Posts Tagged ‘Strait of Malacca’

China looks to increase ‘soft control’ of Myanmar — But The PLA Is At The Ready On The Border

March 31, 2015


The Armed Forces Day military parade in the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw, March 27. (Photo/Xinhua)

China must increase its “soft control” of Myanmar to fulfill its dream of building a new Pacific Fleet and an Indian Ocean Fleet, according to a commentary from the Beijing-based Sina Military.

According to China’s state broadcaster CCTV, the 14th Army Corps of the People’s Liberation Army recently began a large-scale military exercise in the western region of southwest China’s Yunnan province, near the China-Myanmar border. The exercise comes amid increasing tensions between the two countries due to the escalating violence between the Myanmar government and ethnic rebel forces, which has already spilled into China after a stray shell flattened a house and a wayward bomb killed four Yunnan farmers earlier this month.

Sina Military believes Beijing is sending a message to Naypyidaw — which began a renewed assault on the rebels’ Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army in the self-administered Kokang region on March 27 — through the exercise and also by leaking reports that it is tightening border restrictions and placing artillery units and air defense troops on standby.

For China, increasing its long-term “soft control” of Myanmar is important for both economic and military reasons. Unlike neighbors such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and Bhutan, Myanmar offers a key route to the Indian Ocean, which is why China aims to eventually rent land from Myanmar to build a PLA naval base there, the report added.

To this end, China needs to develop some kind of military alliance with Myanmar, perhaps beginning with assistance in non-military aid missions, Sina Military said. China also needs to speed up the development of oil and gas pipelines between the two countries so that it can become Myanmar’s largest oil industry partner. Additionally, China should boost its investment in Myanmar’s transport, port development, urban infrastructure development, medical, telecommunications and energy sectors so that the people of Myanmar can sense the positive benefits of increased Chinese influence, the report added.

If China can secure a permanent port to the Indian Ocean in Myanmar in the future, the PLA Navy’s “far sea fleet” can be split into a Pacific Fleet and an Indian Ocean Fleet, the report said. The Pacific Fleet will be in charge of the first island chain — a line through the Kurile Islands, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia — and the second island chain — a north-south line from the Kuriles through Japan, the Bonins, the Marianas, the Carolines, and Indonesia. The Indian Ocean Fleet will be responsible for the region from the Strait of Malacca in the South China Sea through to the north Indian Ocean. The operational regions of the two fleets can use the south of Taiwan and the Philippines as a boundary, with each being able to cross over to assist the other when necessary, the report added.


PLA holds night live-fire drills near border with Myanmar
South China Morning Post
March 26, 2015

The PLA conducts live-fire exercises in Yunnan.

China’s Dominion of The Seas: Six Centuries Before Zheng He, Tang Dynasty Sailors Ruled The Waves

March 22, 2015

Zheng He

Taipei, March 22 (CNA) The great maritime feats by Zheng He (鄭和) in the Ming Dynasty may have been achieved six centuries earlier by a diplomat of the Tang Dynasty, according to a recent TV program aired by China Shaanxi Broadcasting Corp. (SXBC),

Widely recognized as the greatest admiral of ancient China, Zheng is listed among the world’s foremost pioneers in maritime history for the series of expeditions that saw Chinese ships sail to far-flung destinations including the coastal territories and islands in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and beyond between 1405 and 1433.

According to the TV program, a recent study of a stele inscribed with more than 1,000 words on the achievements of Yang Liangyao (楊良瑤) throughout his career in diplomacy during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) showed that Yang may have made the same journey as Zheng He six centuries earlier.

The stele was first discovered in the 1980s in Shaaxi Province’s Jingyang County, at a site belived to be Yang’s tomb. Last year, a structure believed to be the stele’s base was discovered at a nearby village, giving researchers more clues to delve into.

Researchers found that the inscriptions contain accounts of a journey by a fleet commanded by Yang, who sailed across the Western Pacific Ocean, through the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean to reach the Abbasid Caliphate, now modern day Iraq.

Inscriptions on the stele stated that when Yang reached the fertile crescent between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, he had ordered to have his ships anchored before continuing the journey by land to Abbasid Caliphate’s capital, known as Baghdad today.

A Shaanxi Province official said that during the Tang Dynasty, China had maintained close ties with the Middle East partly due to the bustling trade over the “maritime silk road”, and that the latest findings gleaned from the stele provides valuable details on the far reaching voyages by diplomats during the era.

(By Chou Yi-ling and Ted Chen)

South China Sea: Malaysia Proposes Joint Asean Peacekeeping Force

March 19, 2015


Plan aims to build trust among members amid conflicts over how to handle Beijing

Malaysian defence minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein

By Trefor Moss
The Wall Street Journal

LANGKAWI, Malaysia—Malaysia proposed that Southeast Asian countries form a joint peacekeeping force, saying it would help rebuild trust after bitter arguments over how to handle China’s territorial challenges in the South China Sea.

Members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations —not all of which have interests in the South China Sea—have been anything but united in recent years over how to deal with Beijing.

The Philippines and Vietnam have accused of China of aggressive behavior in the sea’s disputed areas, a characterization China disputes. The disagreements between Asean members have spilled out at recent Asean summits, and cast doubt on a project to form a new “Asean Community” in December designed to usher in an age of regional unity.

“We need to find matters where we can unite,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Wednesday at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition. “If we continue to look only at dotted lines and competing claims, the future looks very bleak.”

Malaysia said a joint peacekeeping force could be deployed to regional trouble spots such as the Cambodian-Thai border, where the two neighbors clashed over a disputed temple in 2011.

Even if not aimed at resolving tensions around South China See issues, the Malaysian proposal could exacerbate tensions between Asean and China, which has long maintained that territorial disputes should be resolved bilaterally between claimant states, rather than through multilateral bodies.

China’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Recently it has strongly objected to criticism of China’s occupation of disputed islands in the South China Sea by Asean’s top official, Secretary-General Le Luong Minh.

Photo: ASEAN Secretary-general Le Luong Minh at the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, Jan. 9, 2013. (Xinhua/Jiang Fan)

“We support the building of the Asean community, but Asean is not a party concerned to relevant disputes over the South China Sea,” Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, told a regular March 11 news briefing. He urged Mr. Minh to “strictly abide by the neutral stance that Asean takes on the South China Sea issue.”

Ms. Zhang Jie, an international-relations expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing will need to observe how Asean moves ahead with the force before drawing any conclusions. “My understanding is that the so-called Asean peacekeeping force is not very relevant to or targets the South China Sea,” Ms. Zhang said.

Establishing the force will be a key focus of Malaysia’s 2015 Asean chairmanship, said Mr. Hishammuddin. Its size and makeup have yet to be determined, he said.

Malaysia will find it difficult to persuade other Asean members to join, said Tim Huxley, executive director of IISS-Asia, a Singapore-based security think tank. “There isn’t a great deal of trust on security matters between Asean members,” he said. “The trust has to come first, then the cooperation.”

Malaysia is also working to establish joint monitoring and patrols of the Sulu Sea involving Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Mr. Hishammuddin said, in hope of replicating a similar joint effort in the Strait of Malacca.

—Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Trefor Moss at


Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein has downplayed the security implications of the growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, pointing to threats posed by non-traditional security sources as potentially bigger risks for Southeast Asia.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein speaks on board KD Jebat at Langkawi. (IHS/Ridzwan Rahmat)

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein speaks on board KD Jebat at Langkawi. (IHS/Ridzwan Rahmat)

In the past 18 months China has conducted a large land reclamation project at reefs and other features in the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Beijing has also conducted naval manoeuvres near James Shoal in an area also claimed by Malaysia as part of its territory, despite China repeatedly referred to James Shoal as its most southern land feature.


18th March 2015 – 2:00 by Gordon Arthur in Langkawi

Speaking aboard the frigate KD Jebat on the eve of LIMA 2015, Malaysian defence minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein told Shephard, ‘I am concerned,’ when referring to the current security situation in Eastern Sabah.

He continued, ‘apart from making sure of maritime security in the Strait of Malacca, which involves Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, we need to now focus on the Sulu Sea, and that will involve Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and also Brunei.’

In February 2013, more than 200 militants from the so-called Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo landed in Lahad Datu in Sabah. After defying Malaysian security forces, Kuala Lumpur initiated operations against the group of insurgents. Military action concluded the following month.

Hishammuddin outlined various measures the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) are taking to improve the security situation. ‘What we are doing in Malaysia, as afar as Sabah is concerned, we have moved our AV-8 armoured carriers to Tawau, and we have moved our Hawks [jets] to Labuan.’ The Malaysian Army is also forward-basing and arming its AgustaWestland AW109 helicopters with Gatling guns so they can provide close fire support to troops on the ground.

Hishammuddin added that the country is converting decommissioned oil rigs to be used as offshore bases. ‘The first will be ready by next month,’ he confirmed. These rigs can be used by helicopters and boats as floating bases that will considerably reduce response times during any contingency.

‘We’re also looking at mother ships,’ the defence minister revealed. Referring to cooperation with neighbours such as Indonesia and the Philippines in establishing further offshore basing, he pondered, ‘imagine if we could work together to build a wall, but let’s see how things come.’

In addition, Malaysia is establishing an air force facility at Lahad Datu airport. Later this year, Brunei is transferring four Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk helicopters to the MAF for use in the region as well.

Subsequent to the incursion in Lahad Datu, the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) and ESSZONE were established. The Eastern Sabah Security Zone encompasses a coastline 1,733km long, 361 islands and 31,158km².

The security situation in Eastern Sabah is also directly affecting Malaysian defence spending priorities. ‘Asset acquisition will be based on perceived threats and affordability due to the current economic situation,’ Hishammuddin said.

Regarding regional threats such as Islamic State, (IS) the defence minister said, ‘It’s important for us to think outside the box and to work in tandem with ASEAN.’ He noted that the defence ministers of all ten ASEAN nations were represented at LIMA for the first time, and that all member countries have categorically taken a stand against IS.




(Contains links to several related articles)

China Causing Shift in U.S. Strategy

March 9, 2015

By Lance M. Bacon, Staff writer
Navy Times

As part of the U.S. military’s shift to the Asia-Pacific region, the Navy is dispatching more ships and sailors for exercises with partner nations.

There are also opportunities to work alongside the Chinese military in training and humanitarian operations. But make no mistake — China is at the heart of the new strategy, and the Middle Kingdom is pushing back. There have been high-level run-ins between the U.S. Navy and the Chinese military in recent years and experts believe these are likely to continue as the 1.3-billion strong nation builds its maritime might.

Chinese navy warships during Joint Sea exercise with Russia

Though China lacks the formidable fighting force needed to control regional waters, let alone the ability to project forces beyond, it is building military power at a remarkable pace. An annual report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission says that by 2020 China’s navy will have 351 ships; as compared to the 275 battle force ships in the U.S. fleet, as of March 6.

The Navy, including Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert, is pushing to build closer military ties. In June, China joined 22 other nations in the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise held around Hawaii, for example. But tensions remain high in the Pacific, largely due to territorial disputes between China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam in the East and South China seas. The region is also threatened by an erratic, nuclear-armed dictatorship: North Korea.

These challenges are expected to shape sailor’s deployments and port calls for years to come.

U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, right, speaks with China’s Navy Commander-in-Chief Adm. Wu Shengli during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing July 15, 2014.  Reuters photo

Port calls and bases

The U.S. military now has more than 350,000 troops throughout the Pacific, to include more than half the fleet. The carrier Theodore Roosevelt will move from Norfolk, Virginia, to Coronado, California, later in the year to keep a six-carrier presence in the Pacific. The Pentagon has beefed up its presence in Guam for more than a decade. In addition to the Navy submarine base and other U.S. military assets there, nearly 5,000 Marines now based on Okinawa are expected to move there in coming years.

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71)

Sailors can expect to see more time in Australia, one of America’s closest Pacific allies. Pentagon officials are looking at basing warships in Australia, and rotating crews in and out. They are likely to support a 2,500-man Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force that will regularly rotate through Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory and a crocodile watching hotspot in the Outback.

Sydney will be a primary port call, too. Australia’s largest city offers nightlife, hiking and shopping.

Another key hub is Singapore, which will become the forward base for littoral combat ships in 7th Fleet. As many as four LCS vessels will be based in Singapore in coming years; these vessels will be swapped between ship crews, which will fly over from the states for four-month deployments. The first ship crew returned to the U.S. in February after a four-month patrol on the Fort Worth, the first of four patrols it will complete during its 16-month deployment to 7th Fleet. Singapore offers the U.S. Navy close access to the Strait of Malacca and the contested South China Sea.

Another key location is Subic Bay in the Philippines, which has seen a growing number of port calls for liberty and maintenance. It’s also likely to see a growing number of aircraft and Marines. The close ally also boasts scenic hiking and exciting liberty in nearby Manila.

USS Tortuga in Subic Bay last year

China’s maritime surge

China’s drive to build military muscle is multifaceted, and driven by the claim of full ownership of nearly all islands and resources in the South China and East China seas. In 2013, China set a 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone to regulate foreign military activities, and an Air Defense Identification Zone designed to control airspace above the East China Sea. The United States responded by sending strategic bombers through the zone, which it does not recognize, in an act of defiance.

Territorial clashes are common. In addition to long-standing turmoil with Taiwan, China has recently clashed with Vietnamese ships, had close calls with Japanese aircraft over the Senkaku Islands, and engaged in a turf war with the Philippines over Scarborough Reef and Second Thomas Shoal. China’s most recent tactic is to use land reclamation to build air strips and outposts on reefs and islands in the South China Sea. In addition, China shares a border with the unstable North Korean regime.

The result is a strategic powder keg, according to a 2014 Rand Corporation report, which warned that war between China and the U.S. “is most likely to be the result of misjudgment by one, the other, or both, but could be terribly destructive nonetheless.”

That concern, on top of recent run-ins, has led the U.S. Navy, China and other countries to adopt a code of conduct at sea to help ensure encounters between ships don’t escalate into a crisis. Indeed, the Fort Worth and Chinese frigate Hengshui put these protocols into practice in the South China Sea on Feb. 23.

The USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) sits docked at Sembawang Wharves during a port of call in Singapore on February 17, 2015

The USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) sits docked at Sembawang Wharves during a port of call in Singapore on February 17, 2015 ©Roslan Rahman (AFP)

There have been many close calls. A Chinese amphiibious ship crossed the bow of the cruiser Cowpens by less than 100 yards in international waters on Dec. 5, 2013, a danagerous pass that nearly led to a collision.

And on Aug. 19, 2014, an armed Chinese fighter buzzed a P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft within 20 feet of its wingtips over international waters in the South China Sea, which Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby called an “unprofessional and unsafe” maneuver.

“It was very, very close and very dangerous. … I think the message they were apparently sending is they were resisting the flight of that patrol aircraft,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.

Many of China’s emerging leaders believe the nation is entitled to recover territory lost when China was weak, according to the report, and they see the United States as determined to prevent any expansion that would establish China as East Asia’s leading power.

This drives China’s development of “a military capable of acting as an anti-access/area-denial force — a force that can deter U.S. intervention in a conflict in China’s near-seas region over Taiwan or some other issue, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. forces,” wrote Ronald O’Rourke, a naval expert with the Congressional Research Service in a September 2014 report.

The Chinese are improving nearly every facet of their naval and air forces. They have substantial hurdles to surmount in building a modern force, including at sea logistics, amphibious transport, air defense and carrier flight operations. China has developed an anti-ship missile known as the “carrier killer” for its reported 1,000 mile range and evasive maneuvers. It is building nearly three submarines a year with the capability to counter U.S. technological prowess.

“What I’m seeing in foreign modernization, again, particularly China’s, is a suite of capabilities that are intended, clearly to me, at least, to defeat the American way of doing power projection — [the] American way of warfare when we fight in an expeditionary manner far from the United States,” said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in Jan. 28 congressional testimony.

African missions

Experts say U.S. and Chinese forces are also likely to interact around Africa, where China’s presence grows by the day.

Of the five U.N. Security Council members, China is the largest contributor to peacekeeping operations in Africa and is the continent’s largest trading partner. It has sent senior military officials to South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Djibouti, and has had port visits in nine African countries in the past year.

While this provides deployment experience, China’s interest is primarily economic; leaders look to obtain and protect natural resources as well as promote exports, said Larry Hanauer, senior international policy analyst at Rand Corp., who views China as a potential partner in the region.

“I don’t see China seeking military facilities on the continent,” Hanauer said. “They may seek greater access to ports.”

While China may be a player in Africa — and one with whom you may work — its presence is not the key factor driving deployments there, according to Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institute.

Deployments to Africa are likely to continue for anti-piracy missions and partnership training, O’Hanlon told Navy Times on Feb. 18.

“My expectation is that our role will remain very modest: 100 special forces guys here or there, a couple hundred trainers here or there, the typical effort and number of people we put in,” he said. “Even if we do a little more in Nigeria, for example, I would think it is probably still going to be pretty small.”

There is a case for doing more, like sending a brigade-sized unit to peacekeeping operations like the one in Congo, he said. Navy Expeditionary Combat Command would be most affected by these efforts, as the building of facilities and provision of humanitarian aid would be a key part of the mission. Other missions could require “up to a few thousand Americans each,” O’Hanlon said, adding he hopes “we would not rule [these] out dismissively because it hasn’t been the norm.”

Navy P-8 Poseidon

This is the Chinese J-11 plane accused of “dangerous” operations by the U.S. Navy on August 19, 2014. — Photographed by the crew of a U.S. P-8A Poseidon. U.S. Navy

China, Singapore and Tensions in the South China Sea: Freedom of navigation on the high seas is an economically existential issue

March 7, 2015


Strait of Malacca on January 21, 2013

Focus on Code of Conduct to better manage tensions at sea: Minister

By Walter Sim

Freedom of navigation on the high seas is an economically existential issue for Singapore, as trade flow is vital to the country’s existence as a sovereign state, Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday.

At the same time, China has confirmed at the highest levels, including through Premier Li Keqiang, that it guarantees freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, he noted during the Committee of Supply debate on his ministry’s budget.

Mr Shanmugam was replying to a question by Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, who expressed concern about China’s extensive building on reefs and islands in those waters.

Foreign Affairs Minister Shanmugam to visit Sri Lanka, India
Singapore Law and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam. Photo: Reuters

Mr Giam asked what Singapore, and Asean, would do if China threatens freedom of navigation. “At this stage, that remains a hypothetical question,” Mr Shanmugam replied, citing the assurances by top Chinese officials.

“We cannot presuppose, one way or another, whether China is entitled to build on these islands and reefs, because that’s a circular question,” he said.

“It depends on whether China owns those islands and to what extent it has an EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and to what extent it has territorial sea, and whether these are islands which are capable of generating either territorial sea or EEZ. “And these are questions on which we take no position,” he said.

“They are to be sorted out between the various claimant states and subject to international law.”

Asean has begun negotiations with Beijing to agree on a framework or Code of Conduct to better manage tensions at sea.

Four Asean countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – have territorial claims in the South China Sea that overlap with China’s, and tense incidents over the past year have lent urgency to the need for this code.

Singapore’s task is to focus on this code, said Mr Shanmugam, who noted that China has indicated its willingness to work towards it, most recently at the Asean-China Summit in Naypyitaw last November.

Asean also provides a platform, whether at the Asean-China, Asean Plus Three or East Asia summit, for officials to discuss these issues with China at the highest levels, he added.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC), Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) and Mr Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC) had also asked about the situation in the Asia-Pacific, including relations between major powers.

Against the backdrop of tensions in the South China Sea, Mr Shanmugam stressed it was important to remember that the Asean-China partnership is a broad-based one.

China is either the largest or second-largest trading partner and investor in most Asean countries, and the relationship between Beijing and South-east Asian capitals has deepened. “If you look at mainland South-east Asia, it is being criss-crossed with infrastructure, often financed by Chinese capital and built by Chinese companies, which integrates mainland South-east Asia effectively with southern China,” he said.

“It increases their economic vibrancy and the whole region is becoming integrated economically.” China is also the engine driving important regional initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which aims to fund key development projects.

“We try and keep relations on an even keel,” he added, noting that Singapore takes over from Thailand as country coordinator of Asean-China dialogue relations later this year.

“We have limited influence on major power relations,” he said, adding that Singapore has created a small role through its active participation in regional platforms. “We try to be an honest broker in dealing with these issues and in our relations with the major powers,” he said.

“We work closely with like-minded countries to encourage the constructive engagement of the major powers in our region.”

People’s Liberation Army: China needs more aircraft carriers to secure Indian Ocean routes

March 4, 2015


Yin Zhuo attends a previous CPPCC meeting in Beijing on March 9, 2011. (Photo/Xinhua)

China must continue to develop aircraft carriers to maintain the security of its Indian Ocean routes, says People’s Liberation Army hawk Yin Zhuo.

The 69-year-old rear admiral made the comments Monday, a day before the commencement of the annial “two sessions” of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing.

