Posts Tagged ‘South China Sea’

Japan’s largest warships heads into South China Sea, in defiance of China

June 23, 2017


Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) soldiers aboard JMSDF’s helicopter carrier Izumo take part in a military exercise in South China Sea, near Singapore, June 22, 2017. Picture taken June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Nobuhiro Kubo
By Nobuhiro Kubo | SOUTH CHINA SEA

Japan’s largest warship steamed into the South China Sea this week in defiance of Chinese assertiveness, with Asian military guests on board to witness helicopters looping over the tropical waters and gunners blasting target buoys.

China claims most of the energy-rich sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, much of it to and from Japanese ports. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

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 JMSDF’s helicopter carrier Izumo

Japan worries that China is cementing its control in the South China Sea with manmade island bases, arms sales and development aid.

“We are not just here to show our presence, but from the outside that is what it looks like,” Rear Admiral Yoshihiro Goga, the commander of the mission, said aboard the Izumo-class helicopter carrier.

Military officers from the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) boarded the 248-metre carrier in Singapore on Monday. It returned on Friday after demonstrating naval skills and kit Tokyo hopes will help it bolster alliances in the region.

The Izumo turned back to Singapore before crossing a boundary known as the nine-dash-line into what China claims are its waters.

The high-profile cruise was part of a hitherto unseen coordinated push by Japan’s Self Defense Forces and defense bureaucrats to bolster ties with countries ringing the contested waters. It also marked a concerted push into military diplomacy by hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japan last week held a military technology seminar near Tokyo for representatives from Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore and this week invited ASEAN officers to a disaster relief drill in Tokyo.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) helicopter carrier Izumo (L) receives fuel replenishment from JMSDF Takanami class destroyer Sazanami during a military exercise in South China Sea, near Singapore, June 20, 2017. Picture taken June 20, 2017.REUTERS/Nobuhiro Kubo

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) SH-60 Seahawk helicopters are seen on JMSDF’s helicopter carrier Izumo as they take part in a military exercise in South China Sea, near Singapore, June 21, 2017. Picture taken June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Nobuhiro Kubo

Abe’s government believes Japan may be better placed to prise Southeast Asian nations away from Chinese influence than its U.S. allies with a gentler approach that emphasizes a common Asian heritage, two sources with knowledge of the diplomatic strategy told Reuters earlier.

While the U.S. has confronted China directly by sending warships close to China’s island bases in the South China Sea, Japan so far has shied away from similar provocations.

As the Izumo neared the nine-dash line, the crew were on lookout for Chinese aircraft or ships sent to shadow the flag ship. Apart from brief radar contact with an unidentified aircraft announced by the ship’s public address system the carrier, however, sailed on unmolested.

(For a graphic on leading aircraft carriers, click

(Reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo; Writing by Tim Kelly; Editing by Nick Macfie)


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The international arbitration court in the Hague said on July 12, 2016, that China’s “nine dash line” was not recognized under international law — making the Vietnamese and Philippine claims on South China Sea islands valid and lawful.

China’s Walk Out of Vietnam Meeting Highlights Illusion of South China Sea Calm

June 23, 2017

On Thursday, news surfaced that a China-Vietnam defense meeting had been unexpectedly canceled, reportedly due to private disagreements over the South China Sea rather than the logistical issues publicly mentioned by Chinese defense industry. If true, this would be far from surprising given the past record of saber-rattling between Beijing and Hanoi. But more broadly, it should also serve as a warning to the international community that despite Chinese attempts to downplay the South China Sea issue, Beijing’s actions could quickly help escalate tensions once again for one reason or another.

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The incident itself broke out as China and Vietnam were due to hold the fourth iteration of their border defense friendship exchange program, which was scheduled to be held in both countries June 20-22. Though the lead up to the engagement had been proceeding as scheduled, with Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Fan Changlong meeting with high-level Vietnamese officials and both sides talking up recent advances such as an agreement inked on personnel training, on June 21 Chinese defense ministry told state media that Fan had cut short his visit and Beijing had decided to cancel the meeting due to “working arrangements.” Other news outlets quickly speculated that it could be due to disagreements over the South China Sea.

