Posts Tagged ‘Indian Ocean’

How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port

July 10, 2018

Every time Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned to his Chinese allies for loans and assistance with an ambitious port project, the answer was yes.

Yes, though feasibility studies said the port wouldn’t work. Yes, though other frequent lenders like India had refused. Yes, though Sri Lanka’s debt was ballooning rapidly under Mr. Rajapaksa.

Over years of construction and renegotiation with China Harbor Engineering Company, one of Beijing’s largest state-owned enterprises, the Hambantota Port Development Project distinguished itself mostly by failing, as predicted. With tens of thousands of ships passing by along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the port drew only 34 ships in 2012.

And then the port became China’s.

Mr. Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015, but Sri Lanka’s new government struggled to make payments on the debt he had taken on. Under heavy pressure and after months of negotiations with the Chinese, the government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years in December.

A cargo ship navigating one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, near Hambantota, Sri Lanka, in May. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

The case is one of the most vivid examples of China’s ambitious use of loans and aid to gain influence around the world — and of its willingness to play hardball to collect.

The debt deal also intensified some of the harshest accusations about President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative: that the global investment and lending program amounts to a debt trap for vulnerable countries around the world, fueling corruption and autocratic behavior in struggling democracies.e

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, center, holding court at a wedding in Colombo in June.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Months of interviews with Sri Lankan, Indian, Chinese and Western officials and analysis of documents and agreements stemming from the port project present a stark illustration of how China and the companies under its control ensured their interests in a small country hungry for financing.

 During the 2015 Sri Lankan elections, large payments from the Chinese port construction fund flowed directly to campaign aides and activities for Mr. Rajapaksa, who had agreed to Chinese terms at every turn and was seen as an important ally in China’s efforts to tilt influence away from India in South Asia. The payments were confirmed by documents and cash checks detailed in a government investigation seen by The New York Times.

• Though Chinese officials and analysts have insisted that China’s interest in the Hambantota port is purely commercial, Sri Lankan officials said that from the start, the intelligence and strategic possibilities of the port’s location were part of the negotiations.

• Initially moderate terms for lending on the port project became more onerous as Sri Lankan officials asked to renegotiate the timeline and add more financing. And as Sri Lankan officials became desperate to get the debt off their books in recent years, the Chinese demands centered on handing over equity in the port rather than allowing any easing of terms.

• Though the deal erased roughly $1 billion in debt for the port project, Sri Lanka is now in more debt to China than ever, as other loans have continued and rates remain much higher than from other international lenders.

Mr. Rajapaksa and his aides did not respond to multiple requests for comment, made over several months, for this article. Officials for China Harbor also would not comment.

Estimates by the Sri Lankan Finance Ministry paint a bleak picture: This year, the government is expected to generate $14.8 billion in revenue, but its scheduled debt repayments, to an array of lenders around the world, come to $12.3 billion.

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China pledges $20 billion in loans for Arab states

July 10, 2018

China will provide Arab states with $20 billion in loans for economic development, President Xi Jinping told top Arab officials Tuesday, as Beijing seeks to build its influence in the Middle East and Africa.

The money will be earmarked for “projects that will produce good employment opportunities and positive social impact in Arab States that have reconstruction needs,” said Xi, without providing further details.

It is part of a special Chinese programme for “economic reconstruction” and “industrial revitalisation,” Xi told participants at a China-Arab States forum in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

© POOL/AFP | China is seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East

Beijing is also prepared to provide another one billion yuan to countries in the region to “build capacity for stability maintenance,” Xi said, using a term commonly associated with policing and surveillance.

Since taking office, Xi has overseen a concerted effort to expand Chinese influence in the Middle East and Africa, including the construction of the country’s first military base in Arab League state Djibouti.

China has already provided vast sums to Arab countries, with Djibouti alone owing some $1.3 billion, according to estimates from the US-based China Africa Research Initiative.

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The financial largesse has raised concerns both at home and abroad over the vulnerability of poor nations to such massive debt.