As a member of the CPPCC National Committee, China’s top political advisory body, Yin said the PLA’s continued development of aircraft carriers is imperative given that neighboring countries all have ongoing carrier programs in place. South Korea is still in the planning stages, though Japan already has two carriers and India will soon have three or four, he said. China on the other hand only has one, the Lianoning, commissioned in 2012.

China’s seas are expansive and coupled with economic interests in distant waters, the PLA Navy’s speed and power need to improve in order to catch up to those of other nations, Yin said, adding that the safety of the country’s Indian Ocean routes can only be secured through more aircraft carriers.

A day earlier, Yin stated that the PLA Navy requires at least six aircraft carriers to meet strategic needs.

The rear admiral also shot down comparisons between President Xi Jinping’s “belt and road” initiative to the Marshall Plan — the American initiative to aid European and Asian economics after World War II.

Such a comparison reflects an ignorance of history, he said, noting that the Marshall Plan, rejected by the Soviets, contributed to the onset of the Cold War that lasted for more than 40 years.

On the other hand, the motive behind China’s Silk Road Economic Belt, a land-based belt from China via Central Asia and Russia to Europe, and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a maritime route through the Strait of Malacca to India, the Middle East and East Africa, is strictly one of peace and economic cooperation, Yin said, adding that the project will not alter the world’s current security patterns.


Yin Zhuo  尹卓

Xi Jinping  習近平

Combined ASEAN Maritime Forces Could Defend the South China Sea, Expert Says

March 2, 2015

By Roy  Mabasa
Manila Bulletin

If all member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pool their resources into a security community or even an alliance, it would be an impressive force and a potential deterrent to aggression in the South China Sea, according to a respected maritime security expert.

In an article published by the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Council of Canada, Paul Pryce noted in particular the relative strength of ASEAN coastal defense forces.

“Some member states, such as Indonesia, possess respectable ‘blue water’ navies,” said Pryce referring to larger vessels capable of operating in deep waters and engaging in long-range standing battles.

 A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig, Haiyang Shi You 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam. The US says it is concerned at China’s aggressive exertion of sovereignty in the sea.
A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig, Haiyang Shi You 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam. The US says it is concerned at China’s aggressive exertion of sovereignty in the sea. Photograph: Reuters/Reuters

On the other hand, he said other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, have considerable “‘brown water” navies or forces consisting of small patrol boats which can cruise inland waterways and the shallow waters that weave between tight-knit island chains.

However, Pryce, who is also a Political Advisor at the Consulate-General of Japan in Calgary, pointed out that the varied nature of the waters disputed in the South China Sea particularly requires the “flexibility offered by corvettes” or vessels with a displacement greater than 100 tons but less than 1,700 tons explained.

China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which just recently sought to establish a series of island-like structures in the midst of the dispute, has a substantial number of vessels in this range deployed to Hong Kong and a network of naval bases off the South China Sea.

Pryce reported that China currently possesses 12 Jiangdao-class corvettes to expand its maritime presence in the region and may possibly add three by the end of the current fiscal year.

In addition, PLAN also utilizes six Houjian-class missile boats and approximately 80 other missile boats and gunboats of various classes and ranging in displacement.

“This vastly exceeds the quantity and quality of vessels any individual Southeast Asian country could bring to bear in a conflict,” said Pryce whose research interests are diverse and include NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

Nevertheless, when combined, ASEAN’s maritime forces could meet the challenge presented by a limited PLAN offensive, he stressed.


Meanwhile, a respected international relations expert said it is a dangerous development that the United States is participating more and more in activities in Southeast Asian region especially after the US Navy has admitted to flying its most-advanced spy aircraft over disputed areas in South China Sea.

Likewise, said Victor Gao, best known for his position as the late paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s translator, the more military involvement in this part of the world, the more dangerous it will become for China-US relations.

“As the two largest economies in the world, if anyone believes that they can resolve any issue between China and the US through military means is undoubtedly living a fantasy,” said Gao in a published interview. “It will be very destabilizing and highly unconstructive.”

This reaction from an expert on Chinese issues comes following reports that the US Navy engaged in a bilateral patrol mission in airspace off Luzon in the disputed area in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) with members of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) and the Philippine Navy (PN) using the most advanced long range anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare aircraft in the world.

P-8A Poseidon

The US Navy disclosed that the Pelicans of Patrol Squadron (VP) 45 hosted members of the PAF and PN aboard a P-8A Poseidon for a “familiarization flight” to increase understanding and showcase the capabilities of America’s newest maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft during a detachment to Clark Air Base in Pampanga.

“I think it is not very helpful…if the US wants to participate in such territorial disputes between China and another country through military participation,” said Gao, currently director of the China National Association of International Studies and executive director of Beijing Private Equity Association. “First of all, it does not help the situation. Secondly, it will add fuel to the fire and highly destabilize the situation.”

He said if the US wants to play a very constructive role in the region, it should “keep the peace and refrain from military participation.”

Paul Pryce’s original essay:



(Contains links to several previous articles)


An ASEAN Maritime Alliance?

February 25, 2015

The year 2014 brought new tensions to the South China Sea, particularly as Chinese authorities sought to establish a series of island-like structures in the midst of the disputed Spratly Islands. Such provocative actions, however, are unlikely to generate sufficient political will among the other countries of the region to establish a Political-Security Community under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by the 2015 deadline. But were this collection of ten countries to pool their resources into a security community or even a security alliance, it would be an impressive force and a potential deterrent to aggression in the South China Sea.

In particular, it is worthwhile noting the relative strength of ASEAN coastal defence forces. Some member states, such as Indonesia, possess respectable ‘blue water’ navies, that is to say, they have larger vessels capable of operating in deep waters and engaging in long-range standing battles. Other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, have considerable ‘brown water’ navies,  forces consisting of small patrol boats which can cruise inland waterways and the shallow waters that weave between tight-knit island chains. But the varied nature of the waters disputed in the South China Sea particularly requires the flexibility offered by corvettes.

Generally, corvettes fall between the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates and Kingston-class coastal defence vessels in size. But there is much debate as to what constitutes a contemporary corvette. For example, the Royal Omani Navy calls its Khareef-class vessels ‘corvettes’ even though the displacement of each vessel in the class is approximately 2,660 tons. Recent advancements in shipbuilding have also allowed the US Navy to introduce new vessels with substantial displacement but with shallower drafts, meaning the new USS Liberty can approach closer to coastlines than the similarly sized but older Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

Canada’s Halifax-class frigate HMCS Regina (FFH 334)

For the purposes of this analysis, only those vessels with a displacement greater than 100 tons but less than 1,700 tons will be considered corvettes. China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN),  has a substantial number of vessels in this range deployed to Hong Kong and a network of naval bases off the South China Sea. 12 Jiangdao-class corvettes (1,440 tons) are the workhorses of this maritime presence in the region and China may possibly add 3 more vessels of this class by the end of 2015. Beyond the Jiangdao-class corvettes, PLAN’s southern presence includes six Houjian-class missile boats (520 tons) and approximately 80 other missile boats and gunboats of various classes and ranging in displacement from 200 to 480 tons each. This vastly exceeds the quantity and quality of vessels any individual Southeast Asian country could bring to bear in a conflict. But ASEAN’s combined maritime forces could meet the challenge presented by a limited PLAN offensive.

