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Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Tensions in the East and South China Seas

A map of disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.
Source: National Geographic

As anyone following the news--or this blog--is aware, and as outlines at the New York Times, China has been increasingly assertive (read the whole article). One area of special concern are its assertions of sovereignty of the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands, areas that are claimed by other nations and/or generally held to be international waters.

One of the most recent provocations is that China is requiring fishing vessels to obtain Chinese approval to operate within disputed waters in the South China Sea. (See also this article at The Economist). The latter article cites Vietnamese authorities as stating that incursions by Chinese fishing vessels into Vietnamese waters almost doubled in 2013 from the number in 2012. And of course, there was the game of chicken played between a Chinese naval vessel and an American missile cruiser in December.

The American Interest sums up the current status:
This past weekend a mysterious report emerged claiming that China plans to invade a South China Sea island controlled by the Philippines. The report, translated from “Chinese media” and appearing at a site called China Daily Mail, appears to threaten the Philippine forces occupying Pag-asa Island. Pag-asa is known as Zhongye Island in China, and Beijing claims that the Philippines has illegally occupied it for years. At about a tenth of a square mile, the island (pop: 300 civilians) is one of the larger ones in the Spratly Island group and is the only one with an airstrip long enough to accommodate larger planes.

The China Daily Mail report angrily denounces the Philippines for increasing its military presence on the island, claiming that the Philippine troops are supported by American forces. This is “an intolerable insult to China,” says the report.

Philippine officials refused to comment on the “unofficial” report. At the moment it’s far from clear that there’s any truth to it. But it follows a pattern of Chinese public intimidation of neighboring countries over territorial disputes.
The Economist article cited earlier notes that China's fishing rules stand on shaky grounds vis-a-vis international law:
The rules also raise questions about China’s adherence to its international obligations. In 2002 it agreed with the Association of South-East Asian Nations on a “declaration” about a code of conduct to avoid conflict in the South China Sea. It has since stalled over negotiating an actual code. But even under the declaration, countries are supposed “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes”. The rules, like one Hainan announced in 2012 giving its public-security officials the right to board foreign ships that are in its waters illegally—and to expel or detain those on them—seem a clear breach, at least of the spirit of the declaration.

They also clearly flout the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The nine-dashed line and Hainan’s 2m-square-kilometre claim cannot be explained under UNCLOS, which gives countries territorial waters and exclusive economic zones based on their coastlines and the islands they own. Much of the area covered by the new rules are in what the rest of the world regards as international waters—in a sea that threatens to become increasingly turbulent.

Neighboring nations are not willing to just accede to China's assertion of sovereignty.  The Philippines' government has indicated that its fishing vessels will not comply with the rules, and promised that Philippine Navy vessels will provide escorts if necessary. Vietnam has recently been stoking anti-China sentiment, claiming that China took the Paracel Islands from Vietnam by force. From the latter article:
In state-run media, in public demonstrations, and in the daily activities of fishermen, Hanoi is encouraging Vietnamese citizens to confront China in a more aggressive and more prominent way than anything in recent memory.

The story begins in 1974, when the America-backed South Vietnam government fought a battle against Chinese forces near the disputed Paracel Islands. The Vietnamese were defeated: Three of four ships retreated, the fourth sank with the captain aboard, and China gained control of the islands. Over the years, China has built up some of the larger islands. One, Yongxing Island, is inhabited by perhaps 1,000 people and is the seat of a newly established prefecture within the province of Hainan.
What is interesting about Vietnam's position is that, until recently, the battle was hardly recognized, and not part of its school curriculum.
Vietnam is still too weak to hope to challenge China on the high seas, but it is building a formidable navy as quickly as possible (new Russia-made submarines starting arrive this month). 
Moving north, it was reported earlier this week that Japan was conducting military drills based on a scenario of having to retake the islands from a hostile nation.

So on what basis does China make its claims over these waters and islands? StratFor gives a brief history of China's maritime history and roots of its claims. The important part, though, is this:

To understand China's present-day maritime logic and its territorial disputes with its neighbors, it is necessary to first understand the so-called nine-dash line, a loose boundary line demarcating China's maritime claims in the South China Sea. 
The nine-dash line was based on an earlier territorial claim known as the eleven-dash line, drawn up in 1947 by the then-ruling Kuomintang government without much strategic consideration since the regime was busy dealing with the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of China and the ongoing civil war with the Communists. After the end of the Japanese occupation, the Kuomintang government sent naval officers and survey teams through the South China Sea to map the various islands and islets. The Internal Affairs Ministry published a map with an eleven-dash line enclosing most of the South China Sea far from China's shores. This map, despite its lack of specific coordinates, became the foundation of China's modern claims, and following the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China, the map was adopted by the new government in Beijing. In 1953, perhaps as a way to mitigate conflict with neighboring Vietnam, the current nine-dash line emerged when Beijing eliminated two of the dashes.

Source: StratFor

The new Chinese map was met with little resistance or complaint by neighboring countries, many of which were then focused on their own national independence movements. Beijing interpreted this silence as acquiescence by the neighbors and the international community, and then stayed largely quiet on the issue to avoid drawing challenges. Beijing has shied away from officially claiming the line itself as an inviolable border, and it is not internationally recognized, though China regards the nine-dash line as the historical basis for its maritime claims.
 
