Posts Tagged ‘freedom of navigation’

Australian navy to accompany UK’s ‘show of strength’ in South China Sea

July 22, 2018

The Australian navy has been invited to accompany the pride of Britain’s fleet, the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, when it comes to the Pacific – a joint show of strength that will be interpreted as a reply to growing Chinese influence and activity in the region.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth deployment may include a “freedom of navigation” exercise in the South China Sea, which China has claimed as its strategic backyard.

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HMS Queen Elizabeth, the British navy’s newest and most expensive aircraft carrier, will be accompanied by Australian navy ships through the South China Sea.

The massive new ship’s trip to the Pacific – expected in several years’ time once it has finished trials and been fully fitted out – was previously flagged by former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, but new details were revealed after a meeting of the two countries’ foreign and defence ministers in Edinburgh on Friday.

“We are very much hoping and going to work together on deploying HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific and hopefully sailing side by side with Australian vessels,” British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said.

“We want to make sure that everyone around the world understands that these two great nations are the greatest of allies.”

He did not say whether Australia would accompany the carrier into the South China Sea.

Earlier this year Britain’s national security adviser Mark Sedwill said the Queen Elizabeth would need support from friendly forces on high-end combat missions, due to the decreasing size of its escort fleet.

Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to the US, said at a think-tank event in Washington last year that his country’s two new aircraft carriers would “be seen in the Pacific” with the objective “to protect freedom of navigation and to keep sea routes and air routes open”.

Johnson said last year: “One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to [the South China Sea] to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.”


The aircraft carriers would carry fighter jets, helicopters and drones including anti-submarine aircraft.

Williamson said there was an increasing “submarine threat” in the North Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. This year Britain deployed three navy warships to the Pacific for the first time since 2013. HMS Sutherland conducted exercises with the Australian navy in March and also sailed through the South China Sea. HMS Albion helped enforce sanctions against North Korea.

Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said the recent agreement to purchase UK ‘Type 26’ frigates, to be built in Australia as ‘Hunter’ combat ships, was another example of how the two countries were working more closely together not just in deployment but in inter-operable technology.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt pointed out that Britain was also increasing its diplomatic presence in the Pacific, opening new embassies in Pacific nations.

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First China-built aircraft carrier has started sea trials

Hunt and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop emphasised it was a time of global uncertainty with threats to the international order that made the close relationship between the two countries particularly important.


Hunt said the relationship was “not just based on [the] ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ kind of transactional relationships that are so common in international diplomacy”.

Bishop said the Edinburgh meeting had been one of the most productive she could remember, with “unprecedented levels” of co-operation agreed in areas including diplomacy, security, intelligence and humanitarian issues.

Payne said the four ministers had discussed “hybrid threats” to security such as cyber attacks, and “foreign interference”.

Bishop said Donald Trump’s push to increase US allies’ defence spending made a “very valid point” that the ministers had discussed at length, and they had agreed that more must be done to share the burden of global security with the US.


‘China will challenge US naval supremacy within a year’

From July 14, 2018

China’s biggest challenge to the supremacy of the US Navy will come within the year, a well regarded Australian strategic analyst predicted in Washington this week.

It will come in the form of the announcement that China’s armed forces will hold exercises in the international waters of the South China Sea and that, to protect public safety, it will close the air and sea space in the area, he said.

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Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea has sparked controversy in the region.

Even though this would be presented as a temporary measure – a few days, perhaps a week – it would be the end of freedom of navigation and overflight if it went unchallenged.

Seventy years of American dominance would be over. The US Navy effectively would have been pushed back from China’s coastline by more than 1000 kilometres, right out to the limit of China’s nine-dash line marking its disputed claim to the South China Sea.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Beijing would have asserted de facto control of the world’s most valuable commercial artery and 3.6 million square kilometres of ocean. The other six countries with claims to parts of the South China Sea would have been sidelined. Other countries would be permitted to use it only with China’s consent.

“The question is, what are we going to do about it?” posed the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, a former head of strategy for the Defence Department. His comments were made to a closed-door session of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue but later repeated to me for publication on the record.

