Concept art for the proposed Kra Isthmus canal. (Image/CFP)
The question of whether or not China and Thailand will team up to build a canal through the Kra Isthmus, the narrowest part of the Malay peninsula in southern Thailand, has stirred up debate worldwide, prompting officials from both countries to come forward to clarify the issue, according to China’s state-run Global Times.
The proposed 102-km canal will cost US$28 billion and will allow Chinese cargo ships to pass into the Indian Ocean without having to navigate through the Strait of Malacca. This would change the geopolitical layout of the region, the paper said, given that 80% of China’s oil comes from the Middle East and Africa and 80% of this has to pass through the strait, where pirates pose a constant threat to China’s oil supply.
A May 19 report in Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily News stated that construction starting on the Nicaragua canal project in Central America last year and research into the possibility of a canal being cut through the Kra Isthmus signals China’s moves to assert itself in the world’s oceans. Almost 90% of global trade in the world uses ships to transport goods. The US Navy at one time had 16 major sea corridors, seven of which were in the Atlantic, two in the Pacific, two in the Indian Ocean and two in the Mediterranean. The 16 corridors connected the five continents and the four major oceans, not just for global trade, but also facilitating access for military action.
The six most important shipping corridors are referred to as the six keys to the world, as they controlled the world’s energy shipments. They are: the Panama Canal; the Strait of Gibraltar; the Suez Canal; the Strait of Hormuz; the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, and the Strait of Malacca. The majority of these shipping lanes are controlled by the US, giving it control over global trading routes. When the Nicaragua canal, a rival to the Panama Canal, and the Kra Isthmus canal, a rival to the Strait of Malacca, open, this will increase China’s influence, according to the Oriental Daily News. This is because the Kra canal will grant Chinese merchant and military ships unfettered access to the Indian Ocean. Singapore will also lose its geopolitical advantage in the United States’ strategic chess game. China also has a lot to offer Thailand, including a railway that would goods from Yunnan and Guangxi to travel by rail directly to the Kra canal, according to the paper.
Tsai Yi, CEO of the Taiwan-based Center of East Asian Integration Studies, said China hopes to link major ports in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean with the project to strengthen its relationship with countries which border the Indian Ocean, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It hopes also to secure for itself safe routes to Europe and Africa under its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative.
Hong Kong media outlets have suggested that the US may put pressure on Thailand to forestall construction of the canal, according to the Global Times. The nationalistic tabloid said the West is suspicious when China takes part in large-scale projects overseas. Beijing’s talks with Brazil and Peru over a proposed transcontinental railway in South America, for example, have been attacked as “playing in the US’s backyard,” the paper said. In December 2014, a private Chinese company began construction on the Nicaragua canal, with an investment of US$50 billion, which was also criticized in Western media who questioned the necessity of the endeavor and said it would damage the local environment. Beijing’s planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will also see Kashgar in Xinjiang linked with the Indian Ocean port of Gwadar in Pakistan, which China has a 40-year contract to operate, including highway and rail links as well as oil pipelines and optical cable links.
Zhuang Guotu, a professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University told Global Times on May 19 that the Strait of Malacca alone is not enough to satisfy the demands of the global economy, especially given the economic rise of East Asia. The addition of the Kra canal would be beneficial for the regional economy, he added. Zhuang said that certain Western media outlets have implied that the Kra canal project is aimed at reducing the influence of the US and Singapore, as they both control the Strait of Malacca, but in his opinion the Kra canal would benefit the whole of Southeast Asia, not just China.
Hong Kong’s Yazhou Zhoukan said that the canal would benefit China, Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia, as well as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia in Southeast Asia.
The current proposal is for a two-way 25 m deep canal measuring 102 km in length and 400 m wide.
Asean and China should “expeditiously” ink an agreement that is aimed at easing the tensions in the South China Sea, urged Singapore Defence minister Ng Eng Hen. Straits Times photo
BY JERMYN CHOW
SINGAPORE – Asean and China should “expeditiously” ink an agreement that is aimed at easing the tensions in the South China Sea, urged Singapore Defence minister Ng Eng Hen.
China and the claimant states should “expeditiously conclude” the Code of conduct, a pact that would forbid the first use of force in potential conflicts and reduce miscalculations at seas, he said.
This will also allow all sides to peacefully settle the disputes in the fiercely-contested waters based on internationally-accepted norms and legal frameworks, said Dr Ng on Tuesday.
He was speaking to navy chiefs and coast guard heads from the region and beyond at the opening of this year’s International Maritime Defence Exhibition & Conference (Imdex) Asia at Changi Exhibition Centre.