Like other claimant countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, China's long-term goal is to use its growing naval capabilities to control the islands and islets within the South China Sea and thus the natural resources and the strategic position they afford. When China was militarily weak, it supported the concept of putting aside sovereignty concerns and carrying out joint development, aiming to reduce the potential conflicts from overlapping claims while buying time for its own naval development. Meanwhile, to avoid dealing with a unified bloc of counterclaimants, Beijing adopted a one-to-one negotiation approach with individual countries on their own territorial claims, without the need to jeopardize its entire nine-dash line claim. This allowed Beijing to remain the dominant partner in bilateral negotiations, something it feared it would lose in a more multilateral forum. 
Despite the lack of legal recognition for the nine-dash line and the constant friction it engenders, Beijing has little ability now to move away from the claim. With the rising international attention and regional competition over the South China Sea, the Chinese public -- which identifies the waters within the nine-dash line as territorial waters -- is pressuring Beijing to take more assertive actions. This has left China in an impossible position: When Beijing attempts to portray joint developments as evidence that other countries recognize China's territorial claims, the partner countries balk; when it tries to downplay the claims in order to manage international relations, the Chinese population protests (and in the case of Chinese fishermen, often act on their own in disputed territory, forcing the government to support them rhetorically and at times physically). Any effort to appeal to Beijing's domestic constituency would risk aggravating foreign partners, or vice versa.
As noted above, one of the primary reasons for these pushes is access to resources--particularly oil and gas reserves. And not just in the South China Sea, but also the Senkaku Islands. National Geographic reports:
It's all a bit bewildering—until you consider the rich natural gas deposits of the East China Sea. "Energy is clearly what's driving a lot of Chinese behavior," says Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. "They will give you a long, historical explanation of their sovereignty claim. But the idea that there are vast resources under the East China Sea just off their coast is a tremendous motivation for the intensity of their territorial dispute."
According to the article just cited:
One Chinese estimate puts the oil stores in the South China waters at 213 billion barrels, an amount that would exceed the proved reserves of every country except Venezuela (296.5 billion barrels at the end of 2011) and Saudi Arabia (265.4 billion barrels). That's about ten times higher than a U.S. Geological Survey estimate from the mid-1990s—but even that lower figure puts the South China Sea's oil potential at four or five times that of the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly, China estimates that one of the world's largest natural gas deposits, containing some 250 trillion cubic feet, lies all but untapped in the East China Sea. U.S. energy analysts reckon the "proven and probable" reserves there at only 1 to 2 trillion cubic feet—much less than the Gulf of Mexico, but still considerable.
 Previously these gas and oil deposits were not accessible. But recent advances in deep sea drilling now make it viable to tap these oil and gas fields.

There is a strong possibility of events progressing to a military clash. The Council on Foreign Relations noted in April 2012:

The risk of conflict in the South China Sea is significant. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims, particularly over rights to exploit the region's possibly extensive reserves of oil and gas. Freedom of navigation in the region is also a contentious issue, especially between the United States and China over the right of U.S. military vessels to operate in China's two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These tensions are shaping—and being shaped by—rising apprehensions about the growth of China's military power and its regional intentions. China has embarked on a substantial modernization of its maritime paramilitary forces as well as naval capabilities to enforce its sovereignty and jurisdiction claims by force if necessary. At the same time, it is developing capabilities that would put U.S. forces in the region at risk in a conflict, thus potentially denying access to the U.S. Navy in the western Pacific.
 The proceeding CFR paper set out three possible scenarios that could implicate the United States:
The most likely and dangerous contingency is a clash stemming from U.S. military operations within China's EEZ that provokes an armed Chinese response. The United States holds that nothing in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or state practice negates the right of military forces of all nations to conduct military activities in EEZs without coastal state notice or consent. China insists that reconnaissance activities undertaken without prior notification and without permission of the coastal state violate Chinese domestic law and international law. China routinely intercepts U.S. reconnaissance flights conducted in its EEZ and periodically does so in aggressive ways that increase the risk of an accident similar to the April 2001 collision of a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet near Hainan Island. A comparable maritime incident could be triggered by Chinese vessels harassing a U.S. Navy surveillance ship operating in its EEZ, such as occurred in the 2009 incidents involving the USNS Impeccable and the USNS Victorious. The large growth of Chinese submarines has also increased the danger of an incident, such as when a Chinese submarine collided with a U.S. destroyer's towed sonar array in June 2009. ... [Ed: Note that this was written before the December 2013 near collision discussed above].

A second contingency involves conflict between China and the Philippines over natural gas deposits, especially in the disputed area of Reed Bank, located eighty nautical miles from Palawan.  ...

The United States could be drawn into a China-Philippines conflict because of its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. The treaty states, "Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes." American officials insist that Washington does not take sides in the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and refuse to comment on how the United States might respond to Chinese aggression in contested waters. Nevertheless, an apparent gap exists between American views of U.S. obligations and Manila's expectations. In mid-June 2011, a Filipino presidential spokesperson stated that in the event of armed conflict with China, Manila expected the United States would come to its aid. Statements by senior U.S. officials may have inadvertently led Manila to conclude that the United States would provide military assistance if China attacked Filipino forces in the disputed Spratly Islands.

... Disputes between China and Vietnam over seismic surveys or drilling for oil and gas could also trigger an armed clash for a third contingency. China has harassed PetroVietnam oil survey ships in the past that were searching for oil and gas deposits in Vietnam's EEZ. In 2011, Hanoi accused China of deliberately severing the cables of an oil and gas survey vessel in two separate instances. Although the Vietnamese did not respond with force, they did not back down and Hanoi pledged to continue its efforts to exploit new fields despite warnings from Beijing. Budding U.S.-Vietnam relations could embolden Hanoi to be more confrontational with China on the South China Sea issue.
 Although not discussed above, a fourth contingency is a military conflict between China and Japan, that could draw in the U.S. because of treaty obligations and ties to Japan.

The situation in the East and South China Seas are complex and fraught with danger. Certainly there are other areas of the world offering as great of risk of war, but none where the United States could so easily be drawn into a conflict with a military offering comparable capabilities to our own.

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