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US, Vietnam to Cooperate on Freedom of Navigation in Disputed South China Sea

July 10, 2018


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, right, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 9, 2018
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, right, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 9, 2018
The U.S. top diplomat reaffirmed America’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region during his first trip to Vietnam, saying Washington and Hanoi will work together to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concluded his first trip to Vietnam as the top U.S. diplomat on Monday.

“The United States is dedicated to an Indo-Pacific region with strong, independent nations who respect each other’s sovereignty, uphold the rule of law, and advance responsible commerce,“ said Pompeo at a business community reception in Hanoi.

“In contrast with others in the region,” added Pompeo, “the United States’ actions are not guided by “raw economic self-interest alone” Instead, Pompeo told the group the U.S. is working to build partnerships to deal with regional concerns over China’s militarization and reclamation of features in the disputed South China Sea.

“Both sides welcomed cooperation to uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight, with Vietnamese leaders welcoming a strong U.S. role in ensuring stability in the South China Sea,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert on Monday after Pompeo met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, meets with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the International Convention Center in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 9, 2018.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, meets with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the International Convention Center in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 9, 2018.

The U.S. has been providing Vietnam with patrol boats in an effort apparently to deepen security ties.

China has defended its construction efforts, saying it has a right to build on the islands, which it claims as part of its territory. Beijing has pointed out its controversial efforts in the South China Sea have been peaceful.

The chief U.S. diplomat arrived Hanoi a few days after Facebook sparked controversy in Vietnam over a map of the disputed South China Sea.

A map on Facebook’s advertising tool was found to have marked the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands at part of China’s territory, prompting the Vietnamese government to lodge a formal complaint. Facebook reportedly acknowledged the boundary marking was a technical mistake.

Important signal

Experts said Pompeo’s visit to Vietnam sends an important signal that the two nations’ are working together to help contain China’s aspirations in the South China Sea.

“The challenge is that Team Trump’s Asia emphasis—as has been for the past year—is clearly focused on North Korea and trade issues with China with little attention left for anything else. This, of course, plays right into China’s hands,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

FILE - A Vietnamese naval soldier stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago, Jan. 17, 2013.
FILE – A Vietnamese naval soldier stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago, Jan. 17, 2013.

“The administration must make all of Asia’s problems and a more comprehensive grand strategy there its top priority, or Beijing will no doubt control and dominate the South China Sea and turn most of the region into one giant sphere of influence,” Kazianis told VOA on Monday.

Vietnam and China have long been involved in maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the maritime territory that is rich in fisheries, oil and natural gas and important for shipping lanes.

Trump introduced his Asia policy in a visit to Vietnam in November of 2017.

The Trump administration is seeking an open Indo-Pacific where all nations are “free from coercion” and can pursue paths forward in a sovereign manner, according to U.S. officials. A key part of the plan is to keep the sea lanes and airways open in the region.

Washington and Hanoi are continuing working-level consultations to strengthen maritime cooperation. State Department hosted the fifth U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue on Maritime Issues and the Law of the Sea on June 19-20, affirming the joint commitment on maritime cooperation at international and regional forums.

China Seeks Individuals to Develop South China Sea Islands Claimed, But Not Owned By China

July 7, 2018

China’s southern Hainan province, which administers the country’s claimed islands and waters in the contested South China Sea, is allowing individuals to use uninhabited islets for tourism and construction purposes for up to 50 years, state-run media has reported, citing an official document.

The document, revealed Wednesday, says that “any entity or individual” who wishes to develop uninhabited islands can apply and provide development plans to provincial ocean administration authorities, according to Hainan’s Department of Ocean and Fisheries, the state-run CGTN website reported Friday.

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The development would focus mainly on uninhabited islands in the Paracel chain, home to hundreds of undeveloped islets. The Paracels, which are occupied by China, are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, and is home to Woody Island, the nerve center and administration post for much of China’s operations in the strategic waterway.

According to the report, the time frame for developing the uninhabited islands varies depending on use. For aquaculture, they can be used for 15 years, tourism and amusement projects allow for 25 years, salt and mineral industry projects for 30 years, public welfare projects for 40 years and harbor- and shipyard-building projects for 50 years.

It said developers will have to pay the government for the use of the islands, which would also benefit Beijing’s goal of building a free trade zone for economic development.