China and Taiwan, along with four Asean nations – Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei – have competing claims over parts of the South China Sea.
As a non-claimant state, Singapore takes no sides in these maritime disputes, said Dr Ng, but the Republic is concerned that the risks of incidents and even conflicts have gone up.
Just last month, Chinese coast Guard vessels clashed with Filipino fishing vessels off Scarborough Shoal.
In his speech, Dr Ng said said such territorial disputes are among the maritime challenges that can be “potentially disruptive” to maritime trade routes in this part of the world and affect not only Singapore but global economy. The other two challenges are the rising threat of maritime terrorism, as well as, piracy and sea robberies.
Having successfully curbed piracy in the Strait of Malacca, Dr Ng said the littoral states in the region will “now need to extend our efforts to new hotspots in the South China Sea”.
This year’s Imdex Asia, which is in its 10th edition, has a record 23 navy chiefs and vice Chiefs attending it. The trade show, which is not open to the public, opened on Tuesday to projections that the Asia-Pacific would spend more than US$200 billion over the next two decades on new ships and submarines, making it second only to the United States in naval spending.
By John Francis Carey
Former President, International Defense Consultants, Inc.
China’s global economic strategy is also China’s global military strategy — and its no secret to anyone.
President Xi Jinping and his top government team want to revitalize the “Silk Road” between China and the Middle East and onward to Europe. Along the way, China knows it needs to invest heavily in infrastructure development — including roads, rail, seaports, canals, military and logistic hubs and whatever else is required to feed Chinese industry the products they need, when they need them, at a price they can control or at least greatly influence.
From Northeast Asia near Japan and Korea, China sees a gigantic ocean highway down through the South China Sea, past Singapore and into the Indian Ocean. This Silk Road highway will require military bases, including modern fighter jet airports and sea ports for China’s growing and very sophisticated PLA Navy.
Wherever China sees a potential “choke point” like the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea or the Strait of Malacca, China is manufacturing alternatives to any potential disruption of the resource flow. In Thailand, China plans a canal that will relieve shipping of the dangerous transit through the Strait of Malacca. In the South China Sea, China is building up to eight fortress islands for air strips, naval seaports and troops concentrations.
This strategy has already started a South China Sea arms race, with Vietnam buying Kilo-class submarines and modern fighter jets from Russia, and the Philippines, long a nation with a military of little consequence, angling for more war supplies and equipment.
China’s strategy has also sparked a new phase of military rules for Japan — and even a revision to their decades-long adherence to their “pacifist constitution.”
Just as nations violated treaties governing shipbuilding and military forces in the past, Japan is already equipping itself large helicopter aircraft carriers, called the Izumo-class “helicopter destroyer” — a name carefully chosen to assure political correctness no doubt.
Vietnam and the Philippines have been the victims of rough treatment from Chinese fishermen for years. Now China is preparing to back up those Chinese vessels with with a system of combat air patrol (CAP) fighter jets, integrated surveillance and warning, missile defense and armed Coast Guard ships or PLA Navy Battle Groups.
Just a few days ago, China told Vietnam that the Gulf of Tonkin was closed for fishing. While lawyers may wring their hands and complain that China has no legal right to make suck a closure, Vietnam is in no position to argue with its well-armed largest trading partner.
China claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, and denies accusations its actions in its own territory are provocative.
Many fear that China will also be in a position to “close” air traffic over the South China Sea soon by activating and a long-threatened air defense identification zone or ADIZ, as it has already done over a part of the east China Sea.
China has already stated that they intend to control the skies and sea in a vast area of the South China Sea from islands they themselves have built.
As U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton seemed totally unaware of this plan and the implications for all American allies in Asia. Secretary of State John Kerry and successive Secretaries of Defense have also seemed to stand by idle, or nearly so, while China has expanded its holdings in the South China Sea, all subject to arbitration in legal disputes over territorial sovereignty.
Hillary Clinton with the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, at the Apec summit, November 12 and 13, 2011. Since this photo was taken, experts believe China has been in the process of creating up to eight military bases in the South China Sea on tiny islets China may not “own” due to territorial disputes and claims from other nations. Hillary Clinton has been promoted to Democratic Party front runner for president. Yang Jiechi is now a State Councilor under Premier Li Keqiang and a man in China’s inner circle. Most foreign policy experts say U.S. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have been no match for China.
But no matter to China. To China, ownership is all about who is there, not about some absent landlord’s deed. And to make all this work, China is preparing to bring the “might” that will make their claims “right.”
The so called “salami strategy” or “cabbage strategy” of slowing slicing off one piece of small islet or coral reef at a time so as not to anger the U.S. or any ASEAN nation, has worked marvelously.