General Fan Changlong walked out of a South China Sea meeting in Vietnam and returned to China unexpectedly…

If this is true, this is far from surprising. Sino-Vietnamese saber-rattling in the South China Sea is not new. Of the four Southeast Asian claimants – which also include Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines – Vietnam has been in the South China Sea disputes the longest and has felt Chinese assertiveness the hardest, with Chinese troops seizing control of the Western Paracels from Hanoi as far back as 1974. For Vietnam, the disputes are just a slice of a centuries-old problem of managing its giant northern neighbor China, which occupied it for nearly 1,000 years from first century BC till tenth century AD.

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China’s gigantic oil rig, Haiyangshihou 981

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.Over the years, Vietnam has become by far the most militarily capable among the four claimants within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, along with the Philippines (until recently), has tended to be the most forward-leaning on the issue within the region. This is despite feeling the heat of occasional bouts of Chinese assertiveness, with a recent case in point being Beijing’s decision to place an oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the summer of 2014 which sparked a crisis in the bilateral relationship. Despite this, both sides have continued proceeding with some confidence-building measures, including in the defense realm with the annual border defense meeting.

This round of Sino-Vietnamese saber-rattling could well be the product of simmering tensions that eventually came to a head. With the weakening of the Philippines’ South China Sea position under President Rodrigo Duterte, Vietnam has essentially become the sole forward-leaning Southeast Asian claimant in the disputes (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”). This has naturally impressed upon Hanoi the importance of strengthening ties with countries like the United States and Japan, and that exactly what it has been doing, even though Vietnamese officials have continued to carefully calibrate that with engagements with China as well (See: “US-Vietnam Relations Under Trump in the Spotlight with Premier Visit”).

But for China, which has sought to capitalize on the loss of ASEAN momentum on the South China Sea as well as what it perceives as a distracted United States, this is an opportune moment to put pressure on individual states – whether it be Vietnam as a claimant or Singapore as the ASEAN-China country coordinator – on their specific behavior and existing alignments under the guise of lowering tensions (See: “Beware the Illusion of China-ASEAN South China Sea Breakthroughs”). And ASEAN officials say that is exactly what some Chinese officials have been doing, even issuing warnings against so-called “unconstructive actions”. Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert, told Radio Free Asia that China had also been pressuring Vietnam to stop energy exploration activities in Vanguard Bank in the South China Sea.

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These contending viewpoints between Beijing and Hanoi were bound to collide at some point. Thayer noted that tensions could flare up if not properly managed, with China reportedly deploying ships and aircraft to the area which increased the possibility of a military clash. But more broadly, for the rest of the international community, this episode should also serve as another warning that despite Chinese attempts to downplay the South China Sea issue, the very actions that Beijing is taking to allegedly deescalate the situation could once again help escalate it sooner than one might expect.

This is also consistent with a broader pattern in China’s South China Sea behavior which I have termed “incremental assertiveness,” where temporary bouts of charm or signs of calm from Beijing have been followed by yet another round of coercion (See: “Will China Change its South China Sea Approach?”). In the context of Sino-Vietnam relations, it is worth recalling that just seven months after unveiling a new strategy for ASEAN-China relations as part of a charm offensive in Southeast Asia that was received with great fanfare, Beijing moved the oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the summer of 2014. Though this incident is not nearly as serious as yet, it should give serious pause to those who are once again looking for the calm in the South China Sea that never quite sustains.


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The international arbitration court in the Hague said on July 12, 2016, that China’s “nine dash line” was not recognized under international law — making the Vietnamese and Philippine claims on South China Sea islands valid and lawful.

Chinese General’s Unexplained Early Exit From Vietnam Visit Raises Concern Over Rift

June 22, 2017

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A Chinese coast guard ship (L) uses a water cannon on a Vietnamese ship in disputed waters in the South China Sea, May 2, 2014.

AFP/Vietnamese Foreign Ministry

A truncated visit this week by a Chinese military officer to neighboring Vietnam has raised eyebrows among foreign affairs analysts who are questioning whether the incident could indicate an about-face in relations between the two communist allies who are embroiled in a territorial dispute.