Last year Sri Lanka was forced to hand over majority control of its Hambantota port to China after being unable to repay its loans.

At the heart of Xi’s vision is the “Belt and Road” initiative, a $1-trillion infrastructure programme billed as a modern revival of the ancient Silk Road that once carried fabrics, spices and a wealth of other goods between Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

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The Arab states’ position at the centre of the ancient trade route makes them “natural partners” in China’s new undertaking, he said, adding he expected the summit would end with an agreement on cooperation on the initiative.

“Chinese and Arab peoples, though far apart in distance, are as close as family,” he said, describing a romanticised history of trade along the Silk Road.

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The project, which has already financed ports, roads and railways across the globe, has spurred both interest and anxiety in many countries, with some seeing it as an example of Chinese expansionism.

“China welcomes opportunities to participate in the development of ports and the construction of railway networks in Arab states” as part of a “logistics network connecting Central Asia with East Africa and the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean,” said Xi.


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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.

Australia To Use U.S. Drones to Watch South China Sea — Angering China

June 30, 2018

AUSTRALIA will invest nearly £4billion in surveillance drones to patrol and spy on the activity in surrounding waters and specifically the disputed South China Sea, in a bid to increase its maritime security.


Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said he will spend £3.875 billion (AU$6.9 billion) on long-range surveillance drones.

The government’s plans are set to cost Australia more than double the original estimated price.

The decision to spend over £3.8billion is aimed at enhancing Australia’s “anti-submarine warfare and maritime strike capability”.

Along with protection and making the “region more secure”.

The multibillion-dollar military investment was announced on Tuesday, with Canberra declaring they will buy six Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton remotely piloted aircrafts from the US Navy.

Australian Minister for the Defence Industry Christopher Pyne backed the investment, even though it is now costing the Australian taxpayer more than double the estimated amount which was first released in 2016.

Mr Pyne told MPs: “One of the most important things we do as a nation as part of the Five Eyes is the reconnaissance and surveillance of the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, South East Asia and of course to Antarctica.”

The Australian Minister also told Sky News the operational area of the drones will cover the South China Sea.

He added Australia insists on its rights for free movement in the region.

China has continued to reject the claims as Beijing considers the waters of the South China Sea its national territory.

Mr Pyne added: “Australia’s responsible for about 10 percent of the world’s surface into the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, down to Antarctica up into the South China Sea.”

In addition to spying over the South China Sea, the drones will also be used to monitor vessels in Australian waters, including other countries’ naval vessels, watch out for illegal fishing activity. and people smuggling.

The Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton has the same wingspan as a Boeing 737 and can remain airborne for over 30 hours a time.

This will enable the aircraft enough time to monitor an area of around 40,000 square kilometres.

The Sydney Morning Herald said: “The aircraft will easily be able to complete a lap of the South China Sea after taking off from the Northern Territory.”

The Australian government expects to see the aircraft in service by 2023.

While the full fleet is hoped to be in use by the end of 2025.

The six Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton’s are set to join the Australian Air Force’s existing fleet of P-8A Poseidon aircrafts.

Australian Minister for the Defence Industry Christopher Pyne backed the investmentYOUTUBE

Australian Minister for the Defence Industry Christopher Pyne backed the investment

A government statement said the new aircrafts will “undertake a range of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.”

China’s claims over the region are challenged by several other countries, including Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

However, earlier this week China’s leader Xi Jinping said: “We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors.

“What is other people’s we do not want at all.”

The US, which Australia views as its “most important defence” ally, is adamant about the freedom of navigation in the area and often orders its warships to sail through the disputed waters.

China’s Power Projection: From The South China Sea to The Pacific Ocean, Mekong River, and Indian Ocean

June 25, 2018

 The Mekong, a river that connects MyanmarThailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, “is another prize in Beijing’s sights,” said a June note published by Australian think-tank The Lowy Institute.

