exercise-with-massive-amphibious-vessels/

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The three amphibious ships are Hudong (998),  Jinggangshan (Jinggang Shan) (999) and Changbai Shan (989).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_071_amphibious_transport_dock

Chinese Navy’s amphibious landing ship Jinggangshan is seen during a training mission with a hovercraft near James Shoal in March, 2013. Photo: Xinhua

Brunei Backs Out of Challenging China’s South China Sea Claims

March 4, 2014

By: Tess Jamandre,  VERA Files
March 3, 2014

InterAksyon.com The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines – Four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with claims in the South China Sea failed to take a united stand on China’s growing aggressiveness after Brunei opted out of a recently held meeting in Manila.

Brunei was a no-show in the 1st ASEAN Claimants Working Group Meeting held at Pan Pacific Hotel in Manila Feb. 18, and is expected to skip the second round in Malaysia on March 25, diplomatic sources privy to the talks said.

Brunei Sultan Bolkiah is welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

The meeting, however, saw a more engaged Malaysia, which has abandoned its former passive attitude toward China’s military activities in the region.

Observers attribute Malaysia’s change of heart to the recent military exercises by China in oil-rich James Shoal, 80 kilometers from Malaysian Coast but is the farthest border of China’s much-disputed 9-dash line map. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman himself flew to Manila late January and to Brunei to confirm the Feb. 18 meeting.

President Beningo S. Aquino visited Kuala Lumpur last week and discussed the Spratlys, among other concerns.

The Philippines has taken China to arbitration court over the 9-dash line. Its claim against China will get a boost if Malaysia and Vietnam interplead in the international tribunal, but both countries are at present mum on the issue of arbitration against China.

Of the 10 ASEAN members, four—Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam— have territorial claims in the mineral-rich Spratlys in the South China Sea, about 80 percent of which is being claimed by China with its controversial 9-dash line map. Taiwan is also a claimant.

Of all six claimants of the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea, only Brunei does not occupy any land feature there.

The Philippines maintain troops on eight islands and a shoal, Malaysia is present in four, Vietnam holds 22, China controls eight, and Taiwan maintains a garrison on Itu Aba, the largest island.

It was not the first time that Brunei avoided a meeting among the South China Sea claimants that the Philippines has been striving to convene.

At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat in Bagan, Myanmar on January 16 and 17, Brunei also did not join the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines in a pull-aside meeting to discuss how to get the claimants meeting started.

Brunei’s Foreign Minister His Royal Highness Prince Mohamed Bolkiah chose to meet his Vietnamese counterpart instead on Jan. 16.

“Brunei is not comfortable to sit in a meeting to discuss the South  China Sea territorial issues” at the level of His Royal Highness, the Prince, a diplomatic source said.

For the Feb. 18 meeting in Manila, Brunei informed the Philippine government through its embassy that it will be sending a representative from the foreign ministry.

The delegations from the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam waited for the Brunei delegate until 30 minutes before the meeting began. When not even someone from the Brunei Embassy in Manila showed up, the table, chairs and Brunei’s flag were removed.

But the three other countries agreed to continue persuading Brunei to join the four-claimants meetings which may eventually be opened to China.

At the Feb. 18 meeting, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam expressed concern over China’s recent moves in the disputed area. Malaysia, in particular, resented the “spin” that China makes in their bilateral meetings and exchanges.

“China often distorted news for their benefit,” one of the participants said.

The three countries agreed to cooperate in negating the controversial 9-dash line, which is the subject of the complaint filed by the Philippines before the United Nations Arbitral   Court.

But the Philippine case against China before the UN Arbitral Court was not discussed in the Feb. 18 meeting.

“It will be very useful but it will not be fatal if they (Malaysia and Vietnam) are not there (in the Philippine case), but it will be useful if we have friends joining our case,” Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza said.

The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia also clarified that last month’s claimants meeting as a mechanism will not replace the ASEAN-China dialogue mechanism such as the Joint Working Group Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The four-claimants mechanism will exist alongside with ASEAN and will complement it.