Chinese General Fan Changlong, who is part of the delegation visiting the capital Hanoi this week, abruptly left Vietnam on Tuesday after a private meeting with Vietnamese defense officials.

Public and private accounts of the incident vary. Chinese and Vietnamese state media report that defense relations are going well and that the parties reached an agreement on personnel training between their defense ministries.

But analysts, citing government sources, said a discussion over disputed territory in the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands and military infrastructure, may have prompted a row leading to Fan’s early departure, which caused him to skip a cross-border exchange program.

They cited Vietnam’s efforts to form strategic military partnerships with the United States and Japan, and a recent move by Vietnam to allow a foreign company to exploit oil in the Vanguard Bank area of the South China Sea where a Chinese fishing vessel cut a Vietnamese boat’s cable in May 2011, triggering street protests in Hanoi.

Vietnam has long claimed Vanguard Bank is part of its continental shelf, and not part of the disputed territory with China. The two countries, however, have agreed not to explore or exploit oil in disputed areas of the sea.

Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore and an international relations scholar at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, said he could only speculate on the matter since there is no official information about it.

“In the past, Vietnam has been under pressure to maintain its growth rate, so it has had discussions on enhancing oil exploration on the South China Sea,” he said.

“Vietnam’s activities in the South China Sea have touched China’s interests, and as usual, China will find ways to discourage the country from pursing them,” he said.

“It is therefore not difficult to understand if the conflict in the South China Sea is related to the exploitation of marine resources,” he said. “And perhaps this is the reason why Fan Changlong cut short his visit to Vietnam.”

Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert based in Australia who has taught at several defense universities, said it is likely that Fan asked Vietnam to stop the oil exploitation in Vanguard Bank, which indicates that the country has not complied with an agreement with China not to explore and exploit oil reserves in the disputed area.

Le Hong Hiep agreed with Thayer’s assessment and said China wants to put pressure on Vietnam to stop its activities and to comply with the two parties’ agreement so as to not complicate the situation.

This also depends on each side’s interpretation of the agreement, he said.

“Vietnam’s exploration and exploitation of oil on its continental shelf does not complicate the situation, because Vietnam has sovereignty over that region,” Hiep said. “However, China sees it as a disputed area, so actions such as unilateral oil exploration and exploitation may be a complication.”

Possible miliary clash

Thayer, who noted that China is deploying 40 ships and several Y-8GX6 turboprop anti-submarine warfare aircraft to the area, raised the possibility that a military clash between China and Vietnam could occur during the next few days.

Hiep, however, declined to forecast the outcome, but added that if hostilities did occur, they would pose a major challenge to the countries’ bilateral relations, which could have the same or even a greater effect than did the oil rig crisis of May 2014.

In that crisis, China deployed a giant oil-drilling rig in the South China Sea about 120 miles from Vietnam’s coast near islands claimed by both countries and within Hanoi’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone set by international law.

The event sparked a bitter bilateral row, with both sides accusing the other of ramming ships patrolling the area.

Thayer also said that Fan’s rumored cancellation of activities in connection with the fourth Vietnam-China friendly border exchange in Lai Chau and Yunnan provinces on June 20-22 would be the “most significant setback in bilateral relations” since the 2014 incident.

“This setback would also be a sign that China is being more assertive in response to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visits to Washington and Tokyo in order to curtail the development of Vietnam’s defense and security relations with these two countries,” he said.

Phuc and high-raking delegations visited the U.S. in May, and Japan in early June.

“If true, this would be a clumsy and counterproductive act by China,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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FILE photo provided by Filipino fisherman Renato Etac —  A Chinese Coast Guard boat approaches Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Scarborough Shoal has always been part of the Philippines, by international law. China says it is happy to control fishing in the South China Sea. Credit: Renato Etac

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For about five years China has been loudly proclaiming “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea.” China has said, everything north of the “nine dash line” shown here, essentially, belongs to China.  On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said China’s “nine dash line” was not recognized under international law.