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  • China may be looking concentrate its naval energies beyond the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.
  • The Pacific Ocean and Mekong River are two waterways that may be Beijing’s next areas of focus, according to experts.
  • Chinese naval ships are already active in the Pacific, while several Chinese-built damns on the Mekong have been causing controversy.

April 2018: A Chinese navy fleet that includes the aircraft carrier Liaoning, vessels and fighter jets take part in a drill in the Western Pacific Ocean.

Visual China Group
April 2018: A Chinese navy fleet that includes the aircraft carrier Liaoning, vessels and fighter jets take part in a drill in the Western Pacific Ocean.

The South China Sea and Indian Ocean have been the principal theaters for Beijing’s naval ambitions in Asia. The Pacific Ocean and Mekong River, each rife with strategic advantages, could soon be next.

For the world’s second-largest economy, maritime expansion is a major means of achieving superpower stature and cementing its military, political and economic influence in Asia. Nowhere has that been more evident than the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing has reportedly installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on several outposts.

Meanwhile, China has steadily constructed a string of defense and commercial facilities that include naval ports in the Indian Ocean — New Delhi’s backyard.

Going forward, experts predict, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government will ramp up its presence in neighboring waterways as it pursues regional supremacy.

Western and South Pacific Oceans

“The open waters of the Western and South Pacific Ocean are maritime zones that China could aggressively expand into, and there are now signs to indicate such activities,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow specializing in maritime security at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Last year, unapproved Chinese vessels were spotted around waters off the eastern Philippine seaboard, an area known as the Philippine Rise to which Manila holds sovereign rights. And in January, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte allowed a Chinese research ship to conduct a study of ocean currents in the zone before banning all foreign research ships a month later.

“Many believe the Chinese are interested in the area because of military reasons — largely intended to enhance its surveillance of the Western Pacific waters with U.S. military force concentrations in Guam and further afield in Hawaii in mind,” said Koh.

“This particularly applies to the series of Chinese marine scientific activities in those areas,” he continued.

Chinese aircraft carrier fleet operates during a training exercise in the South China Sea last December.

Who owns the South China Sea?  Beijing also has designs in the South Pacific, home to remote islands such as Tahiti.

Reports emerged in April that Xi’s administration is looking to establish a permanent military presence on Vanuatu, which is located near Fiji. That comes amid widespread concern in Australia, the Pacific’s traditional dominant power, about China attempting to gain leverage over island states through billions in aid and investment.

A desire for raw materials may be influencing Beijing’s actions there.

The Chinese government is aiming to extract hydrocarbons in Papua New Guinea, wood in the Vanuatu and Solomon islands, and rare earth elements from the Pacific seabed, according to a 2017 report from the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

Furthermore, “Chinese military vessels are often seen in the area, mainly space tracking ships that support the country’s space activities,” Koh pointed out, adding that “it’s just a matter of ramping up whatever they’ve already been doing there.”

Mekong River

The Mekong, a river that connects MyanmarThailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, “is another prize in Beijing’s sights,” said a June note published by Australian think-tank The Lowy Institute.

As the world’s 12th-longest river, the Mekong is a crucial lifeline for the 60 million people living along its banks, but controversial China-built dams are threatening downstream communities. Beijing has been financing and operating several hydroelectric dams on the river, with more in the pipeline. Those dams reduce nutrient-rich sediment that move downriver, allowing farmers to grow crops and affecting fish catches, critics have said.

US intelligence: China will have world’s most powerful naval gun ready by 2025   (Rail Gun)

“Chinese dams can now regulate the Mekong’s flow,” warned the Lowy note. “The impact on food and livelihoods is dramatic now, but could soon be far worse if 11 proposed mega-dams, half with some Chinese involvement, go ahead.”

And dams seem to be just one part of the equation. Beijing is also removing islets, rapids and rocks to create a shipping lane through the heart of mainland Southeast Asia to Laos, an initiative known as the Mekong River Navigation Channel Improvement Project.