The ASEAN-China Joint Working Group is tasked to discuss the formulation of a Code of Conduct as agreed in the DOC.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for truth.) 

Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.

Map of South China Sea

China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself —  claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law.

China’s Naval Exercises Draw Malaysia Into The South China Sea Debate

February 27, 2014

The submerged reef would be easy to miss, under turquoise seas about 80 km off Sarawak.

But two Chinese naval exercises in less than a year around the James  Shoal have shocked Malaysia and led to a significant shift in its  approach to China’s claims to the disputed South China Sea, senior  diplomats told Reuters. The reef lies outside Malaysia’s territorial  waters but inside its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

See larger image:
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=48227339187895
7&set=a.482273388545624.1073747961.100002889011045&type=1&theater

The latest incident in January, in particular, prompted Malaysia to  quietly step up cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam, the two  Southeast Asian nations most outspoken over China’s moves in the region,  in trying to tie Beijing to binding rules of conduct in the South China  Sea, the diplomats said.

Beijing’s growing naval assertiveness could also push Malaysia closer  to the United States, its top security ally, thus deepening divisions  between Southeast Asia and China over the potentially mineral-rich  waters.

Malaysia has traditionally played down security concerns in pursuit of  closer economic ties with China, its biggest trade partner.

China’s ‘southern-most’ territory

The James Shoal, which China calls Zengmu Reef, is 1,800 km from  mainland China. It is closer to Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the  Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia – nearly all of Southeast Asia – than  it is to China’s coast.

A Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago, which is closer to Malaysia, the Phillipines and Vietnam, than it is to China. – Reuters pic, February 27, 2014.

Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard at Thuyen Chai island in the  Spratly archipelago, which is closer to Malaysia, the Phillipines and  Vietnam, than it is to China. – Reuters pic, February 27, 2014.

Nevertheless, Beijing regards those waters as its southernmost  territory, the bottom of a looping so-called nine-dash line on maps that  comprise 90% of the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea.

Pictures from China’s state media on January 26 showed hundreds of  Chinese sailors standing to attention on a warship’s deck, backed by two  destroyers and a helicopter that was reported to be at James Shoal.

Malaysia’s navy chief denied the Chinese media reports at the time,  telling state news agency Bernama the ships were far from Malaysian  waters, which are rich in the oil and gas that power the nation’s  economy. He may have been able to deny the incursion because Malaysian  forces did not monitor or sight the Chinese flotilla, security analysts  said.

But diplomatic and naval security sources have told Reuters the  exercise by three warships, which included an oath-taking ceremony to  defend China’s sovereignty, almost certainly took place at or close to  James Shoal.

“It’s a wake-up call that it could happen to us and it is happening to  us,” Tang Siew Mun, a foreign policy specialist at Malaysia’s Institute  of Strategic and International Studies who advises the government, said  of the recent incidents.

“For some time we believed in this special relationship…  James Shoal  has shown to us over and again that when it comes to China protecting  its sovereignty and national interest it’s a different ball game.”

‘Silence as usual’ from the undecisive Najib administration

Neither Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry nor the prime minister’s office responded to requests for comment.

While Malaysia’s public response to the January incident was typically  low key, senior diplomats from other Southeast Asian nations said their  Malaysian counterparts had been far more active since then in pushing  for a common stance in talks with China over a code of conduct for the  South China Sea.

Officials from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations  (Asean) and China will resume negotiations in Singapore on March 18  after agreeing to accelerate talks last year that have made little  headway so far.

The code is intended to bind China and Asean to detailed rules of  behaviour at sea, reducing the chance of an escalation in tensions that  could lead to conflict. China says it is sincere in trying to reach an  agreement.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan claim parts of the sea. All are members of Asean except Taiwan.

ASEAN push for common ‘code of conduct’ over South China Sea

Less than a week after the January incident, Malaysian Foreign Minister  Anifah Aman made a previously unannounced private visit to Manila to  meet his Philippine counterpart, the Philippine Foreign Ministry said.  The South China Sea issue was discussed, a ministry spokesman said.