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US, China agree to stop firms from doing business with North Korea over nuclear threat, Tillerson says

June 22, 2017

Pledge to impose UN sanctions on Pyongyang comes after Trump’s tweet that Beijing’s efforts to rein in the reclusive state have ‘not worked out’

By Zhenhua Lu
South China Morning Post

Thursday, June 22, 2017, 11:45am

China and the US held high-level security talks on Wednesday and called on North Korea to halt its missile and nuclear programme, despite US President Donald Trump’s tweeted claim a day earlier that Beijing’s efforts to rein in Pyongyang have “not worked out”.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a press conference after the talks that the US has made a commitment to hold North Korea accountable for multiple violations of UN Security Council resolutions that “explicitly prohibited its nuclear weapon and missile programme”.

“We both agreed that our companies should not do business with any UN-designated North Korean entities in accordance with these resolutions,” Tillerson said.

China restated its position that the Korean peninsula should be denuclearised, but added that the issue should be resolved through dialogue, according to a statement released by the Chinese embassy in the US.

The statement also restated China’s opposition to the deployment of a US developed anti-missile shield in South Korea.

 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pictured after the security talks. Photo: Associated

Tillerson reiterated the Trump administration’s argument that China has the “diplomatic responsibility to exert pressure greater to prevent further escalation in the region”.

The two nations’ inaugural diplomatic and security dialogue in Washington came as tension in the Korean peninsula has risen after Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student held by North Korea for nearly 18 months, died six days after returning to the US on June 13.

During the joint press conference with Tillerson, US Defence Secretary James Mattis accused North Korea of being “beyond any kind of understanding of law and order and humanity”. He added that Trump’s sentiments in his Twitter post represented “American people’s frustrations with the [North Korean] regime [which] provokes and provokes, and basically plays outside the rules”.

Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday that China’s efforts to bring a resolution to the North Korea crisis had “not worked out”, adding: “At least I know China tried!”

Mattis said the US and China both reaffirmed that the North Korean nuclear and missile programme was an urgent threat and both pledged a strong commitment to cooperate on the shared goal of denuclearising the Korean peninsula. “Meanwhile we will take necessary actions to defend ourselves and our allies,” he said.

 US Secretary of Defence James Mattis pictured after the security talks. Photo: Associated Press

Tillerson said he was unable to provide an update on the status of the other three Americans currently held in North Korea.

Abraham Denmark, former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia, who stepped down in January, said: “It is only a matter of time before the president realises that China is not going to solve this problem.” Denmark added that additional sanctions from the US, including against Chinese companies with alleged links with North Korea, were “certainly possible”.

The Trump administration has also provided China with a list of people or bodies that allegedly support Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons network, which Beijing needs to take action against, Tillerson told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.

A Chinese-based company, Mingzheng International Trading, is accused of laundering money on behalf of the Foreign Trade Bank, a North Korean lender subject to sanctions, the US Attorney’s office in the District of Columbia said last Thursday.

 North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pictured by a missile launcher. Photo: Associated Press

Heather Nauert, a US State Department spokeswoman, declined to comment after the US press conference on whether China had agreed to curb the cited Chinese groups’ trading with North Korea.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a security policy focused think tank in Washington, said: “Frustration is growing in the administration that China is not [doing] enough in this regard.”

Glaser added that if Beijing does not work more actively to stop these activities or take other measures such as reducing crude oil exports, there was likely to be more friction between the US and China over North Korea.

 US and Chinese officials pictured during the talks in Washington. Photo: Xinhua

In signs reflecting the two nations tensions over China’s more assertive claims in the South China Sea, Tillerson said the US opposed the “militarisation” of disputed waters in the region and “excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law”. The US would “uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight”, he said.

China called on the US not to take sides over the disputes and respect China’s territorial sovereignty, the Chinese embassy statement said.


Despite Trump tweet, Mattis, Tillerson are full steam ahead on China, North Korea

June 22, 2017
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After a day of meetings with top Chinese officials, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. and China have made progress on a handful of issues and are pushing ahead on pressuring North Korea — despite President Donald Trump’s claim that “it has not worked.”

“China continues to work these issues,” Mattis told reporters.