“Beijing’s control of Southeast Asian rivers looks set to be the other half of its ‘salami slicing’ strategy in the region,” the note continued, referring to small, stealthy military operations that accumulate in territorial gains over time.

South China Sea: Latest Books

June 21, 2018
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Two recent books offer a helpful guide to Southeast Asia’s most complex maritime dispute.Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea & the Strategy of Chinese Expansionby Humphrey HawksleyOverlook Press, 2018, 304 pp., $29.95

Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Great Game in the South China Sea

edited by Anders Corr

Naval Institute Press, 2018, 336 pp., $34.95

Asian Waters, the new book by veteran Asia journalist Humphrey Hawksley, recently became my ideal travel companion on a long flight to Australia, en route to the South China Sea. For any other reader hoping to navigate those troubled waters, or seeking a broad overview of the geopolitical fault lines in Asia, Hawksley’s book provides an excellent guide.

The book’s journey can admittedly be a digressive one, at times wading way beyond Asian waters and far onto shore. Hawksley’s book touches on North Korea’s illicit nuclear program and much else besides. One chapter describes India’s stunted development, recounting in gruesome detail the slavery-like conditions in its brick kilns. Another chapter on Vietnam finds Hawksley meandering into an argument as to why, in the late 1970s, Vietnam was unnecessarily constrained by Cold War logic from taming the bloody Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia. Such stories are certainly intriguing, flowing from Hawksley’s decades of first-hand reporting from the region.

Yet they aren’t central to the book’s main story, which concerns China’s rise, the contest for control of the South China Sea, and the larger great power game between the United States and China. That is the geopolitical story of the century. China is gradually enacting its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in the South China Sea. The United States is pushing back, including by conducting naval freedom of navigation operations, but has not come up with an effective overall strategic response. Meanwhile, China gradually expands its military reach—using salami-slicing tactics to create new facts on the ground (or rather at sea), building new islands, and coercing smaller neighbors such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

Hawksley notes how the announcement of the U.S. “pivot to Asia” led to a rapid expansion of Chinese activity in the South China Sea, from the deft takeover of Scarborough Shoal close to the Philippines to the rapid move of a Chinese state-controlled oil rig into disputed areas with Vietnam. In these chapters, Hawksley’s on-the-ground reporting blends well with the geopolitics.

Consider, for instance, his meetings with a disgruntled Philippine fisherman, whose fishing grounds near Scarborough were taken over by China. During their initial encounter, the fisherman is visibly angry, exclaiming that “if America supports us, we should go to war with them.” But later, Hawksley visits the same fisherman after his village has been bought up by Chinese economic assistance and finds that his complaints are now subdued. In many ways, the anecdote is a microcosm for the choice made by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Like the fisherman, Duterte opted for Chinese money rather than protecting Philippine sovereignty. He has thus tacitly accepted that China now controls the seas in proximity to the Philippines, which his predecessor Aquino had successfully challenged through an international court ruling based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In some passages, Hawksley comes out surprisingly starry-eyed about the People’s Republic of China. He repeatedly cites China’s “century of humiliation” as an historical fact without explaining that it is also centrally reinforced nationalistic propaganda employed by the Chinese Communist Party to knit the nation together. He goes overboard in a pointless chapter on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s appearance at the elite Davos gathering in January 2017, where he is described as a “moral torch of world leadership.” Hawksley’s moral compass seems to have gone spinning when he writes, “While Asia and China are talking about tearing down controls and borders, America and Europe are looking to tighten them.” In reality, there can be no comparison between democracies working to balance their humanitarian obligations to a huge global flow of refugees, and authoritarian China’s oppressive treatment of its Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, including the subjection of its population to conditions resembling concentration camps.

Despite these occasional errors in judgment, though, Hawksley’s book does effectively communicate the stakes of his subject. The South China Sea will be both a test of China’s coming of age as a great power and of the United States’ continued resolve as a Pacific power. And it could end in war, as previous historical experiences testify.

