Sunday, August 1, 2021









On board the crumbling carcass of this World War II-era warship, Filipino marine 1st Lt. Mike Pelotera and his eight men make their way to a mid-level deck to raise the Philippine flag up a leaning pole and then salute it. Across the calm, turquoise waters, two Chinese coast guard ships lurk, looking on.

Its hull riddled with holes and rust, the BRP Sierra Madre has become a fragile symbol of the Philippines' claim to Second Thomas Shoal, an eight-kilometer (five-mile) -long submerged coral outcrop that has been disputed by China and the Philippines for years.

It's a lonely ship, where Pelotera and his team wage a daily battle against isolation.

A dilapidated Philippine Navy ship LT 57 (Sierra Madre) with Philippine troops deployed on board is anchored off Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungi...

A dilapidated Philippine Navy ship LT 57 (Sierra Madre) with Philippine troops deployed on board is anchored off Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, Sunday, March 30, 2014 off South China Sea. On Saturday, China Coast Guard attempted to block the Philippine government vessel AM700 carrying fresh troops and supplies, but the latter successfully managed to docked beside the ship to replace troops who were deployed for five months. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

"There's a point where you tend to feel low," Pelotera said of the challenges of his team's four-month deployment at the reef, where there is no land to stand on and nothing to stare at all day but sea. "But we have to kill the boredom because there is an important mission to fulfill."

The Philippine navy inherited the former U.S. tank-landing ship USS Harnett County in 1976, and ran it deliberately aground at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999.

A Chinese frigate and maritime surveillance ships arrived last year to press China's claim to the shoal, which is believed to be sitting atop undersea oil and gas reserves. The move was an example of China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, something that is alarming the United States, Manila's longtime ally.

Analysts say China's strategy is to slowly take possession of islands and outcrops in the South China Sea, using intimidation where necessary but avoiding any major confrontation. Its military might and economic dominance in the region mean it can push its weight around with little fear.

Second Thomas Shoal and the nearby Spratly Islands lie about 120 miles (190 kilometers) from the western Philippine province of Palawan, and about 700 miles (more than 1,000 kilometers) from southern China. China's foreign ministry says Beijing has "indisputable sovereignty" over the shoal.

The Sierra Madre is now effectively a shipwreck, but the Philippine military has not decommissioned it. This makes the ship an extension of the government and means any attack on the ship is tantamount to an assault against the Philippines. The Chinese ships are around 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the outpost, clearly visible to those on board.

When Associated Press journalists and other members of the media were allowed to board the ship over the weekend, the marines went about their day, washing dishes and giving the visitors a short tour. The slow strain of Kid Rock's late 1990's song "Only God Knows" played from an old stereo set.

"We're marines," Pelotera said in an interview. "We can adapt to life anywhere."

Another marine, Cpl. Sheffrey Luna, said people should look beyond the ship's disrepair.

"They should see the determination of the soldiers in it," he said. "If you're not determined here, where everything you see is water, you won't last long."

In the last 15 years, the Sierra Madre has slowly crumbled, beaten by the sun, sea and storms.

Its main deck, used as a helipad before, is now home to an upturned lifeboat and toppled iron poles. Doors and wooden scraps cover holes and weak deck sections that could collapse and hurl a marine down into the cavernous cargo hold. Its towering mast is heavily rusted and could be toppled by the next big storm.

Three weeks ago, the Chinese succeeded in blocking for the first time a Philippine boat bringing troops and supplies to the Sierra Madre.

Manila deployed a civilian boat last week with a fresh batch of marines and 10 tons of food. In a bid to draw global attention to what Philippine officials have called China's bullying tactics, they invited more than a dozen journalists, TV cameramen and photographers to come along on the 30-hour-plus journey from the Philippine mainland.

Two Chinese coast guard ships tried to block the slow-moving vessel, with one cutting dangerously through the Philippine boat's path twice. The Chinese coast guard warned the boat by radio to turn back, saying it was illegally venturing into Chinese territory. The Chinese ships blew their horns continuously, but the boat maneuvered toward a shallow approach to the shoal dotted with submerged rocky outcrops, preventing the Chinese from continuing.

Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales and an expert on the dispute, said China is trying to wear the Philippines down. "China is mainly motivated to squelch the Philippines and its vocal and legal opposition to Chinese assertiveness, less this inspire other regional states to do the same," Thayer said. "Bit by bit, China hopes to condition regional states into accepting its hegemony."