China’s Major General Zhang Zhaozhong has been one of the few Chinese to openly discuss the “salami strategy” or “cabbage strategy.”
And now we see China investing heavily in infrastructure projects to all the Silk Road feeder systems bound for China and export routes to send more Chinese goodies to buyers around the globe. China’s huge infrastructure development projects in India and Brazil, are examples of this effort just announced.
During this American presidential election season, each candidate should be grilled on his or her plan for handling all of this. The first question one might pose to American politicians and lawmakers is this: what is the plan to make American economically strong again? Because the U.S. cannot field military assets to do anything in the future world envisioned by China, unless an economic juggernaut backs up the military — and vice versa.
The white star marks the location of the Kra Isthmus. The red star is Singapore, at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca.(Map/China Times)
China and Thailand recently agreed in Guangzhou on a canal project through the Kra Isthmus, the narrowest part of the Malay peninsula in southern Thailand, which means the project, in the pipeline for years, may start construction soon, according to the website of Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily.
The agreement follows on from efforts by China to hammer out the implementation of its New Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives, with the ongoing push to establish a China-Pakistan economic corridor and a Sino-Russia high-speed rail project. When the canal of over 100 kilometers in length opens, ships will be able to pass from the Gulf of Thailand in the Pacific directly into the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean, cutting down the current route by at least 1,200 kilometers, the website stated.
At the research and investment cooperation talks in Guangzhou, China and Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding on the canal project, according to the website. The project, expected to begin construction soon, will likely take ten years to complete and will cost US$28 billion. The canal will mean that oil transport ships and merchant ships travelling from the Middle East to China will no longer have to pass through the Strait of Malacca.
The Strait of Malacca is a an important maritime passage and especially important for China’s oil supply, as 80% of China’s oil comes from the Middle East and Africa and 80% of this has to pass through the strait, where pirates pose a constant threat to China’s oil supply.
Liang Yunxiang, a professor at the School of International Studies of Peking University told the website that the memorandum of understanding suggests that China is going to be the main driver behind the opening of the canal, which has important political and strategic significance. Liang said the project will help strengthen China’s cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Free Trade Area at the same time as ridding itself of its reliance on the Strait of Malacca. It will also cut short the route ships have to take, cutting the time taken by two to five days and consequently reduce costs and boost the development of ports in Hong Kong and the mainland. Liang said, however, that there are also political risks to the project, as it is subject to the political climate of countries in Southeast Asia and US-Thai relations.
Another motive behind the project is China’s fear that the US could blockade the Strait of Malacca, cutting off the country’s oil supply, according to the website.
Macau-based military analyst Huang Dong said that the canal will also improve the PLA Navy’s ability to react to international incidents. The PLA Navy recently evacuated citizens of several countries from Yemen, for example, after the civil war there escalated.
Li Zhenfu, a professor at Dalian Maritime University, stated said that as Chinese companies will participate in the project, China will likely be granted some level of authority over the canal and may even be able to negotiate to refuse passage through the canal to warships from certain countries, increasing China’s influence in Southeast Asia.
The idea for the canal, which will be the largest in Asia on its completion, is said to have first emerged in the 17th century and over 100 years ago it was formally proposed by Chulalongkorn, king of Siam. The costs were too much for Siam to bear, however, and the project was later delayed by the two world wars of the 20th century.
The current proposal is for a two-way 25 m deep canal measuring 102 km in length and 400 m wide. The Panama Canal is only 15 m deep and it measures only 304 m at its widest point.
Hillary Clinton with the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, at the Apec summit, November 12 and 13, 2011. Since this photo was taken, experts believe China has been in the process of creating up to eight military bases in the South China Sea on tiny islets China may not “own” due to territorial disputes and claims from other nations. Hillary Clinton has been promoted to Democratic Party from runner for president. Yang Jiechi is now a State Councilor under Premier Li Keqiang an a man in China’s inner circle. Most foreign policy experts say U.S. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have been no match for China.
Local fisherman found a sinking boat full of migrants and ferried them to shore to the town of Kuala Langsa
From the BBC
More than 700 migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar have been rescued from a sinking boat off Indonesia’s coast.
Reports say another boat was turned back by the Indonesian navy.
The fate of another vessel of stranded migrants off the coast of Thailand is unclear after it was towed out of Thai waters.
Human Rights Watch has warned of deadly “human ping-pong” in the Andaman sea, where thousands more are believed to be adrift, struggling to land.
Rohingya Muslims have been leaving Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma, because they are not recognised as citizens of the country and face persecution. Many of the Bangladeshis at sea are thought to be economic migrants.