If you want a tougher approach to China, look no further than the edited volume Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Great Game in the South China Sea. Editor Anders Corr’s introduction slams China for its expansionism and argues—rightly, in my view—that President Obama’s military posture was too weak to counter the Chinese. It only gets too far-fetched when Corr tenuously attributes symbiotic territorial goals to China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

An equally strong-worded contribution comes from retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell. He writes of “China’s historically mistaken irredentist claims of sovereignty” in the South China Sea, seeing its efforts there as a building block in a “confrontational grand strategy” whose ultimate goal is “establishing China as a global power that seeks to control the international order.” In his reading, a stronger U.S. and regional military posture is the obvious remedy.

Great Powers, Grand Strategies also provides the perspectives of other regional players. Leszek Buszynski has an enlightening chapter on the regional grouping ASEAN, whose internal divisions have hampered its ability to play a meaningful conflict-mediating role in the South China Sea. In recent years, China has managed to use its ASEAN allies such as Cambodia and Laos to block even innocuous-sounding declarations. The depressing conclusion is that the period of China’s “good neighbor policy,” even providing token nods to ASEAN’s relevance, is over. ASEAN, an organization based on multilateralism, was not able to coalesce around full-fledged support for the clear-cut maritime law ruling in the Philippine arbitration case of 2016. The most concerned ASEAN countries like Vietnam now seek alternative hedging options such as increased military cooperation with the United States and Japan. By now, to paraphrase the Chinese Foreign Minister lecturing ASEAN in 2010, there is only one big country in Asia and a lot of small ones.

One regional power who warily watches China’s moves in the South China Sea is Japan. It has its own disputes with China in the East China Sea over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diayou Islands. A Chinese-controlled South China Sea would hold negative security implications for Japan, which is the second-largest energy importer in Asia and thus dependent on uninterrupted sea lanes. Accordingly, Japan spoke out publicly in clear terms in defense of freedom of navigation following the arbitrational ruling that the Philippines brought against China in 2016, noting that it was “final and legally binding on the parties . . . under the provisions of UNCLOS.” ASEAN countries individually and as an organization were more hesitant to invoke the “legally binding” language on China. Still, Japan is not among the small group of countries who conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. Its own sea dispute with China also instills a sense of caution, combined with Japan’s continued restraint to deploy far from its shores even under its ever more “proactively pacifist” stance.

Three more chapters, respectively, cover India, Russia, and the European Union, all marginal players in the South China Sea. A chapter on the Republic of China (Taiwan), the inventor of the nine-dash-line, is conspicuously lacking and would have served the book well.

Gordon Chang describes India’s posture, yet seeks to make more out of India’s grand strategy than there is. In my reading, India’s interests in the South China Sea boil down to one long-delayed, unsuccessful oil exploration project with Vietnam. That project rankles China, and nothing more. Meanwhile China is successfully expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean.

Russia, for its part, desires to be a great power again in Asia, but demonstrates little muscle and consistency in pursuit of that goal. Russia supports China in trying to push the United States out of the region, but conversely hedges against China with continued arms sales to Vietnam, including submarines.

The European Union’s involvement remains aspirational. As a multilateral organization that frequently trumpets international law and peaceful multilateralism, it should in theory have been the first to defend the universal principle of freedom of navigation and the UN Law of the Sea. Unfortunately, the EU declaration on the arbitrational ruling in 2016 was as meek as ASEAN’s. EU member states collectively have large-scale commercial interests in the region, but few means and little political will to enforce them. On the harder edge, France and most recently the United Kingdom have conducted military naval transits through the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. This could become the stepping stone for a stronger EU role, provided the European Union is not too distracted by its own urgent regional challenges.

Finally, the big looming national security question is the power play between the United States and China. China seeks to frame its actions as a counter to expanding U.S. force projection in the region. By contrast, American hawks such as Corr and Fanell find that the current U.S. posture has been a response to China’s provocations—and too timid a response at that. What, then, is the right posture for the United States to effectively counterbalance China?