“They have a diplomatic responsibility to assert much greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime if they want to prevent further escalation in the region,” said Tillerson, at Mattis’s side.

So what did Trump mean by his tweet on Tuesday then?

While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!

“He represents the American people’s view of North Korea right now,” said Mattis, referencing anger over the death of Otto Warmbier, held captive by the regime for over a year.

“We see a young man go over there healthy, and with a minor act of mischief, come home dead, basically. … What you’re seeing, I think, is the American people’s frustration with a regime that provokes and provokes and provokes and basically plays outside the rules, plays fast and loose with the truth,” he said.

It was another strongly worded warning to North Korea, but given the administration’s different statements, it’s unclear what it will do next.

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Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hold a press conference at the State Department in Washington, June 21, 2017.  Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters

For his part, Tillerson doubled down on the current strategy, saying both the U.S. and China agreed to stop doing business with U.N.-sanctioned North Koreans. But with their Chinese counterparts absent from the press conference, there was no word from China on whether or not they will finally fully do that.

“We reaffirmed our commitment to implement in full all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions. For example, we both agree that our companies should not do business with any U.N.-designated North Korean entities,” said Tillerson — adding more positive spin on the summit later when he said two delegations also had a “frank exchange of views” on the South China Sea, but that China said it was committed to resolving the disputes there peacefully.

In the meantime, the U.S. will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever the freedom of navigation allows, according to Mattis.

In general, both secretaries praised their summit, formally known as the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, for involving higher level officials in both civilian and military posts than in the past and for laying the groundwork for greater engagement, better communication and reducing the risk of dangerous incidents going forward. Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Gen. Fang Fenghui, the chief of the People’s Liberation Army‘s Joint Staff, led their country’s delegation.

The American delegation also included Amb. Joseph Yun, who just returned from North Korea to secure Warmbier’s release; Amb. Terry Branstad, the longtime Iowa governor who will soon begin his time as ambassador to China; and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“This has been a unique opportunity for our nations to engage in philosophical level discussions about how we discuss these issues and discuss the way ahead,” said Mattis. “While competition between our nations is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable.”

Today’s meetings consisted of four working sessions, each focused on a couple of top security issues, like North Korea and the South China Sea.

The U.S. wants China to do more on defeating ISIS as well — in particular, helping the Iraqi government to ensure long-term stability and economic growth, according to Tillerson.

Tillerson also made a public nudge on human rights, something he’s been hesitant to do otherwise.

“We will not be shy about raising our concerns about China’s human rights record, and I was direct and candid in our meetings today,” he said.

Later in the year, high-level representatives from both countries will meet for an economic dialogue, a law enforcement and cyber dialogue, and a social and people-to-people dialogue.

Trump says ‘we have a great relationship with China’ — But is the party over? — Fool me once but not twice….

June 22, 2017
President Trump and President Xi Jinping of China at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Fla., in April. Beijing had hoped the initial cordiality between the two leaders would establish the sort of nonconfrontational partnership that it prefers. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

BEIJING — The short, unexpected honeymoon that China enjoyed with President Trump seems to be in trouble, dashing hopes in Beijing that the two countries had embarked on a new, businesslike relationship.

Mr. Trump’s assertion that China had failed to pressure North Korea into curbing its nuclear and ballistic missile program means that Beijing must now confront the prospect of a stormier relationship ahead — not just over North Korea but also tougher stands on trade, currency and the South China Sea that Mr. Trump set aside as he sought President Xi Jinping’s help with Pyongyang.

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter this week, ahead of a high-level meeting of Chinese and American officials on Wednesday in Washington, signaling a harder line.

Mr. Trump did not detail what might follow that conclusion, but the options on the table with North Korea — including more coercive sanctions that could target Chinese companies trading with the country, a military buildup and even the use of force — are all deeply objectionable to Beijing.

China Cancels Military Meeting With Vietnam Over Territorial Dispute in South China Sea after “Heated Words”

June 21, 2017

HONG KONG — State-run newspapers in Vietnam and China reported in recent days that senior military officials from the two countries would hold a fence-mending gathering along a border where their militaries fought a brief but bloody war in 1979.