“The development on uninhabited islands will maintain stability of (the) South China Sea and dispel other countries’ attempts to invade and occupy our territorial sovereignty,” the report cited Chen Xiangmiao, a research fellow at the state-backed Hainan-based National Institute for the South China Sea, as saying.

Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

As part of what some experts say is a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea, three of Beijing’s man-made islets in the Spratly chain south of the Paracels — Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs — all boast military-grade airfields.

In May, the Chinese Air Force landed bombers on Woody Island as part of a training exercise. Satellite images taken May 12 showed China also appeared to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles at Woody, while anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-air missiles were also placed on its largest bases in the Spratlys.

All of these moves came despite a 2015 pledge by President Xi Jinping not to further militarize the islets.

Washington has blasted Beijing for the moves, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, and has conducted a number of so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the area, including one near several islets in the Paracels in May.

It has also flown bombers on training missions over the South China Sea — including a “routine mission” that was “in the vicinity of the South China Sea,” according to the U.S. military.

Facebook apologizes for map that violates Vietnam’s sovereignty

July 6, 2018
Facebook apologizes for map that violates Vietnam's sovereignty

Facebook said it remains neutral on territorial disputes and thus its map now does not include Paracel and Spratly Islands as either part of China or Vietnam.

Faulty map showing Paracel and Spratly Islands as part of China was stated to be a technical error.

Facebook has issued an apology to its Vietnamese users for an incident involving a wrongful depiction of the country’s sovereignty on a map used by the company.

In a press release issued Thursday, the social networking giant said that the issue with a map used for the Facebook advertising tool was a technical error and a patch to fix it was being deployed globally.

Facebook then apologized for the mistake and said that the company had explained itself to the Vietnamese government and fixed the issue as requested.

The mistake was discovered after Vietnamese users using Facebook’s advertising tool found that the tool’s map did not include Paracel (Hoang Sa) and Spratly (Truong Sa) Islands as part of Vietnam.

The map however showed the islands as part of China, and a live version of the map displayed the name “Sansha” over the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea. “Sansha” is the name of a city China unilaterally established in the disputed waters that includes Vietnam’s Paracel and Spratly Islands, as well as the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by the Philippines.

These wrongful depictions of Vietnam’s sovereignty reportedly outraged many people in Vietnam, where Facebook is the most popular network with more than 58 million active accounts.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications then issued a request for Facebook to take immediate actions to correct the map last Sunday, prompting the social networking giant to patch it on Monday.

In a statement on the fix issued Tuesday, Facebook said it had removed the wrongful depictions of the islands and the mention of “Sansha.” As the company said it remains neutral on territorial disputes, the islands were completely removed from the map instead of being added to Vietnam.

Facebook also stated that all its maps were provided by third-party companies such as OpenStreetMap and HERE Maps.

Vietnam has consistently affirmed that it has full legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

China seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam by force in 1974, and has been illegally occupying a number of reefs in the Spratly Islands since 1988.


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Chinese military assets in the South China Sea. 


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Vietnamese Anti-China protesters hold placards which read ‘The country will not forget – Johnson South Reef – 14th March, 1988’ during a gathering to mark the 28th anniversary of the Spratly Islands clashes between Vietnam and China at a public park in Hanoi March 14, 2016.


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US not likely to change position in South China Sea issue

July 5, 2018

Washington’s top diplomat to Manila Sung Kim on Wednesday maintained the US position regarding the freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

In an interview with reporters, Kim underscored that amid the complications in the contested region, the position of United States on the issue has remained the same.

“We believe that all countries should act according to international law and principles,” Kim said.

“We believe freedom of navigation is an important way to protect our international rights and principles. So our position has not changed and I don’t expect it to change,” he added.

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China has been accused of militarizing the region, alarming claimant countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Beijing, however, has dismissed the allegations.

The US has expressed its deep concern over China’s actions, noting the importance of refraining from unilateral aggressive actions that are inconsistent with the international law and principles.

Despite the fact that US is not a claimant of the contested region, it has maintained that it is in its national interest to ensure freedom of navigation, trade and peace and stability in the South China Sea, where a bulk of the world’s trade passes through.

Kim said US aircraft carriers had visited the Philippines and carried out patrols in the contested region.