The chapter by Sean Liedman provides an excellent historical overview of the U.S. role in the South China Sea and outlines three options. The first is a policy of continued gradual concessions, which is the current state of play. A second option would try to freeze the status quo, with the United States, among other things, becoming clearer about its willingness to defend the maritime interests of its treaty ally the Philippines. A third strategy would try to roll back the Chinese advances, including by targeted sanctions on Chinese companies involved in land reclamation. In that regard, the statement of Chinese General Xu Guangyu, quoted in Hawksley’s book, is ominous: “If the Americans try to remove us from the Spratly Islands . . . there will be war.”

The most likely strategy under the current Administration seems to land somewhere between options one and two, although the recent National Security Strategy makes it clear that raw power competition is a possibility for the U.S.-China relationship in the years to come. Trump himself has said little about the South China Sea, and his tweet that he was “surprised” by China’s coercion in the South China Sea, following Defense Secretary Mattis’s speech at Shangri-La on June 3, added little clarity. Perhaps this issue could become a transactional bargaining chip for Trump in a larger deal involving trade and North Korea, currently two higher-ranked U.S. priorities.

If, dear reader, you are in a hurry to read up on the South China Sea, go straight to Bill Hayton’s excellent chapter, which confirms his preeminence among interpreters of the region. It describes the situation from a Chinese and historical perspective, yet in an objective and matter-of-fact tone. Hayton explains how the advances in the South China Sea are not perceived as expansionism by China but a protection of its own territory based on a “nationalist reading of regional history.” Its confidence about its claim is so deeply embedded in Chinese policymaking and national consciousness that the “nine-dash line,” China’s cow tongue-shaped claim protruding more than 1,000 kilometers south into sea, has been added to Chinese passports. Provocatively, Chinese tourists have lately been seen arriving in Vietnam with “cow’s tongue” T-shirts, flaunting the inclusion of the South China Sea and its islands into Chinese territory.

Hayton pokes factual holes in China’s “false memory syndrome” and “imagined history,” which unfortunately is too often regurgitated by gullible Western scholars. In reality, the reefs in the South China Sea were a no-man’s land, home to semi-nomadic fishermen and pirates. In 1933, the French laid claim to the Spratlys through their presence in Indochina, with limited Chinese objections. At the time, the Paracels were perceived as China’s southernmost naval territory. It was only in the 1940s that the Nationalist government created the first maps showing the South China Sea as being Chinese territory, with an imprecise 11-dash line, and it was only in 2009 that China submitted the nine-dash line map as an official claim in the international arena. These historical facts are airbrushed out when Secretary General Xi Jinping says that “the South China Sea islands have been China’s territory since ancient times.” This is part of the triumphalist narrative of the Chinese Communist Party, which credits itself for finally ending the century of national humiliation.

Thus, as Hayton points out, China’s sense of entitlement is the root cause of potential conflict, even though it could spell the end of China’s carefully choreographed “peaceful rise.” In the fitting words of strategist Edward Luttwak, China’s “great-power autism” seems to be increasing. Equally so are the fears of China’s smaller neighbors, who dread what is to come in the South China Sea.

Published on: June 20, 2018
Jonas Parello-Plesner is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute.

With ports, ships and promises, India asserts role in Southeast Asia

June 3, 2018

Almost lost in the din of the upcoming U.S-North Korea summit and fresh tension between Washington and Beijing last week, India cemented its diplomatic and security ties across Southeast Asia in a clear challenge to China.

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FILE PHOTO: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers the keynote address at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

It’s not clear just how far New Delhi will take these relationships, given years of promise, and a general election due in 11 months that could be a distraction for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And if India is already rattling China, it won’t want to spark open confrontation.

But Modi took several concrete foreign policy and security steps in Southeast Asia in recent days.

He signed an agreement with Indonesia to develop a port in the city of Sabang that would overlook the western entrance to the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest waterways, and agreed a pact with Singapore on logistical support for naval ships, submarines and military aircraft during visits.