Brunei in particular has emerged as a promising new maritime actor in the region, even actively participating in the 2014 edition of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Royal Brunei Navy acquired four specially built Darussalam-class offshore patrol ships (1,625 tonnes) from the German shipbuilder Luerssen-Werft, which replaced Brunei’s previous coastal defence workhorse, the Waspada-class fast attack craft (200 tonnes). The Waspada-class vessels have since been decommissioned and donated to Indonesia to be used for training purposes. The introduction of the Darussalam-class greatly upgrades Brunei’s defence capabilities and it will be of interest for Southeast Asian observers to see how Brunei further pursues the modernization of its forces.

The Republic of Singapore Navy has much in the way of heavier frigates and submarines to defend its unique position by the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most significant shipping routes. Its corvette-like vessels are also impressive, six Victory-class corvettes (600 tonnes) and 12 Fearless-class offshore patrol ships (500 tonnes), but they are certainly not as new as some of the vessels boasted by Singapore’s neighbours. The Victory-class was acquired in 1990-1991 while the Fearless-class was introduced between 1996 and 1998. Therefore, it will also be of interest to see whether Singapore seeks to obtain any newer vessels which can serve as a bridge in capabilities between the Victory-class corvettes and the heavier Formidable-class frigates.

Singapore Navy’s corvette RSS Vigilance (90) sails along with guided-missile frigate RSS Steadfast (FFG 70) during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Singapore 2010. Image courtesy of U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric J. Cutright/Released.

It is Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia that boast the largest complements of corvettes in the region, however. The Royal Thai Navy’s coastal defence is led by two Tapi-class corvettes (1,200 tons) and two Pattani-class offshore patrol ships (1,460 tons), which are joined by two Ratanakosin-class corvettes (960 tons), three Khamrosin-class corvettes (630 tons), three Hua Hin-class patrol boats (600 tons), six PSMM Mark 5-class patrol boats (300 tons), and 18 smaller patrol boats and fast attack boats of varying capabilities but all rather aged. The Philippines and Indonesia both have vast island chains within their respective territories, requiring corvettes and smaller patrol vessels just as much for counter-trafficking and counter-piracy operations as for countering conventional maritime forces. The Philippine Navy possesses one Pohang-class corvette (1,200 tons), two Rizal-class corvettes (1,250 tons), nine Miguel Malvar-class corvettes (900 tons), and three Emilio Jacinto-class corvettes (700 tons). Indonesia tops out ASEAN’s array of corvettes with three Fatahillah-class corvettes (1,450 tons), 16 Kapitan Patimura-class corvettes (950 tons), and 65 other missile boats and gunboats with a displacement of approximately 100-250 tons.

Yet it is unclear how much of their forces Indonesia or the Philippines would be able to deploy in the midst of a South China Sea conflict. As mentioned previously, many of these vessels have been used practically as inland patrol vessels. There are also some potential weak links in the chain should ASEAN establish some form of formalized maritime alliance. The Royal Malaysian Navy only offers four Laksamana-class corvettes (675 tons) and an array of 16 smaller missile boats and gun boats that could generally only be used to harass Chinese forces. Burma certainly has an impressive force in its own right – consisting of three domestically produced Anawratha-class corvettes (1,100 tons), six Houxin-class missile boats (500 tons), 10 5 Series-class missile boats (500 tons), and 15 Hainan-class gunboats (450 tons), but the military junta has already demonstrated that it will remain aloof from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and generally supports China’s policy toward Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s Laksamana Class

The Royal Cambodian Navy is in shambles, consisting solely of five outdated Turya-class torpedo boats (250 tons), five Stenka-class patrol boats (250 tons), and a lone Shershen-class fast attack boat (175 tons). But Cambodian authorities would be just as disinclined to engage in defence sharing as their Burmese counterparts. During Cambodia’s 2012 ASEAN chairmanship, Cambodian officials consistently interfered in efforts by other ASEAN member states to reach a common position on the South China Sea’s territorial disputes. Given the understanding on security issues shared between Cambodian and Chinese officials, as well as China’s status as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment and aid, it is apparent that Cambodia has relatively no need for the security guarantees ASEAN could provide as a regional counter-balance to China.

Vietnam is the unpredictable factor in the region. The Vietnam People’s Navy has a few corvettes of its own, including a Pauk-class corvette (580 tons), eight Tarantul-class corvettes (540 tons), and 23 patrol ships with displacements ranging from 200 to 375 tons. The Vietnamese government has also ordered two more TT-400TP gunboats (450 tons) from domestic shipbuilders with delivery expected in late 2015 or early 2016. This leaves Vietnam with a force perhaps not as sizable as that of Indonesia or the Philippines but with greater capacity to intervene should China seek to settle territorial disputes with Vietnam by force.

Vietnam Tarantul class

As Malaysia will hold the 2015 Chairmanship of ASEAN, the prospects for a maritime force in support of the bloc’s proposed Political-Security Community will depend to some degree on whether Malaysian officials will be willing to show leadership. If Malaysia looks to acquire new vessels and insists on placing maritime security on the agenda of upcoming ASEAN meetings, some arrangement could be struck by the end of the year. But this will require artful diplomacy, especially in the face of Burmese and Cambodian opposition. With Malaysian officials speaking predominantly about the need for a single market in the region and promoting a conclusion to negotiations regarding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, such a drive for maritime security may not be forthcoming.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at the  
NATO Council of Canada and was republished by permission.

Small Islands May Hold The Key To Strategic Control of The Indian Ocean

February 24, 2015

Small islands dotting the Indian Ocean are emerging at the center stage of great power politics.

By Darshana M. Baruah
The Diplomat

The rise of China, changing power dynamics, territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, and the U.S. rebalance to Asia have all led to the re-emergence of the Indian Ocean as the center stage for power politics in the Indo-Pacific.

Much has been written about China’s assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas and it remains a cause of concern for all key actors in the region. However, looking beyond these islands in Southeast Asia to the ones in the Indian Ocean, one realizes that Beijing has been working incessantly to secure its strategic interests and strengthen its role as a major player in the Indo-Pacific — alarming other regional powers such as India and the U.S.

The conflict in the South China Sea can be describe as a frozen situation with no dispute resolution in sight. While a number of mechanisms exist, none has been successful in solving the territorial claims. Apart from the occasional confrontation and verbal protests, Beijing seems to be in good control over the South China Sea. Having fairly secured its interests in the Western Pacific, China is now looking to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean.

While Beijing has the capabilities to venture out into the Indian Ocean, alarming a host of other nations in the region, it does not have the means to sustain its presence, especially in the event of a conflict. What China now seeks to do is court and improve relations with the small island nations in the India Ocean to facilitate its increasing presence in those waters. Beijing is thus using commercial initiatives to achieve its security and strategic aims in the region. In turn, New Delhi and Washington too are scrambling to strengthen relationships with their friends and allies and re-assert their influence over the small island nations. This essay looks at the geo-strategic competition unfolding between China, the U.S., India, and their friends in the Indian Ocean.

