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 email@example.com and Rob Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.
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.