Modi also flew to Kuala Lumpur for a late-scheduled call on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who won last month’s general election, effectively cementing ties with three of the most influential Southeast Asian nations.

On Friday, Modi told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Asia’s premier defense forum, that India would work with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to promote a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.

“We will work with them, individually or in formats of three or more, for a stable and peaceful region,” he said in the keynote speech at the forum.

Several delegates, including U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, voiced support.

At the end of the forum on Sunday, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said: “I am sure many countries are delighted that India has indicated its firm commitment to the region.”


The term “Indo-Pacific” has grown in usage across diplomatic and security circles in the United States, Australia, India and Japan in recent years, shorthand for a broader and democratic-led region in place of “Asia-Pacific”, which some people have said places China too firmly at the center.

In a nod to India’s growing regional stature, the U.S. military’s Pacific Command in Hawaii formally changed its name to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in a ceremony on Wednesday.

Despite an outward show of friendship between China and India, and Modi’s comments about the strong relations between them, Beijing gave a distinctly cool response to his strategy.

The state-owned Global Times warned in an editorial last week: “If India really seeks military access to the strategic island of Sabang, it might wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers.”

Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhou, research fellow at the Institute of War Studies Academy of Military Sciences of the People’s Liberation Army, told reporters on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue that Modi “made some dedicated comments on what he thought of the Indo-Pacific concept”.

He did not elaborate but the Global Times quoted him as saying: “The Indo-Pacific strategy, and the quasi-alliance between the U.S., Japan, India and Australia will not last long.”


Indian foreign ministry officials said there was a strong element of self-interest in New Delhi’s efforts to secure open access to the Malacca Strait, since it carries about 60 percent of its foreign trade.

But India’s intended footprint looks to be wider. Late last month, three Indian warships staged exercises with the Vietnamese navy for the first time in the South China Sea, which is claimed almost wholly by China.

Vietnamese submariners are trained in India, while the two sides have significantly increased intelligence sharing and are exploring advanced weapons sales.

To the west, India signed an agreement for access to the port of Duqm on Oman’s southern coast, during a visit by Modi earlier this year. Under the agreement, media reports said, the Indian navy will be able to use the port for logistics and support, allowing it to sustain long-term operations in the western Indian Ocean.

In January, India finalised a logistics exchange arrangement with France under which it can use French military facilities in the Indian Ocean.

Analysts said a more assertive India would answer concerns in Southeast Asia about expanding Chinese influence in the region and a fear that the United States was disengaging.

The United States’ trade spat with China and a perceived U-turn in its foreign policy as it pursues peace with North Korea had shaken many assumptions in the region, they said.

“There is some pressure (in ASEAN) for diversification of security relationships, taking insurances,” said C. Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

“An active India then actually fits into this situation.”

But although Modi has started strongly, it was not clear how well his strategy would be sustained, he added.

“Implementation has always been a major challenge for India. (Modi is) struggling to improve the capacity of Delhi to do things outside borders. There’s been some advance but that is a structural challenge that will remain.”

Additional reporting by Chyen Yee Lee, Fathin Ungku and Greg Torode in Singapore; Sanjeev Miglani in New Delhi; Editing by Alex Richardson


India stresses free navigation, ‘rules-based order’ for Asian seas

June 1, 2018

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed on Friday the importance of ensuring the freedom of navigation in Asian waters for free trade, days after pledging to help develop a strategic port in Indonesia.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana in Singapore on Friday. REUTERS/Edgar Su

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana in Singapore on Friday. REUTERS/Edgar Su   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Modi is visiting three countries in Southeast Asia this week as part of an “Act East” policy of strengthening relations in the region amid concern over China’s rising maritime influence, in particular in the disputed South China Sea.

“We also reiterated our principal stance, as far as maritime security is concerned, our commitment to a rules-based order,” Modi said through an interpreter after holding talks with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is welcomed by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana in Singapore June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

“We also agreed on having an open, fair and transparent maritime trade commitment in this area,” Modi said.