The Malacca Dilemma

China is well aware of its challenges in projecting power in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has always been concerned about the security of its oil and gas imports from the Middle East and Africa transiting through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. What is emerging as a greater concern is the reliance on American forces to secure the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) and chokepoints along the route. With no sustainable presence in the Indian Ocean, Beijing’s energy imports are highly vulnerable in the event of a military standoff with New Delhi or Washington. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao talked of the “Malacca Dilemma” and the need to secure China’s strategic and economic interests in the region. For China, the debate boils down to two key points — either they find a way to reduce their dependency on the Malacca Strait or they maintain a credible presence in the Indian Ocean to equally secure the SLOCs. This is perhaps one of the driving factors behind China’s aggressive pursuit of good relations with the island nations in the Indian Ocean. In an effort to moderate its strategy and avoid attracting attention, Beijing is relying more on economic initiatives to strengthen its ties with small but critical islands in the Indian Ocean.

Kyauckpyu, Myanmar

Kyauckpyu is a small port town in Myanmar and possibly Beijing’s answer to its “Malacca Dilemma.” The Chinese presence in Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal is too close for comfort for policymakers in New Delhi. However, undeterred by Indian concerns, China has continued to invest in Myanmar, resulting in two gas and oil pipelines ferrying Chinese energy imports straight from the Indian Ocean without crossing the Straits of Malacca. The first project to materialize was the gas pipeline connecting Kyauckpyu to Kunming in 2013. The pipeline enables Beijing to completely avoid using the Malacca Strait and tap directly into Myanmar’s offshore gas fields. The second project is an oil pipeline starting from Maday Island in Kyauckpyu and transiting to China’s Yunnan province. The oil pipeline entered its operational stage as recently as January 2015. This oil pipeline runs parallel to the gas pipeline, directly transferring Beijing’s oil imports from West Asia and Africa. The gas and oil pipelines help solve China’s “Malacca Dilemma,” increasing its energy security tremendously.  While the pipelines have great economic benefits for Myanmar as well, the underlying strategic dimension of the project cannot be overstated.

Coco Islands

Geographically a part of the Andaman group of islands, Great Coco Island and Little Coco Island are controlled by Myanmar. Since the early 1990s, there have been frequent reports of China using those islands for military and naval purposes but there is no certain proof of whether the islands are actually under Chinese control. Thus, Chinese presence on the Coco Islands, developing intelligence systems and other naval facilities, is unnerving for nearby India. While it is yet not certain whether the Great Coco island hosts Chinese intelligence systems, there is greater acknowledgement on the building of runways and other connectivity infrastructure on the Cocos.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI), controlled by India, are located southwest of the Cocos, closer to Indonesia and to the busy sea lanes of the Malacca Strait. The islands give India a strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean Region — perhaps why New Delhi established there its first and only tri-command (Army, Navy and Air Force) service in 2001. India’s control over the islands has proved instrumental in collaborating with the navies of the region and carrying out critical exercises such as MILAN and MALABAR. Chinese control of the Coco Islands in Myanmar would mean that Beijing would have the advantage of monitoring the Indian Navy in close proximity.

With growing Chinese investments in Myanmar and developing ties between the two nations, Beijing’s military presence in the Cocos is definitely a possibility over time, if not an overnight development. A military presence in the Coco Islands,if truly established, would give China the edge to monitor India’s naval activities with other powers in the region. It will also affect other regional powers such as Australia and the U.S. and strengthen China’s foothold in the Indian Ocean.

In February 2014, China carried out naval exercises through the Lombok Strait near Indonesia, deploying its largest landing ship, the Changbaishan. The drill was closely watched by countries like India, Australia, and the U.S., as it underlines China’s ability to project power beyond its shores. While as of now China is only projecting into the Indian Ocean, Beijing’s growing ties with the island nations of the Indian Ocean will allow the PLA Navy to maintain a more sustainable presence in the IOR.

China’s amphibious landing ship 长白山 / Changbai Shan  ”Changbai  Mountains” (hull number 989) reportedly landed Chinese troops on James Island during a naval exercise in 2014. She also sailed through the Indonesian straits along with two destroyers, according to several news services.

Conscious of Beijing’s Indian Ocean strategy, the Indian government under Prime Minister Modi is paying a considerable amount of attention to maritime security and to strengthening ties with the IOR islands and littorals. With a new government coming into power in Sri Lanka, India is eagerly looking to step up its security ties with the island nation. Chinese infrastructure and development projects such as the Hambantota port and the frequent docking of Beijing’s submarines at Colombo for “re-fueling and refreshment” is a growing concern for India. Capitalizing on the new opportunity extended by the Maithripala Sirisena government (India was the destination of Sirisena’s maiden overseas visit), Modi is scheduled to travel to Colombo in March to discuss key issues of interest and concern between the two countries. Modi will also travel to the Maldives and Seychelles during the same leg of the trip, strengthening New Delhi’s Indian Ocean act. While India cannot block Beijing’s entry into the Indian Ocean game, New Delhi is in dire need of strengthening its own.

Cocos (Keeling) Islands

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are an Australian Indian Ocean territory and an area of strategic importance given the critical SLOCs that pass through the region. While at present there are no military establishments in the islands, the Cocos could serve as a U.S. military base in the future as a result of competition for strategic space in the Indian Ocean. According to Australian Defense analyst Ross Babbage, the Cocos (keeling) Islands can “extend Australia’s reach into the surrounding region for surveillance, air defense, and maritime and ground strike operations. The islands could, in effect, serve as unsinkable aircraft carriers and resupply ships.” These islands could prove critical to Australia and its allies during a time of emergence in the Indian Ocean.

The Small Islands Holding the Key to the Indian Ocean
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal in February this year, Washington is looking to expand its maritime ties with Australia and India and hence is looking for a feasible Australian port and base to function out of. The report quotes U.S. Chief of Navy Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert as saying “We’re doing a study… to see what might be feasible for naval cooperation in and around Australia, which might include basing ships.” The U.S. military presence in a base outside of Darwin is already set to increase, given Obama’s announcement in 2011 that the U.S. will deploy 2,500 marines at the base on a rotational basis. As a part of the U.S. rebalance strategy and growing defense ties with Canberra, American presence in the Indian Ocean will only increase, especially in the face of a stronger China.

Small islands dotting the Indian Ocean are emerging at the center stage of great power politics unfolding in the Indian Ocean Region. These islands are critical in sustaining credible presence in the vast Indian Ocean outreach, encompassing the key SLOCs forming the backbone of the global economy. Control and authority over the Indian Ocean will help a nation emerge as true maritime power. Access to and control of islands (through military and commercial initiatives) seems to be a key part of China’s strategy to establish itself as a maritime power.

However, unlike in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean cannot be controlled by one particular nation because of the sheer vastness of the area and the presence of multiple regional powers (or, as one may say, middle powers). What the Indo-Pacific region needs is a security architecture that can contain the territorial disputes in the Western Pacific and stop the hostility from spilling over to the other side of the Malacca strait.