But Tuesday, the scheduled start of the gathering, came and went without any of the coverage in the state news media that readers in the two countries had expected. The Chinese Defense Ministry later said in a terse statement that it had canceled the event “for reasons related to working arrangements.”

Analysts, citing government sources, said that the Chinese delegation had unexpectedly cut short a trip to Vietnam after tempers flared during a closed-door discussion on disputed territories in the South China Sea.

The cancellation is highly unusual for the two Communist neighbors, and it comes as Beijing continues to build artificial islands in the South China Sea, where the Chinese seek to expand their military influence at a time of uncertainty over President Trump’s policies in the region.

“This was not what the Vietnamese expected from a polite guest,” said Alexander L. Vuving, a Vietnam specialist at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

“You can say both sides miscalculated,” he added. But another interpretation is that both countries are “very committed to showing the other their own resolve” on matters of territorial sovereignty.

The dispute happened during a visit to Hanoi this week by Gen. Fan Changlong of China. It was unclear what precisely roiled his meeting with Vietnamese officials, much less whether the general’s actions had been planned.

Analysts said he appeared to have been angry over Vietnam’s recent efforts to promote strategic cooperation with the United States and Japan. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc recently visited those two countries in quick succession, and the Vietnamese and Japanese coast guards conducted joint drills in the South China Sea last week focused on preventing illegal fishing.

Another reason, analysts said, could be Vietnam’s apparent refusal to abandon oil and gas exploration in areas of the South China Sea that both it and Beijing claim.

Mr. Vuving said a specific source of the dispute may have been the so-called Blue Whale project, a gas-drilling venture in the South China Sea by Vietnam’s state oil company, PetroVietnam, and Exxon Mobil. The companies signed an agreement during a January trip to Hanoi by John Kerry, the secretary of the state at the time.

The drilling site, which is expected to produce gas for power generation by 2023, is close to the disputed Paracel Islands and near the “nine dash line” that shows expansive territorial claims on Chinese maps. Mr. Vuving said that China probably resents that Vietnam has formed a partnership with an American oil company, particularly one whose previous chief executive, Rex W. Tillerson, is Mr. Trump’s secretary of state.

The project appears to set a “very damaging precedent for China’s strategy in the South China Sea,” Mr. Vuving said.

The Chinese and Vietnamese Foreign Ministries did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday, and an Exxon Mobil spokeswoman in Singapore could not be reached for comment.

Other analysts said that the source of tension may have been Vietnam’s recent decision to resume oil exploration in another disputed part of the South China Sea.

Carl Thayer, a longtime analyst of the Vietnamese military and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said that if General Fan had indeed asked Vietnam to cease oil exploration in that area, Vietnam would have considered the request “inflammatory”; it would have implied Chinese territorial control in the Exclusive Economic Zone off the Vietnamese coast.

“Vietnam’s leaders would have refused this request and responded by reasserting Vietnam’s sovereignty,” Mr. Thayer said in an email to reporters and diplomats.

There were unconfirmed reports on Wednesday that China had recently deployed 40 vessels and several military transport aircraft to the area. Vietnam accused Chinese ships of cutting the cables of one of its seismic survey vessels there in 2011.

Though China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and a longtime ideological ally, the neighbors have long been at odds over competing claims to rocks, islands and offshore oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea.

Tensions came to a head in 2014, when a state-run Chinese company towed an oil rig near the Paracel Islands and within about 120 nautical miles of Vietnam. No one was killed at sea, but a maritime standoff led to anti-China riots near foreign-invested factories in central and southern Vietnam, bringing relations between the countries to their lowest point in years.

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China’s gigantic oil rig, Haiyangshihou 981

A few days before General Fan’s Hanoi visit, Mr. Vuving said, China moved the same oil rig to a position in the South China Sea that is near the midway point between the Chinese and Vietnamese coasts, apparently seeking to pressure Vietnam to cease oil and gas exploration in disputed waters. Data from, a website affiliated with the Chinese Transport Ministry, showed that the rig has been about 70 nautical miles south of China and 120 nautical miles northeast of Vietnam over the past week.