Philippine navy Lt. Ferdinand Gato, who led the resupply mission, smiled as the boat approached the Sierra Madre, with the outgoing marines, some of them sporting beards, waving and smiling on the deck. He had served as a gunnery officer of the warship during military campaigns against Muslim insurgents and Abu Sayyaf extremists in the mid-1990s.

A regional military commander, Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, awarded Pelotera and his men with bronze cross medals Monday for their work on the Sierra Madre.

"You can now shave and have a haircut," he told the marines.

He said he was heartened when he asked each of them if they were willing to return to the Philippine ship on the shoal. "They told me, 'anytime, sir.'"

Philippine Western Command Chief Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, pins a Bronze Cross medal on Marine 1st Lt. Mike Pelotera, Officer-in-Charge of a contingent which...


Philippine Western Command Chief Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, pins a Bronze Cross medal on Marine 1st Lt. Mike Pelotera, Officer-in-Charge of a contingent which was deployed for five months on board the dilapidated navy ship LT57 BRP Sierra Madre off the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, on the South China Sea Monday March 31, 2014 in Palawan western Philippines. On Saturday, China Coast Guard attempted to block the Philippine government vessel AM700 carrying fresh troops to relieved the nine marines as well as supplies, but the latter successfully managed to dock beside the ship housing the troops. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

First Lt. Mike Pelotera of the Philippine Marines and fellow marines who were deployed five months ago on board the dilapidated navy ship LT57 BRP Sierra Mad...


First Lt. Mike Pelotera of the Philippine Marines and fellow marines who were deployed five months ago on board the dilapidated navy ship LT57 BRP Sierra Madre off the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, on the South China Sea, arrive at a naval base in Palawan for awarding ceremony Monday, March 31, 2014 in southwestern Philippines. On Saturday, China Coast Guard attempted to block the Philippine government vessel AM700 carrying fresh troops to relieved the Nine marines as well as supplies, but the latter successfully managed to dock beside the ship housing the troops. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)



China's Dangerous South China Sea Strategy

China has shifted from salami slicing to ramming in the South China Sea.


Having created a new ‘fact’ by shifting an oil rig into Vietnam’s proclaimed EEZ off the disputed Paracel Islands, China is ramming home the reality it’s making. First, last month, it rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. Now, recent TV footage broadcast by Vietnam shows another incident on 1 June with a Chinese ship ramming a Vietnamese coast guard ship. Reporting the vision, The Wall Street Journal commented:

The latest apparent collision … suggests China won’t moderate its activities in contested areas of the South China Sea, despite a broadside of criticism from senior Australian, Japanese and US officials at the Shangri-La gathering of military leaders and defence ministers.

It’s time to accept that what China is doing is a full and official expression of Chinese policy. We’re long past the point where the Chinese system should be given some sort of leave pass because of suggestions that China isn’t a unified actor—a perspective that argues China’s ‘crisis management’ machinery consists of the PLA creating the crisis and the Chinese Foreign Ministry handling the outcry.

As a description, that view has its attractions, but as an explanation it absolves the China polity of responsibility for its rash, ramming policy. We should take China at its word, in proclaiming itself a big and important power; and such powers are responsible for what their military and their coast guards and their energy agencies do in the name of the state.

If the South China Sea is Asia’s cauldron as well as Asia’s Mediterranean, as Robert D. Kaplan writes, then the heat in the cauldron is up again.

Kaplan’s Cauldron book has been out for a few months, offering an excellent set up for what has happened in the last few weeks as Vietnam is rammed. In surveying the ASEAN players, Kaplan judged, ‘It’s all up to Vietnam’. He has a quote from “a top US official” on ASEAN’s positioning: “Malaysia is lying low, Brunei has solved its problem with China, Indonesia has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject, the Philippines has few cards to play despite that country’s ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements, Singapore is capable but lacks size.”

Good luck, Vietnam. On such matters turn to the master, Professor Carl Thayer, particularly his analysis of Vietnam’s strategy. ASEAN can’t abandon Vietnam to its fate the same way it stepped back from the Philippines last year. Accepting that ramming is official Chinese policy, endorsed from the top, what could ASEAN do?