Then on February 18, officials from the Philippines, Malaysia and  Vietnam held a meeting to coordinate policy towards China on the  maritime dispute and code of conduct, a diplomat with knowledge of the  talks in Manila said.

“In the past it was only the Philippines and Vietnam that were pushing  for this meeting, but now we see Malaysia getting involved,” said the  diplomat.

‘No’ to China’s nine-dash line ahead of Obama’s visit in April

At the unannounced talks, the officials agreed to reject China’s  nine-dash line, push for an early conclusion to the code of conduct  negotiations and ask Brunei to join a meeting with the three countries  in Kuala Lumpur in March, the diplomat said.

Malaysia’s change in tack comes ahead of visits to Kuala Lumpur by  Philippine President Benigno Aquino this week and US President Barack  Obama in April.

US officials have also hardened their stance toward China over the  South China Sea in recent weeks. On February 13, the commander of the US  Navy, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, said Washington would come to the aid  of the Philippines in the event of conflict with China over the disputed  waters.

Those sorts of comments could embolden some countries, said Hong Nong,  deputy director of the Research Centre for Oceans Law & Policy at  the National Institute for South China Sea Studies on China’s Hainan  Island.

“That will have an influence on Asean. In the past the US never made it  clear it was going to stand by whom,” said Hong. – Reuters

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Full article: http://www.malaysia-chronicle.com/index.php?option
=com_k2&view=item&id=233692:playing-for-us-favor-najib-to
-harden-south-china-sea-stance-against-china-ahead-of-
obama-visit?&Itemid=2#ixzz2uVI3CM6R

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China’s amphibious landing ship 长白山 / Changbai Shan  ”Changbai  Mountains” (hull number 989) reportedly landed Chinese troops on James Island in Malaysia.

Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.

Map of South China Sea

China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself —  claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law.

China’s Strategy For The “Vast Ocean Domain” — Destroy Outsider’s Ability To Intervene

February 23, 2014

First priority is sea control around the first island chain
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‘VAST’ MARITIME DOMAIN: Beijing has prioritized the development of long-range missiles that could strike US ships gaining control of the East China Sea, a study says
.
By William Lowther  /  Staff reporter in WASHINGTON
.

China is developing a military “architecture” that could undermine US ability to intervene in an attack on Taiwan or Japan, according to a new study.

Published this week by the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute, China’s Evolving Reconnaissance-Strike Capabilities says that Beijing is perfecting sensors for monitoring a “vast” maritime domain.

“China’s expanding reconnaissance infrastructure is designed to support an array of precision strike capabilities for targeting ships at sea, command and control nodes, air bases, ports and other critical facilities,” the study says.

Written by research fellow Ian Easton, the study says the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may be exploiting security issues in the East China Sea as part of its Taiwan policy.

“The CCP’s approach has been centered on fostering a sense of shared external threat with the Republic of China (ROC) by conflating their respective territorial sovereignty claims,” the study says.

“This strategy appears to have been a key driver of China’s gambit in the East China Sea,” it says.

The study says the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an advantage that the US military and Japan’s Self Defense Forces cannot match: theater missiles.

“Recognizing the geographic advantage it would have over the US in any conflict with Japan or Taiwan, the PLA has prioritized the development of long-range missiles in order to be able to strike American ships and air bases before they would be able to project power into the region,” the study says.

It says that the PLA’s Second Artillery Force fields the world’s largest and most capable inventory of theater ballistic missiles for delivering nuclear and conventional strikes.

Initially, the only theater ballistic missile in the PLA arsenal that could reach Japan was the medium-range Dongfeng-21C (DF-21C), it says.

“However, according to Taiwanese intelligence officials, the Second Artillery Force has also begun deploying a new medium-range ballistic missile the DF-16, which is reportedly armed at counter-intervention missions,” the study says.

“The DF-16 would be primarily intended for targeting US air and naval bases in Japan during a confrontation over Taiwan,” it says.

The study says that the PLA is also extending the range of its DF-11 and DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles across from Taiwan, giving them “notional coverage” of increasingly large sections of the East China Sea.

In addition, China’s navy has a potentially powerful underwater reconnaissance capability.