On Wednesday, Modi met Indonesian President Joko Widodo and pledged to develop infrastructure and an economic zone at Sabang, on the northern tip of Sumatra island at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

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Modi stopped in Kuala Lumpur briefly on Thursday to meet newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad before arriving in Singapore, where he will deliver the keynote address at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue security forum.

Modi’s talks in Singapore included an agreement for greater engagement between their navies including exercises.

“Both prime ministers further agreed to India’s proposal for continuous and institutionalized naval engagements in their shared maritime space, including the establishment of maritime exercises with like-minded regional partners,” the Singapore Defence Ministry said in a statement.

Modi this year invited the leaders of all 10 Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to India Republic Day parade in New Delhi, the biggest such gathering of foreign leaders at the event.

There has been growing unease about China’s activity in the South China Sea, which it claims almost in full, and which Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam claim in part.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday the United States would push back against what it sees as China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea despite China’s condemnation of a voyage through the region on the weekend by two U.S. Navy ships.

Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel

US rebrands Pacific Command amid tensions with China — Now “Indo-Pacific”

May 31, 2018

The US announced Wednesday that it would rebrand the command responsible for overseeing US military operations in Asia, a move that comes amid heightened tensions with China over the militarization of the South China Sea.

US Pacific Command will now be called US Indo-Pacific Command, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said while speaking at a change of command ceremony in Hawaii, where the command’s headquarters is located.
“In recognition of the increasing connectivity of the Indian and Pacific Oceans today we rename the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command,” Mattis said.
“It is our primary combatant command, it’s standing watch and intimately engaged with over half of the earth’s surface and its diverse populations, from Hollywood, to Bollywood, from polar bears to penguins,” Mattis said of the command.
Image may contain: sky, ocean, outdoor and water
Adm. Harry Harris, who oversaw US military operations in the region until Wednesday, has been tapped by President Donald Trump to serve as the US ambassador to South Korea. Adm. Phillip Davidson will now lead the Indo-Pacific Command, which oversees some 375,000 US military and civilian personnel.
US officials say the name change is meant to better reflect the command’s areas of responsibility, which includes 36 nations as well as both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The US has increased cooperation with India in a range of areas, including defense cooperation, and both Washington and New Delhi have voiced concerns about what they see as an increased assertiveness by China’s military.
The rebranding comes in the wake of a series of actions by both the Chinese and US militaries that have raised tensions in the South China Sea. The US and the majority of the international community reject Beijing’s claims of ownership of the area.
In recent months US officials have said that the Chinese military has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems, and electronic jammers to contested features in the Spratly Islands region of the South China Sea.
China also recently landed a nuclear-capable H-6K bomber aircraft on Woody Island for the first time.
Those actions led the US to disinvite China from participating in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise, which the US Navy calls “the world’s largest international maritime exercise,” and involves some 26 nations including India and countries like Vietnam and the Philippines which actively contest China’s claims to the South China Sea.
“China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serve to raise tensions and destabilize the region. As an initial response to China’s continued militarization of the South China Sea we have disinvited the PLA Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Logan told CNN last week.
“We have called on China to remove the military systems immediately and to reverse course on the militarization of disputed South China Sea features,” he added.
The US Navy also sailed two warships Sunday past a handful of disputed islands in the South China Sea, including Woody Island where the Chinese bomber landed, a move that drew the immediate ire of Beijing.
Two US defense officials told CNN that the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins and the cruiser USS Antietam sailed within 12 miles of four of the Paracel Islands in what the US Navy calls a “freedom of navigation operation,” which are meant to enforce the right of free passage in international waters.
Two US officials said that during the freedom of navigation exercise a Chinese naval vessel shadowed the US warships, coming close enough to the US ships that the encounter was considered unprofessional but safe.
“It’s international waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation,” Mattis told reporters Tuesday while en route to the change of command ceremony.