Southeast Asia needs to shift its response to China away from a futile policy of trying to negotiate an agreement with Beijing. Whether by slicing or ramming, China is out to create more ‘facts’ proclaiming its sovereignty. No Chinese appetite exists for any multilateral deal. Beijing thinks it erred in agreeing to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and it’s not going to compound that mistake by agreeing to a Code of Conduct (COC).

Step forward Carl Thayer with some thoughts on how ASEAN can change the game. In a paper to the recent Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, the professor noted that the COC effort is a waste of ASEAN’s energy because China will make it unachievable:

The COC process has led to divisions within ASEAN and divisions among ASEAN’s claimant states. China’s assertion of ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the South China Sea and its recent unprecedented aggressive assertion of sovereignty utilising military vessels with unsheathed weapons and military aircraft, is now the major impediment to managing the maritime commons in the South China Sea.

The Thayer solution is for ASEAN to turn away from the pointless effort with China and negotiate an agreement within ASEAN—a Code of Conduct for Southeast Asia’s Maritime Commons. The ten countries of Southeast Asia would resolve territorial and maritime disputes with each other, using as a model the recent agreement between Indonesia and the Philippines demarcating maritime boundaries in the Celebes and Mindanao seas.

As Thayer notes, the new code would stand beside ASEAN’s Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality (1971), the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976) and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (1995):

The proposed COC for Southeast Asia’s Maritime Commons would enhance ASEAN’s unity and cohesion, promote regional autonomy and ASEAN’s centrality in the region’s security architecture.

Just launching the process would change the tone of the argument, not least by putting ASEAN back together again. China will almost certainly keep ramming, but it would be running into an ASEAN response based on unity, negotiation and legal agreement. That would be a significant response to Chinese force.

Beijing 'setting precedent' in South China Sea

China has sent four more oil rigs into the South China Sea amid mounting regional tensions. Analyst Ian Storey tells DW Beijing is likely to deploy more rigs in the future as it intends to assert its "historic rights."

The deepwater drilling rig, Offshore Oil 981, is pictured at the shipyard of Shanghai Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding Co., Ltd. in Shanghai, China, 23 May 2011.

China has sent four more oil rigs into the South China Sea in a bid to step up exploration for oil and gas in the in the potentially energy-rich waters. According to media reports, coordinates released by China's Maritime Safety Administration showed the Nanhai number 2 and 5 rigs had been deployed roughly between China's southern Guangdong province and the Pratas Islands, which are occupied by Taiwan. The Nanhai 4 rig was towed to waters close to the Chinese coast. Coordinates for the Nanhai 9, indicated the fourth rig was set to be positioned in the Gulf of Tonkin, an area disputed between China and Vietnam.

Beijing's move comes less than two months after it deployed the giant Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling platform in Vietnam's claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which led to violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam as well as accusations from both sides. Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

In a DW interview, Ian Storey, an analyst at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), tells DW the deployment of the rigs highlights Beijing's determination to assert jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea and that the international community only has very limited options to stop it.

DW: Is China setting a precedent by sending more oil rigs?

Ian Storey: Yes, it is and we can expect to see Beijing deploy more in the future.

What message is China sending to neighboring countries?

, a Chinese ship, left, shoots water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, right, while a Chinese Coast Guard ship, center, sails alongside in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Chinese ships are ramming and spraying water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese officials and video evidence Wednesday, a dangerous escalation of tensions in disputed waters considered a global flashpoint.

Vietnam and China have traded accusations, with each side claiming the other has engaged in aggressive behavior against its ships

China is telling its neighbors that it intends to assert its so-called "historic rights" to maritime resources such as oil, gas and fish within the nine-dash line, a line that the majority of international legal experts regard as being incompatible with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

How does the latest move fit in China's overall territorial strategy in the South China Sea?

"Territory" means land - or in this case the disputed atolls - and what we are really talking about here is an attempt by China to assert jurisdictional rights in the maritime domain.

What options do Southeast Asian nations have to counter China's moves?

The Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea have very limited options. They certainly don't want to get into a shooting match with Beijing as the Chinese military, which has undergone a rapid program of modernization over the past two decades, would quickly prevail. Diplomatically they can demand, as Vietnam has, that China withdraws its rigs - but Beijing will simply ignore this request.