They attempt to flee every year during the non-monsoon season, but the smugglers who take them to Thailand have been scared by a recent Thai crackdown and instead they are reported to have been abandoned at sea.
“For more than two months we were in the boat, we were only given little food and we were beaten when we asked for more,” said Mohamad Ali, a Bangladeshi migrant.
He told the BBC that he had paid 12,000 Malaysian ringgit ($3,366; £2,133) to the boat’s captain for his passage.
An Indonesian police chief in Aceh told AFP news agency that he believed the rescued boat had already been pushed out of Malaysian waters by Malaysia’s navy. He said it was sinking and towed to shore by fishermen. Medical officials said eight of the migrants were critically ill.
The official policy of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is to push back migrants trying to arrive, a policy the UN said on Friday it was “appalled” by.
“The focus should be on saving lives, not further endangering them,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
Thai officials said the migrants did not want to go to shore but wanted to continue their journey to Malaysia.
The BBC’s Jonathan Head, who visited the boat on Thursday, says its passengers had contacted their families to say that armed men in uniform had boarded the ship, repaired its broken engine, given them food and sent the boat south. Helicopters were also shown dropping food into waters nearby and migrants swimming out to eat it.
But our correspondent says that after nearly three months at sea, some are likely to need medical attention. Those on board told the BBC that 10 people had died.
It is unclear how many boats full of people are adrift at sea, but rights group say thousands of migrants are probably stranded.
Thailand has announced a regional crisis meeting for 29 May. But Myanmar has reportedly indicated that it will probably not attend.
Who are the Rohingyas?
Rohingyas are a distinct, Muslim ethnic group mainly living in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma
Thought to be descended from Muslim traders who settled there more than 1,000 years ago
Also live in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
In Myanmar, they are regularly persecuted – subjected to forced labour, have no land rights, and are heavily restricted
In Bangladesh many are also desperately poor, with no documents or job prospects
Rohingya migrants swam to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai Army helicopter in the Andaman Sea on Thursday.Credit Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Boat With Hundreds of Migrants From Myanmar Heads Farther Out to Sea
LIPE ISLAND, Thailand — A wooden fishing boat carrying hundreds of desperate migrants from Myanmar moved farther out to sea on Friday after the Thai authorities concluded that the passengers wanted to continue their journey instead of disembarking in Thailand, according to an aid group involved in negotiations over the ship’s fate.
But a Thai reporter who witnessed the boat’s departure said that some of those aboard did not appear to want to leave.
Journalists had found the boat adrift in the Andaman Sea on Thursday, its crew gone and its passengers crying for food and water. The vessel, which passengers said had been turned away from Malaysia, is part of a rickety flotilla from Myanmar and Bangladesh believed to be at sea, carrying thousands of migrants, many of them Rohingya Muslims, fleeing persecution or economic hardship, with no country willing to take them in.
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.
The People’s Liberation Army conducted a night live-fire drill in the border province of Yunnan as fighting continued between government troops and ethnic Chinese rebels in neighbouring Myanmar, according to mainland media.
China Central Television’s military channel reported on Tuesday night that a brigade from the Yunnan-based 14th Army Corps “recently” carried out a large-scale live-fire drill in mountain areas in the west of the province to test the troops’ “combat readiness at night”.
Footage of the drills showed soldiers equipped with flamethrowers conducting various exercises under intense artillery fire.
The report did not disclose other details of the exercise.
The drills came after China claimed earlier this month that a Myanmese warplane dropped a bomb on a sugarcane field in the province, killing five residents and injuring eight.
Myanmar’s presidential office denied that one of its warplanes strayed into Chinese territory during the fighting with the rebels in the border region of Kokang. A senior official from the office told the Associated Press that the bombing could have been the work of a group seeking to create confusion.
Shen Shishun , director of the department of Asia-Pacific security and cooperation at the China Institute of International Studies, said the drill was a message to both the Myanmese government and Chinese residents in the area that China’s forces had stepped up defences.
“Even though the China-Myanmar border is peaceful at the moment, the defence forces are preparing for the worst, that the conflict across the border will get out of control,” Shen said.
He said the drill was also aimed at Chinese residents who accused Beijing of not taking enough action after the bombing.
Government forces in Myanmar are fighting ethnic Chinese rebels in Kokang. China’s Global Times said last week that some of the battles took place as close as 1km from the border – so close that motorists on the Chinese side pulled over to watch the action.
The PLA had boosted its presence in the province, and artillery and military aircraft would launch exercises there, the paper said.
It also said that fighter jets had been scrambled to track, monitor, warn and chase away Myanmese military planes flying close to the border.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi also visited Yunnan last week for talks with local officials about border security, Yunnan Daily said.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”