In June, the USS Ronald Reagan nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its flotilla of escort ships had just passed from the area near Guam and carried out a routine patrol within the South China Sea en route to Manila.

The USS Carl Vinson and the Reagan’s sister ship, USS Theodore Roosevelt, also sailed through the disputed waters in February and April, respectively.

“I think that sends an important signal that we care about developments in this region, we care about developments in the South China Sea. So that will not change either,” he said.

US-PHL relations

Kim, meanwhile, stressed that the ties between the US and the Philippines remains “deep,” adding that the US has continued to provide assistance to the Philippine government, including in the rehabilitation of war-torn Marawi City.

“I think everyone acknowledges the important role that the US played in defeating the terrorists in Marawi. In fact President Duterte himself has acknowledged the special role that the US has played in many different contexts including in Marawi,” Kim said.

Last month, Kim announced that the US would give an additional P296.2 million in financial assistance to the Philippines for supporting humanitarian assistance work in Marawi City.

When it comes to the controversial war against illegal drugs of the Duterte administration, Kim ensured that the US would continue to support the government.

“We understand that the drug issue is a huge challenge for the Philippines and we understand why President Duterte is so focused on dealing with that very big problem, and we will continue to work with the Philippines government,” Kim said.

He, however, emphasized the need to respect human rights when dealing with issues on illegal drugs.

“We continue to have strong law enforcement cooperation with PNP (Philippine National Police) and other relevant agencies in the Philippines. So I think our robust law enforcement cooperation will continue, and it is important that both sides agree on the importance of rule of law and respecting human rights as we proceed with efforts to deal with the drug problem,” Kim said. —Anna Felicia Bajo/KBK, GMA News



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Chinese military assets in the South China Sea. 


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Vietnamese Anti-China protesters hold placards which read ‘The country will not forget – Johnson South Reef – 14th March, 1988’ during a gathering to mark the 28th anniversary of the Spratly Islands clashes between Vietnam and China at a public park in Hanoi March 14, 2016.


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Japanese helicopter carrier Kaga to embark on two-month tour of South China Sea and Indian Ocean

July 4, 2018

Japan will send a large helicopter carrier to the South China Sea and Indian Ocean for a second straight year as it looks to bolster its presence in the strategic maritime region with annual tours, two Japanese officials said.

“This is part of Japan’s efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said one of the officials, who has direct knowledge of the plan for a two-month tour beginning in September.

The 248 meter-long (814 feet) Kaga, which can operate several helicopters simultaneously, will make stops in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and at ports in India and Sri Lanka, said the sources who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

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Japanese Self Defence Force Navy Helicopter Carriers – JS Izumo, JS Kaga

The Kaga, which will be accompanied by an escort ship, may also conduct ad hoc joint drills with warships from other counties in the region, they said.

Japan last year sent its sister ship, the Izumo, on a similar tour of the contested South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

A spokesman for Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force said he was unable to comment on future operations.

Japan’s growing visibility in those waters reflects concern it shares with the United States over China’s military presence in a region through which trade routes pass that are vital to the Japanese and U.S. economies.

China, which says its intentions are peaceful, claims most of the South China and has built bases on reefs and shoals it has reclaimed. China has also increased naval operations in the Indian Ocean.

The United States holds regular air and naval patrols in the South China Sea, saying it has to ensure freedom of navigation.

In May, it changed the name of its U.S. Pacific Command, headquartered in Hawaii, to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to signal a broader regional strategy that has been promoted by Japan and Australia, stretching from the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

Japan has not taken part in the U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea because doing so could provoke China, which could increase its military presence in the East China Sea where the rivals are locked in a dispute over ownership of uninhabited islets known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Amid growing tension over trade and Chinese suspicion of U.S. intentions toward self-governing Taiwan, Chinese President Xi Jinping in June told U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that China was committed to peace but would not yield “even one inch” of territory handed down by its ancestors.

Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei also claim parts of the South China Sea, which has rich fishing grounds, as well as oil and gas deposits. Taiwan also claims the sea but Japan has no claim to any part of it.

In the Indian Ocean, tension between China and India has flared over China’s growing presence in the Maldives, which despite long-standing political and security ties with India, has signed up to China’s Belt and Road initiative to build trade and transport links across Asia and beyond.