The first fence-mending gathering, called the Vietnam-China Border Defense Friendship Exchange Program, took place in 2014 and was intended to promote bilateral trust. The meeting this week was expected to include a drill on fighting cross-border crime.

Xu Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing who specializes in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, said that the countries were expected to disagree over territorial claims in the South China Sea. But they have established frameworks to defuse disagreements through government channels as well as through the two countries’ Communist parties, he added.

In the end, the two countries “will come out and resolve this problem since both want stability,” Mr. Xu said.

Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the Iseas Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, agreed with that conclusion, but warned that new tensions could emerge in the short term. China appears increasingly eager to stop Vietnam from growing too close to Japan and the United States, he said.

“As Vietnam tries to achieve its economic growth targets, it is planning to exploit more oil from the South China Sea,” Mr. Hiep wrote in an email. “As such, the chance for confrontation at sea may also increase.”

See also:

After A Break, Beijing Must Fear The U.S. Again Over South China Sea Expansion

June 21, 2017

By Ralph Jennings
Forbes Contributor

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives to testify on the Defense Department budget at a House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 15, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump gave China a break in April on its tightening of control over Asia’s most hotly disputed sea. But the leeway that has allowed China and the United States to work together on containing North Korea shows signs of expiring. The two superpowers may still tag-team over North Korea for a while, but Trump is expected to start upping pressure against Beijing so it stops assuming it can take full rein over the South China Sea.

China’s claims to the resource-rich, 3.5 million-square-kilometer tract of water off its south coast overlap those of militarily weaker Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Some of those governments looked to the United States for help under former-president Barack Obama. But now Washington is more distant, and those countries are tilting toward China, which has consecrated its maritime power partly by offering them aid, trade and investment in exchange for muting any protest, per the view of political scientists. China is almost done landfilling a series of pivotal islets so it can park combat aircraft and radar systems, as well, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and Investment Studies.

When U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis meet Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi for an initial security dialogue Wednesday in Washington, the two sides are expected at least to touch on the issue.

“The South China Sea will be an issue high on the agenda, or at least from the U.S. perspective,” says Yun Sun, senior associate with the East Asia Program under Washington-based think tank the Stimson Center. “China is likely to see the South China Sea as less of a problem today given its improved relations with Manila, but it remains a key concern for Washington.”

A file photograph showing an island that China built on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Manila handed Washington a classic case of how China has turned Southeast Asia to its favor. The Philippines asked a world arbitration court in 2015 to rule against China, and in July last year it did: Beijing, it said, lacks a legal basis for its claims to some 90% of the sea. Since then, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made friends with China, putting the maritime sovereignty dispute on hold as Manila receives aid and investment from the other side. The Philippines for its part is on a push to improve infrastructure and China’s good at that.

The United States doesn’t want China to get too much of a hold over Southeast Asia. An expansionist Beijing goes against the long-standing U.S. interest in keeping at least a geopolitical balance between the two powers (China would say the same for the United States). Washington wants the South China Sea open for free commercial navigation, too. About $5 trillion worth of trade passes through its shipping lanes every year.

A so-called “freedom of navigation operation” passage in late May by a U.S. naval vessel in the South China Sea came despite Chinese objections as one sign that the U.S. government is raising pressure. Earlier this month Mattis said he anticipated friction between China and the United States. “The scope and effect of China’s construction activities in the South China Sea differ from those in other countries in several key ways,” the Department of Defense quotes him saying June 3. “This includes the nature of its militarization, China’s disregard for international law, its contempt for other nations’ interests, and its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues.”

The USS Carl Vinson (pictured here in May, 2017) leads a significant U.S. military presence in Asia. (Photo by Z.A. Landers/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

What about North Korea? You might expect Trump’s people to keep downplaying the South China Sea matter so Beijing stays happy and works with them on throttling the mysterious and potentially dangerous Kim Jong-un regime. North Korea will inevitably come up at this week’s dialogue, a process established in April when Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, analysts say. This dialogue, as a first in a potential series, will probably be more pro forma than substantive, observers say. But once the two sides dive deeper, cooperation might be nuked into a standoff. U.S. officials worry for one thing that China is letting North Korea get around economic sanctions by using its own procurement supply chain to get financing from Chinese banks, I have reported.