The author has written a companion piece on the topic of Indian Ocean security architecture, which can be accessed here.

Darshana M. Baruah is a Junior Fellow at the New Delhi based think tank the Observer Research Foundation.

Russian Sanctions, China, and the Arctic

January 5, 2015

Russia’s souring relations with the West have given China an Arctic opening.

By Andreas Kuersten

Russian Arctic offshore energy efforts are in a period of unwelcome pause, and the flight of Western companies in the face of sanctions imposed by their home countries has left the future of these efforts up in the air. But this state is unlikely to last for long. Western firms have left incredible opportunity in their wake, and China is in the perfect position to benefit.

Over the past 10-15 years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has systematically increased its activity in the high north through various avenues. Russia’s current relations with the West are likely to substantially boost this enterprise, which should concern the international community given the importance that the Arctic will play in the years to come. The region’s massive resource reserves, China’s growing presence, Chinese challenges to regional Arctic governance, and the current standoff between Russia and the West are a potentially potent combination. This situation should be recognized and efforts should be made to mitigate possible negative consequences.

These efforts, however, should not be directed at preventing Chinese Arctic activity. China’s wealth and capital make it an important partner for Arctic nations in developing the high north, and it holds legitimate interests in the region. Rather, China’s entry into the Arctic must be managed responsibly through international channels to mitigate or prevent any harmful effects. Doing so may also create a rare avenue through which the West can seek common ground and understanding with Russia that can be built upon.

China’s Interest in the Arctic

China consumes energy on an unmatched scale, and its hunger is only forecast to grow. This makes the Arctic a natural area of Chinese concern. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic accounts for 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas, and 20 percent of its undiscovered natural gas liquids. These percentages respectively equate to roughly 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.

Beyond raw numbers, the Arctic offers China diversity, security and savings. Despite significant inroads with Russia, China is largely dependent on oil imports from the volatile Middle East that must pass through the chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia. In 2011, approximately 85 percent of China’s oil imports transited this passage. The source and travel path for these resources, and China’s current lack of alternatives, are not ideal. Arctic energy sources and shipping lanes provide attractive diversity and security.

Arctic shipping would also substantially reduce transport costs. The distance from Shanghai to Hamburg along the Northern Sea Route over Russia is approximately 30 percent shorter than the comparable route through the Suez Canal. Such a reduction in shipping time and distance will yield large savings on fuel and increase China’s export potential to Europe. In 2013, 71 vessels sailed the Northern Sea Route, moving 1,355,897 tons. This is a substantial increase over the four vessels that did so in 2010. China hopes to send 15 percent of its international shipping through the Arctic by 2020.

China’s Pivot North

In pursuit of northern opportunities, China has taken substantial steps toward establishing a financial and physical presence in the Arctic and placing itself in the conversation on Arctic affairs. China is spending approximately $60 million annually on polar research (more than the U.S., which actually controls Arctic territory), runs the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, opened the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center in Shanghai in late 2013, and plans to dramatically increase its Arctic research staff.

China’s physical presence in the Arctic has also increased considerably in the past decade. In 2003, it completed the Arctic Yellow River Station, a permanent research facility on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island. China also currently possesses one icebreaker directed toward Arctic operations, with another to be completed by 2016. Despite being a non-Arctic nation, it will soon have the same number of Arctic icebreakers as Arctic littoral states Norway and the U.S.

In the realm of international organizations and politics, China has joined a litany of international Arctic scientific groups. In 2013, it also became a permanent observer to the Arctic Council – the eight-member intergovernmental forum that is the center of international Arctic policy formulation.

Similarly, with respect to bilateral relations, the PRC has actively courted northern states, and made substantial progress with both Iceland and Denmark. Following Iceland’s 2008 economic crash, China provided it with large aid packages. In 2012, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao began his tour of Europe in the small country, and a Chinese-Icelandic free trade agreement was inked in 2013. China is also aggressively seeking energy projects in Greenland and courting Danish leaders.

The targeting of small countries in great need of capital, investment and labor allows China to use its wealth and resources to cultivate economic entanglement and, ultimately, degrees of dependence. As a result, Iceland and Denmark have become very supportive of China having a louder voice in Arctic affairs and policy. Now, something similar is developing between China and Russia.

Russia’s Pivot East

The Arctic has always been a vital interest to Russia. It did not open up northern sea routes or energy resource opportunities to outsiders until after the fall of the Soviet Union, when it was desperate for international investment.

As Arctic forums and frameworks developed, Russia was quick to assert control over its share of the region. Along with the four other Arctic littoral states (the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Norway), Russia signed the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008 asserting regional state predominance in Arctic affairs. Russia also traditionally showed a clear preference for cooperation in Arctic energy development with Western energy firms over those from China and elsewhere.

Even prior to the 2014 sanctions, tensions between Russia and the West altered Russian calculations. Given disagreements over the handling of international situations (the Libyan intervention and the Syrian Civil War, for instance) and Western condemnation of Russian actions (such as its 2008 invasion of Georgia and tainted 2012 elections), Moscow found it prudent to diversify its energy partner and customer base beyond a strong reliance on Europe and the West. Energy-hungry China is a natural partner for that diversification.

While energy trade between Russia and China has been steadily advancing since the mid-2000s, early 2013 saw the first major Arctic cooperative deal between the countries. The China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) contracted with Rosneft to survey three areas of the Arctic in the Pechora and Barents Seas. Later that same year, CNPC announced it would partner with Novatek, Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer, and take a 20 percent stake in the Yamal Project tapping the resource rich Arctic South Tambey gas field.

Although Russia’s turn east has thus far been largely on its terms, this year’s sanctions are changing the dynamic. Compared to smaller countries, Russia has traditionally not been as susceptible to foreign influence. Yet the sanctions are taking a significant toll and severely limiting its potential Arctic partners, leaving Russia with few places to turn. When it comes to its needs and bargaining stature with China on Arctic issues, Russia is progressively finding itself in an even weaker position than that which Iceland and Denmark occupy: in need of capital and funding but severely limited in partner choice.

Western Sanctions as Chinese Arctic Opportunity

While initial Western sanctions avoided Russia’s economically important energy industry, later measures have targeted this area robustly, with express focus on Arctic energy procurement. As a result, Western firms such as Exxon, Eni and Statoil have pulled out of operations in northern Russia, leaving Russian firms in need of financial and technological partners.

Absent Western companies, there are a limited number of places to turn for the financing and technology necessary for Arctic resource ventures. There is, quite frankly, no replacement for the technological expertise of Western firms. Yet Russia has demonstrated its willingness to lease or buy necessary technologies from any source it can, reuse old Soviet technology, or simply prevent Western companies from taking their equipment so it can operate them itself. In terms of financing, Russia has a ready and established partner in China, a country not above using Russia’s isolation to its advantage.

The resource rich Kara Sea is likely the first place where Western sanctions will significantly benefit China. Exxon and Rosneft jointly discovered a massive reserve in the region estimated to contain 11.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 750 million barrels of oil. After completing the much more complex tasks of exploration and drilling but before pumping any gas or oil, Exxon was forced to pull out. Now, Russia is faced with an expensive undertaking that necessitates a partner – and China is in an excellent position to assume Exxon’s stake in the resource operation for several reasons.