China's RIMPAC debut 'unlikely to ease tensions'

Seeking closer military ties, China will participate for the first time in the world's largest naval exercise. But the move is unlikely to restore trust between Beijing and its neighbors, analyst James Holmes tells DW. (23.06.2014)

China accuses Vietnam of ramming its ships more than 1,400 times in disputed waters

Japan-ASEAN ties 'may stabilize balance of power'

China's maritime disputes: 'Fear, honor and interest'

I think the best option for Hanoi is to mount a legal challenge to the deployment of the oil Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in The Hague. However, even if ITLOS were to rule in Vietnam's favor, I think China would simply ignore it and absorb the costs to its reputation.
What can the international community, and especially the United States, do to deescalate tensions?
The options are limited. The US isn't going to risk a conflict with China over the presence of oil rigs in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, the international community should continue to raise its concerns with China that unilateral and provocative actions such as this risk undermining regional peace and stability.

The international community should also continue to emphasize the importance of freedom of navigation, and that China should bring its claims into line with UNCLOS. At the end of the day though, this crisis will only be resolved when China withdraws the oil rig which it says it will do on August 15.

A new crisis will emerge when the rig is deployed again into disputed waters, most likely into the Philippines' EEZ. That will really test the limits of the US-Philippine alliance.


China’s Information Warfare Campaign and the South China Sea: Bring It On!



China’s Information Warfare Campaign and the South China Sea: Bring It On!

As its dispute with Vietnam continues, China is trying to have it both ways at the United Nations.

The maritime confrontation between China and Vietnam over the placement of oil rig HYSY 981 in disputed waters in the South China Sea that began in early May is now entering its seventh week.

On June 9 China unexpectedly opened a new front when Wang Min, Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, presented Secretary General Ban Ki-moon a formal position paper on the dispute with a request that he circulate it to all 193 UN members.

China’s action in internationalizing its dispute with Vietnam does not represent a change in its long-standing policy that maritime disputes can only be settled bilaterally through direct consultations and negotiation of the parties directly concerned. A day after China submitted its position paper, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that China rejected United Nations arbitration of its dispute with Vietnam.

Why then did China take its dispute with Vietnam to the United Nations?

In 2003 the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and Central Military Commission formally adopted the doctrine of “three warfares” (san zhong zhanfa). The three warfares doctrine is an essential element of information warfare.

According to “China’s Three Warfares,” a 2012 study written by Timothy A. Walton for Delex Consulting, Studies and Analysis, China’s “three warfares” comprises three components: psychological warfare, media warfare, and legal warfare. It is the latter two components that shaped China’s position paper.

Media warfare, according to Walton, is a strategy designed to influence international public opinion to build support for China and to dissuade an adversary from pursuing actions contrary to China’s interests.

China’s position paper was sent to the United Nations in order to outflank Vietnam’s own propaganda effort and to isolate Vietnam. The vast majority of UN members have no direct interest in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Many Southeast Asian states that hold concerns about China’s actions would shirk at being forced to take a public stand on the issue.

Legal warfare, according to Walton, is a strategy to use China’s domestic and international law to claim the legal high ground to assert Chinese interests. China’s position paper is replete with selected references to international law to support China’s stance.

Initially, China defended its placement of the oil rig by arguing that it was within China’s territorial waters. China noted that the HYSY 981 was located 17 nautical miles from Triton islet, the western most feature of the Paracel Islands. Under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), territorial waters only extend 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastal baselines.

China’s June 6 statement amended this error by claiming that the HYSY 981 was within China’s contiguous zone. This new claim, however, lacks legal foundation.

According to UNCLOS the sole purpose of the contiguous zone is to enable a coastal state to  “exercise the control necessary to: (a) prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea; (b) punish infringement of the above laws and regulations committed within its territory or territorial sea.”

China has also attempted to obfuscate its dispute with Vietnam by advancing the argument that the location of HYSY 981 is closer to the Paracel Islands than to the Vietnamese coastline. China’s position paper argues, for example, that HYSY 981 was operating 17 nautical miles from both Triton islet and the baselines drawn around the Paracels and 133 to 156 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coastline.

At the same time, China claims sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, which is located closer to the Philippines than to the nearest Chinese land feature. Under international law, mere proximity is not sufficient to demonstrate sovereignty.