“With some 40 modern attack submarines currently fielded and up to 70 expected to be in service by the end of the decade, the submarine force is designed to assist in efforts to achieve sea control around the first island chain, to include countering US and Japanese intervention in a Taiwan conflict,” it says.

Washington and Tokyo must show that they can threaten the PLA’s command posts and missile launch units.

“Japan should be encouraged to do more to contribute to the conventional counterstrike mission,” it says.

“With the F-35 program now many years behind schedule, it makes sense for Tokyo to study options for deploying conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles,” it adds.

The study points out that Japan’s civilian space program has recently developed one of the world’s most advanced solid-fueled space launch vehicles.

“If required, these rockets could be converted into ballistic missiles for the deterrent mission with relatively little modification,” the study says.

Related:

The presence of China’s navy has expanded greatly as China adds more capability and warships.

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China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning is a refurbished Russian Navy aircraft carrier. “The South China Sea has deep waters, strong wind and big waves, making it a suitable place for the aircraft carrier to conduct tests and training,” the China Daily quoted the Liaoning’s captain, Zhang Zheng, as saying. China is now building  indigenously designed aircraft carriers.

China navy
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Russian built PLA Navy Sovremenny class ship in service in China shooting missiles. As it did with the aircraft carrier Liaoning, China used the Russian designed guided missile cruisers to gain training, insight and to refine their own design concepts.

China’s amphibious landing ship 长白山 / Changbai Shan  ”Changbai  Mountains” (hull number 989) is representative of China’s vast and growing naval capability. She is a modern amphibious ship capable of landing troops on distant shores.

This chart shows the Air Defense Identification Zone or ADIZ declared by China over the East China Sea on Saturday, November 23, 2013. China has said it was considering a similar ADIZ over the South China Sea but later denied the news reports on that.

Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.

Map of South China Sea

China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself —  claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law.

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law.

WSJ: China’s Navy Raising Eyebrows

February 22, 2014

By Trefor Moss and Rob Taylor
The Wall Street Journal

A three-week patrol by a Chinese naval flotilla in Southeast Asian waters has drawn conflicting responses from regional governments, exposing confusion over how to react to China’s rising maritime power.

Torn between offending a key trading partner and standing up for their countries’ sovereignty, some regional officials have denied that Chinese ships sailed close to their territory at all, despite Chinese government statements and state media reports to the contrary.

Two Chinese destroyers and one amphibious landing craft, which may have traveled with a submarine escort, according to security analysts, left southern China on Jan. 20. Chinese state media provided detailed coverage of the patrol, which pressed farther south than other Chinese naval missions have done in the past.

That unusually wide geographic range led analysts to believe the mission was something more than a routine training exercise, as China’s Ministry of Defense has claimed, and instead was designed as a demonstration of China’s increasingly expansive naval reach.

The Chinese vessels first conducted a patrol of the Paracel Islands, a South China Sea group contested by China and Vietnam, before proceeding to James Shoal, a reef some 50 miles off the coast of Malaysia in South China Sea areas claimed by both China and Malaysia.

The flotilla then proceeded beyond waters claimed by Beijing to the Indian Ocean, where it conducted the first exercises by Chinese military vessels in waters south of Indonesia, before heading back north and holding live-fire drills in the Western Pacific. The ships returned to China on Feb. 11, after 23 days at sea.

China’s Ministry of Defense said the training it conducted during the mission “was not directed at any country or region, and had no relation to the regional situation,” adding, “China has freedom of navigation and other legitimate rights in the relevant waters.”

Indeed, there is no suggestion that the flotilla’s actions transgressed international law. “China is well within its rights to conduct military exercises at sea, and that includes passage through international straits,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

The U.S. has refrained from commenting specifically on the Chinese patrol. On Feb. 5, Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, expressed concern during congressional testimony about a “pattern of behavior in the South China Sea” whereby China was seeking to assert control over disputed areas in ways that were “inconsistent with international law.” Secretary of State John Kerry, during a five-day trip to Asia this month, cautioned China against taking steps at sea that could increase tensions with its neighbors, warning that misunderstandings could inadvertently lead to conflict, officials said.