“There might be some general commitment to Korean denuclearization, but Beijing won’t do anything consequential on that front, as it wants to keep North Korea around more than it disapproves of Pyongyang’s nukes,” says Sean King, senior vice president of New York political consultancy Park Strategies. “Hopefully, (the U.S. government) has put Xi on notice that we’re moving toward secondary sanctions against the mainland Chinese entities and banks that are fronting for North Korea if he doesn’t take real action.”

With that bold new approach to China over North Korea, Trump has little to lose by adding pressure on Beijing over the South China Sea.


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FILE photo provided by Filipino fisherman Renato Etac —  A Chinese Coast Guard boat approaches Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Scarborough Shoal has always been part of the Philippines, by international law. China says it is happy to control fishing in the South China Sea. Credit: Renato Etac

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For about five years China has been loudly proclaiming “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea.” China has said, everything north of the “nine dash line” shown here, essentially, belongs to China.  On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said China’s “nine dash line” was not recognized under international law.

U.S., China meet on North Korea after Trump points to failed Chinese effort

June 21, 2017


By David Brunnstrom | WASHINGTON

Top diplomats and defense chiefs from the United States and China began a day of talks in Washington on Wednesday looking for ways to press North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs.

The talks come a day after U.S. President Donald Trump said Chinese efforts to persuade North Korea to rein in its weapons programs had failed, ratcheting up the rhetoric after the death of an American student who had been detained by Pyongyang.

Trump’s statement is likely to increase pressure on Beijing at the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, which pairs U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis with China’s top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and General Fang Fenghui, chief of joint staff of the People’s Liberation Army.

The State Department says Wednesday’s talks would focus on ways to increase pressure on North Korea, but also cover such areas as counter-terrorism and territorial rivalries in the South China Sea.

The U.S. side is expected to press China to cooperate on a further toughening of international sanctions on North Korea. The United States and its allies would like to see an oil embargo and bans on the North Korean airline and guest workers among other moves, steps diplomats say have been resisted by China and Russia.

Trump has had high hopes for greater cooperation from China to exert influence over North Korea, leaning heavily on Chinese President Xi Jinping for his assistance. The two leaders had a high-profile summit in Florida in April and Trump has frequently praised Xi while resisting criticizing Chinese trade practices.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis meet with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and General Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s Joint Staff Department prior to the U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue at the State Department in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

It was unclear whether his remark represented a significant shift in his thinking in the U.S. effort to stop North Korea’s nuclear program and its test-launching of missiles or a hardening in U.S. policy toward China.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that Beijing had made “unremitting efforts” to resolve tensions on the Korean peninsula, not as a result of external pressure but because China was a responsible member of the international community and resolving nuclear issue was in its own interests.

On Tuesday, a U.S. official said U.S. spy satellites had detected movements recently at North Korea’s nuclear test site near a tunnel entrance, but it was unclear if Pyongyang was preparing for a new nuclear test, perhaps to coincide with Wednesday’s high-level talks.

A South Korean Defense Ministry official said North Korea remained prepared to conduct a sixth nuclear test at any time but there were “no new unusual indications that can be shared.”

North Korea last tested a nuclear bomb in September, but it has conducted repeated missile tests since and vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, putting it at the forefront of Trump’s security worries.

Trump has hardened his rhetoric against North Korea following the death of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who died on Monday. He had returned to the United States in a coma after being held captive in North Korea.

On Tuesday the president called what happened to Warmbier “a disgrace.”

China’s state-run Global Times newspaper said Chinese officials must be wary that Warmbier’s death might push Washington to put greater pressure on Beijing, but China would not act as a “U.S. ally” on the issue.

If Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese enterprises dealing with North Korea, it would lead to “grave friction” between the two countries, wrote the paper, which does not represent Chinese government policy.

Trump’s tweet about China took some advisers by surprise. A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States had limited options to rein in North Korea without Chinese assistance.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)