For one, Russia has already begun talks with China to sail rigs from the South China Sea to the Arctic Ocean to replace exiting Western installations. Rosneft, which is currently studying Arctic offshore cooperative offers from Asia, has also contracted to sell a 10 percent percent stake in one of Russia’s largest oil fields and “Rosneft’s biggest production asset” to China, evidencing its readiness to partner with China on nationally important projects to ease sanctions-related burdens. In addition, Chinese prospecting areas in the Pechora and Barents Seas in the Russian Arctic directly abut the Kara Sea.

While assuredly not negating the impacts of Western sanctions, partnership with China in the face of these measures offers Russia much of what it needs: convenience, capital, financial backing, and a ready customer. It gives Russia an outlet as Western pressure mounts in response to its aggressive regional actions. As such, Sino-Russo partnership in the Arctic sustains and reinforces a cooperative framework that stands in opposition to Western international initiatives.

Just as with Iceland and Denmark, China will slowly increase its trade and Arctic partnerships with Russia to substantial levels. This will breed a level of economic dependence. Trade between Russia and China was already trending upward before Western sanctions were levied; these measures will serve to speed up this process. Russia’s lack of alternative partners gives China a distinct advantage in any negotiations, and the PRC has displayed this new dynamic by driving hard bargains in energy deals reached with Russia since the Ukrainian crisis began.

Concerns Over a Chinese Arctic

What is concerning about the impact of Western sanctions on China’s entry into the Arctic is not the PRC potentially “locking up” a substantial portion of the Earth’s untapped resources. Rather, the issue is the introduction of a large, assertive, and potentially combative actor into already tense Arctic relations where Arctic states have a host of conflicting claims to the region that will likely only be exacerbated as global warming opens it up.

China declares itself to be a “near Arctic state” and an “Arctic stakeholder,” even though its northernmost territory lies more than 1,000 miles south of the Arctic Circle. As the most populous country in the world, China claims that it should have a say in Arctic policy and disagrees with Arctic issues being decided by Arctic states alone. More broadly, given the region’s resource reserves, shipping lanes, and implications for global warming, China argues that Arctic state interests and claims must be balanced against international interests in the seas and resources of the region.

Very prominent and influential Chinese scholars and officials push this rhetoric. For example, the head of the European department of the China Institute for International Studies recently pronounced: “Countries closer to the Arctic, such as Iceland, Russia, Canada, and a few other European countries may tend to wish the Arctic were private or that they had priority to develop it, but China insists that the Arctic belongs to everyone just like the Moon.” Similarly, the director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration has stated that “Arctic resources…will be allocated according to the needs of the world, not only owned by certain countries.” And in response to Russian Arctic territorial claims, Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo declared that “the Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.”

In the context of the country’s quest for natural resources, Chinese attitudes toward the Arctic are unprecedented. While it has been aggressive in pursuing resources around the globe, China has also maintained a clear respect for sovereign claims in doing so. Its rhetoric concerning the Arctic diverges from this practice.

Moreover, the PRC has become increasingly bellicose over issues it considers to be “core interests.” Nowhere is this more vivid than in the South China Sea, where Chinese maritime claims go well beyond what can be realistically claimed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which it is a party. China’s growing physical presence in the Arctic, the statements of prominent government officials, and the region’s significant potential benefits encourage the sense that China may label its activity in the region as a core interest. The introduction of such a large actor into Arctic international relations with interests beyond mere investment and trade – i.e., claims and ownership – is a recipe for elevated conflict in a region that already possesses its share of tension due to the often incompatible claims of Arctic littoral states.

Finally, the economic dependence being nurtured between China and certain Arctic nations has the potential to hasten the arrival of the situation noted above. This dependence could give China an amplified voice in northern affairs and an ever-deepening Arctic presence. For Iceland and Denmark, Arctic trade with and investment from China are significantly more important to them than the reverse is for the PRC. This gives those countries a strong incentive to support China’s regional ambitions and, accordingly, affords China significant leverage. As Russia becomes increasingly isolated and its economy suffers due to its actions in Ukraine and resulting sanctions, it will find itself in a similar position in Arctic interactions. Russian support for Chinese Arctic ventures and interests will begin to grow in attractiveness out of a desire to gain investment and trade, and not to offend its sole significant partner.

Managing Developments

The task for the international community, and Arctic states in particular, is not to attempt to prevent Chinese entry into the Arctic, but to minimize the potential negative impacts this may have on regional and international relations. China is coming, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it has the finances and capital to significantly spur northern development and it does possess legitimate interests in the Arctic. But China’s entry must be handled responsibly, and there are several avenues through which this can be pursued.

The most important one is utilization of the Arctic Council, which the U.S. will chair for a two-year term starting 2015. Members of this forum should craft and propose measures and agreements that further solidify regional governance of the Arctic. This action will make it clearer what level of voice Arctic states will accept from outside actors and will hopefully serve to decrease existing tensions in the region by emphasizing Arctic unity. In turn, this will help dissuade and avoid an overly assertive or disruptive Chinese entry.

Similarly, there must be increased effort from Arctic littoral states to address and resolve territorial disputes through multilateral and bilateral means. The frozen state of many contradictory claims to Arctic sovereignty represent failures of regional governance, evince a lack of consensus on the region’s international status, and leave open avenues for non-Arctic states to disruptively assert themselves and increase tensions. Resolution or at least more open discussion and outlining of Arctic territorial disagreements will further solidify littoral state predominance in the region and limit the possibility of disruptive interjections from non-Arctic countries.

In addition, states should not strive to discourage northern countries from seeking and accepting Chinese investment and partnership, but should instead encourage diversity in regional contracting. The benefits of spreading development and other contracts among entities from different countries must be reiterated. Diversification lessens state vulnerability to the actions of a single actor, and also lessens the single actor’s ability to influence Arctic affairs through local investments.

In relation to Russia, the Arctic partner diversification recommendation is applicable largely only in terms of Chinese enterprises, given its current isolation – although Russia has also moved in the direction of partnering with India in the Arctic. Moscow is no doubt aware of the risks of becoming too deeply entangled with a single entity. Furthermore, it may seem as though Russia might welcome another non-Western voice in Arctic discussions, but its history of protectiveness over its northern endowments makes this unlikely. When it comes to determining Arctic policy and claims of interests and resources, fewer voices, not more, are better for Russia. Therefore, measures aimed at reinforcing Arctic state authority and outlining limits to the influence of outside actors in the region through the Arctic Council will be very attractive to Russia. This is likely an area ripe for Russo-Western cooperation that can perhaps, in turn, be expanded upon to further alleviate international tensions.

Although it has always been essential for the international community to address and manage China’s entry into the Arctic, recent Western sanctions against Russia have hastened the need for action. Luckily, there are useful international methods for such undertakings that maintain the correct balance between being too reactive and being overly complacent. China’s increasing Arctic presence has potential positives on numerous fronts, and with the application of prudent policy they are highly attainable.

Andreas Kuersten is a legal fellow with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the Department of Commerce. The views expressed here are his own.


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