And last week, Capt. James Fanell, director of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the Chinese military has been told to prepare for a “short sharp war” with Japan that could allow it to seize a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea at the forefront of the two nations’ territorial grievances.

Regardless of the Chinese mission’s intent, the flotilla highlighted the growing reach of the People’s Liberation Army Navy—and the dilemma that poses for China’s neighbors.

While viewing China’s military modernization as a legitimate process, Southeast Asian governments are concerned about its implications, said Mr. Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, and they fear China will assert its military power to secure its claims.

But at the same time, Southeast Asian officials have shown little appetite for questioning China openly about the flotilla. The Vietnamese government didn’t respond to requests for comment and has remained silent on the patrol of the Paracel Islands, though it has strongly criticized such activities in the past. Similarly, when China sent a flotilla to James Shoal in March 2013, it prompted open objections from Kuala Lumpur.

This time, Malaysian officials were initially vague about the Chinese flotilla, with Foreign Minister Anifah Aman telling reporters on Feb. 17 that he didn’t have “any confirmation on the presence of Chinese vessels or ships in that region.”

On Feb. 20, however, Chief of the Defense Force Gen.  Zulkifeli Mohammed Zin finally acknowledged the Chinese presence near East Malaysia. He stressed that Chinese ships had a right to sail through the area, while adding: “They passed through James Shoal. They did not patrol James Shoal.”

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein added that “We have to be realistic about our abilities, when faced with a big power like this.”

The Malaysian military is fully capable of monitoring its coastal waters, Mr. Storey said, and would therefore have known the Chinese patrol was nearby—suggesting officials were simply eager to avoid public discussion of China’s military presence for fear of upsetting the Chinese government.

Indonesian officials also initially appeared reluctant to broach the subject of the Chinese flotilla. However, on Feb. 19 Indonesia’s Navy spokesman said maritime security forces were aware of four Chinese warships passing through Indonesian sea lanes in recent weeks. The Chinese ships “conducted an innocent passage” in Indonesia waters, with all four routing through the Strait of Malacca—which wasn’t on the flotilla’s route, according to Chinese reports—and three also routed through the Lombok Strait.

However, Australia’s deployment of an AP-3C Orion surveillance aircraft to monitor the Chinese exercises south of Indonesia—a mission confirmed by the Australian Ministry of Defense—appeared to corroborate China’s version of events.

Australia’s Defense Minister David Johnston, speaking to The Wall Street Journal after the flotilla’s passage, stressed that the Chinese ships had been in international waters and were under no obligation to notify Australia ahead of their arrival in the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Johnston said he was “relaxed” about the appearance of the Chinese navy closer to Australia than it had ventured in the past. “I think there’s a lot of over-negativity about that sort of thing,” he said, arguing for open engagement with China to reduce tensions.

Nonetheless, Australian security analysts widely believe the fleet was on a mission to flex China’s growing naval muscle despite strains with the new conservative government in Canberra, which has been critical of Beijing’s decision to establish an air-defense zone in the East China Sea late last year.

“The Chinese wanted to send a message that they will go where they want, and the message has been received that way here,” said security analyst Hugh White, a former senior Australian defense department official.

The policy of turning a blind eye to China’s forays into Southeast Asian waters could soon become untenable, Mr. Storey said: “As the PLA Navy grows in strength, we’re going to see more of this.”

—Abhrajit Gangopadhyay and Jeremy Page contributed to this article

Write to Trefor Moss at trefor.moss@wsj.com and Rob Taylor at rob.taylor@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that “We have to be realistic about our abilities, when faced with a big power like this.” An earlier version of this article misattributed the quote to the chief of Malaysia’s defense force, Gen. Zulkifeli Mohammed Zin.

Related:

China’s amphibious landing ship 长白山 / Changbai Shan  ”Changbai  Mountains” (hull number 989) reportedly landed Chinese troops on James Island. She sailed through the Indonesian straits this month along with two destroyers, according to several news services.

Related:

Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.

Map of South China Sea

China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself —  claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law.


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