In order for Japan to take a wider regional role, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has stretched the limits of a post-war pacifist Constitution by sending warships, planes and troops on overseas missions.

The Kaga, which is as big as any aircraft carrier operated by the Japanese Imperial Navy in World War II, is designated as a destroyer to keep it within the bounds of those constitutional restraints.

Based in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, the Kaga was commissioned in March last year and its primary mission is anti-submarine warfare. Its tour of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean follows a two-month trip to the region from May by the Osumi, an amphibious transport ship.

Will the South China Sea Become a Chinese Lake?

July 4, 2018

Twelve days at sea on a French warship provide occasion to ponder what lies ahead for the disputed waterway.

Published on: July 3, 2018
Jonas Parello-Plesner is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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Chinese military assets in the South China Sea. 


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Vietnamese Anti-China protesters hold placards which read ‘The country will not forget – Johnson South Reef – 14th March, 1988’ during a gathering to mark the 28th anniversary of the Spratly Islands clashes between Vietnam and China at a public park in Hanoi March 14, 2016.


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Vietnam protests Facebook map of South China Sea

July 3, 2018

The Vietnamese government has complained to Facebook after discovering the platform’s ad manager tool provided a map marking disputed South China Sea islands as Chinese, state media reports.

A spokesperson from Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications told the Tuoi Tre newspaper the complaint was lodged when it was shown that the Spratly and Paracel archipelagoes were marked as Chinese territory on Facebook’s Boost Page feature.

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The Paracels, previously controlled by the old South Vietnamese government, were invaded by China in 1974. Control of the Spratlys is divided among Vietnam, China and the Philippines, all of which claim the entire island chain.

Vietnam and China most recently fought over the Spratly islands in 1988, when a naval battle at Johnson Reef left 64 Vietnamese sailors dead and the reef in Chinese hands.

Facebook acknowledged it had used a “wrong” map and would fix the issue, reported Tuoi Tre.

China claims almost all the South China Sea, including waters claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

China Will Lose The South China Sea Game

July 2, 2018

China wants to control the entire South China Sea. Every inch of it. That’s why will lose all of it, one day.

In the South China Sea game, China is one player playing against all the rest: The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China is also playing against the navies of US, Japan, France, the UK, and Australia. These navies seek to enforce the freedom of navigation in the vast trade waterway. Close to $5 trillion in merchandise moves through every year.

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Why is China playing against everyone else? For a couple of reasons. One of them is that the waterway is very important to its vision — becoming the next global economic leader.

It’s the beginning of China’s maritime silk road.

“Insofar as China is concerned, its maritime silk road begins from the South China Sea,” says Vijay Eswaran, Malaysian entrepreneur and Chairman of QI Group of Companies.“It sees itself playing a more significant role in maritime trade in the future.”

Another reason is that China sees the South China Sea as its own property. “Historically, China has always viewed the South China Sea (SCS) as its own,“ adds Vijay. All of it, and the resources that are hidden beneath, which China wants to exploit. That’s why it is building artificial islands.

And that feeds Chinese nationalism, needed to support and reinforce the political status quo.

What about the overlapping claims from neighboring countries?  “China does not see any of the other overlapping claims from the neighboring countries to the South China Sea as a threat,” adds Vijay.

And it uses intimidation to make sure that this won’t happen. When China lost a United Nations-linked tribunal international arbitration to the Philippines on the South China Sea disputes a year and a half ago, Beijing took a couple of steps to make sure that Duterte wouldn’t do anything with it.

The first step was to threaten Duterte with war should he dare to enforce the ruling. The second step was to promise a generous investment to help the Philippines deal with its many problems.

And it worked. Duterte quickly flip-flopped, and forgot all about the ruling, as was written in previous pieces here.

More recently, China applied “Duterte’s model” to intimidate Vietnam. Last July Vietnam announced that it will stop its oil exploration efforts, following a stark warning by Beijing that it will attack Vietnamese oil and gas bases.

Still, there are multiple navies that are prepared to challenge China’s ambitious mission. “It is the potential Western influence, i.e the US, France and the UK and their navies, that are having more of an impact on Chinese policy in the region.“

Is China prepared to fend off this challenge? It’s hard to say.

What isn’t hard to say is that countries that play a game against all end up losing.

That’s what happened in neighboring Japan in the past, and it could happen to China in the future.

Meanwhile, investors in the financial markets of the region should closely watch any developments that will bring China closer to an open confrontation with America and its allies.

The world is pushing back in the South China Sea

June 30, 2018

In recent weeks, there have been several commentaries reporting a temporary new norm in the South China Sea (SCS) — realpolitik’s triumph over moralpolitik and the rapid decline of regional US soft power. But current developments suggest otherwise. Years of ill-advised US acquiescence and accommodation (strategic patience and wishful thinking) in the SCS appear to be over for now.

By Tuan N Pham
East Asia Forum

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USS Ronald Reagan

There indeed seems to be a new norm emerging in the SCS. But it is more reflective of the new muscular US National Security Strategy and US National Defense Strategy that call for an embrace of strategic great power competition with China than of a decline of US influence in the region.

Many countries are now firmly pushing back against Chinese unilateral expansionism in the SCS. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly declared that he was ready and willing to go to war with China over SCS resources. A prominent Taiwanese think tank has proposed leasing Taiwan-occupied Taiping Island to the US military. And at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, the United States, India, Vietnam, France and the United Kingdom all spoke strongly against China’s assertive and destabilising actions in the SCS.

These words are being backed up by actions.

Washington disinvited Beijing to the 2018 Rim of the Pacific naval exercise on the grounds that Chinese actions in the SCS run counter to international norms and the pursuit of free and open seas. US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and presence operations in the SCS continue, and US defence officials are reportedly considering a more assertive program that could include longer patrols, more ships and closer surveillance of Chinese facilities.

London and Paris have joined Washington to challenge Beijing in the SCS. Both have conducted naval operations in the SCS to put pressure on China’s increased militarization of the disputed and contested waters.

Vietnam continues the modest expansion of its outposts in the Spratly Islands. With the latest construction at Ladd Reef, Hanoi has made small and incremental upgrades to 21 of its 49 outposts in recent years. The construction work also underscores a new facet of Vietnam’s military doctrine in the SCS — the employment of a maritime militia that will emulate China’s maritime militia, which China uses to enhance its presence and operations in the contested waters without provoking a military response from other countries.

Malaysia — like Vietnam and the Philippines — is embarking on a military buildup to better protect its maritime claims and interests in the SCS. Kuala Lumpur recently announced that it would upgrade its naval aircraft as well as purchase ship-based naval helicopters. The enhanced naval aviation capabilities are intended to support an ongoing comprehensive modernization of its surface fleet.

The aforementioned commentaries on the SCS also repeat some familiar Chinese perspectives on US FONOPs and US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations that require some US perspectives for a more balanced understanding of the issues.

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A jet fighter from Taiwan shadows a Chinese bomber. China refuses to admit that Taiwan is free, sovereign and democratic.

US FONOPs are an important expression of and are recognised by international law. The purpose and intent of US FONOPs are clearly laid out in US policy, and all operations are meticulously documented and publishedevery year. On the whole, US FONOPs challenge excessive maritime claims in the SCS, not competing sovereignty claims; do not discriminate against particular states, but rather focus on the claims that individual states assert; are deliberate in nature, but are not deliberate provocations; and contest unilateral restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight rather than accept rhetoric.

US ISR operations — which are conducted inside other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) — are lawful under customary international law and Article 58 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Chinese argument on the permissibility of military activities in EEZs is counter to the US position. The United States believes that while coastal states under UNCLOS have the right to regulate economic activities in their EEZs, they do not have the right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZs.

Beijing contends that military activities — such as ISR flights, maritime survey operations and military exercises — on the high seas and in EEZs are unlawful according to UNCLOS, and that it is a requirement under UNCLOS that the high seas are used only for peaceful purposes, despite itself doing exactly the opposite.

Beijing’s interpretation of UNCLOS is a minority position held by 27 states, while the vast majority of states (over 100, including all permanent United Nations Security Council members other than China) do not hold this position.

The region and the world have come to the realisation that Beijing’s actions in the SCS are dangerously undermining the extant global order that China itself has benefited from. Other countries must now be more assertive to encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, Beijing will be further emboldened to expand and accelerate its campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year.

Tuan N Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Government.


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