China’s position paper to the UN actually undermines its use of legal warfare to advance its case. For example, China’s position paper states:

The waters between China’s Xisha (Paracel) Islands and the coast of Vietnamese mainland are yet to be delimited. The two sides have not yet conducted delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf in these waters. Both sides are entitled to claim EEZ and continental shelf in accordance with the UNCLOS

If this is the case, China should have followed the provisions of UNCLOS to deal with overlapping claims. Both China and Vietnam should have entered into provisional arrangements over the disputed area until agreement was reached on delimitation. During this period each side was enjoined from altering the status quo and from the threat or use of force. Clearly China’s placement of the oil rig in disputed waters violated international legal principles.

But China’s position paper undermines its legal case by arguing that international law is irrelevant. The position paper states:

However, these waters will never become Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf no matter which principle (on international law) is applied in the delimitation.

China’s Ambassador to Australia, Ma Zhaozu, contributed to Beijing’s information warfare campaign by repeating the same argument in an op-ed article in The Australian on June 13. Ma argued that the disputed area has never been delimited and “no matter which principle [of international law] is applied these waters concerned will never become Vietnam’s part of EEZ and continental shelf.”

China’s formal tabling of a position paper with the UN Secretary General should be taken up by members of the international community that are concerned about escalating tensions between China and Vietnam and their possible impact on regional security.  These states should argue that the matter be taken up by the Security Council.

China should not be permitted to pursue information warfare in order to have it both ways – circulating a position paper to the UN in order to demonstrate the serious nature of its dispute with Vietnam and rejecting UN arbitration. The United States and Australia should press for a UN Security Council debate. Japan and other maritime powers with a stake in stability in the South China Sea should join in.

China should be forced into the uncomfortable position of opposing any Security Council debate and thus scuttling its attempt to use UN for propaganda purposes, or to veto any resolution arising from a debate in the Security Council critical of China’s action in the South China Sea.





Does India Still Fear China's Growing Military Might?

Almost a decade later, China's so-called "string of pearls" strategy has lost much of its shine. Why?

At one point in the movie Beaches, Bette Midler's rather egotistical character C. C. Bloom inquires: "But enough about me, let's talk about you. What do you think of me?" In Beaches, it was all about C. C. Bloom.

It's all about China in Asia these days. But enough about China and its dominance of the headlines. Let's talk about India. What does India think of China?

One thing is clear: Indians do think about China, which has steadily expanded its strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean. And they worry about Asia's would-be Big Brother. Indian strategists see ulterior motives at work even in such nondescript endeavors such as the counterpiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, where by most accounts, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) has been a valuable partner. Angst-ridden words have issued from New Delhi at times. Yet Indian leaders have modulated their rhetoric in recent years. They appear increasingly comfortable with the strategic outlook in South Asia. Anxieties have receded, though they haven't evanesced entirely and probably never will. And the leisurely pace (and fitful progress) of India's naval and military buildup belies any worried talk from officialdom.

That's all good. All in all, New Delhi's more relaxed attitude toward Chinese naval expansion fits the strategic circumstances better than the anxieties of a decade ago. Then, Indians saw a Chinese naval juggernaut barging into their maritime environs, ringing the subcontinent with a network of hostile naval bases, and assuming command of Indian Ocean waters and skies—to the detriment of Indian primacy. Now, they seemingly understand that India commands enduring advantages in nearby seas and skies, never mind that it remains weaker than China by economic and military metrics; that Beijing has challenges aplenty to occupy its military resources in the China seas, and less to spare for South Asian adventures; and thus, that any truly menacing Chinese naval presence remains far off in the distance. Sobriety prevails.

To track the evolution of India's posture, consider the Strange Case of China's String of Pearls. Ten years ago, the defense consultancy Booz Allen compiled a classified study for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Titled Energy Futures in Asia, the study garnered instant fame when it went public in 2005. Why? Because the study's framers hit upon a catchy phrase for Beijing's ambitions in the Indian Ocean. China, they opined, was pursuing a "string-of-pearls" strategy along the southern rimland.

Its goal: to gain access to port facilities in countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan for merchantmen and PLA Navy warships. China courted diplomatic ties with South Asian governments, bankrolled seaport development at sites such as Gwadar in southwestern Pakistan, and proffered economic and infrastructure assistance of various types to sweeten bargains for access—and in turn for energy security. Such overtures appeared ominous to Indian strategists who worried that China would assemble a network of full-blown naval bases to project power into South Asia—much as Western sea powers did during the heyday of imperialism.

Now, from a strictly Mahanian standpoint, this was cause for alarm. Naval sage Alfred Thayer Mahan made naval stations one of three pillars of sea power, something any seafaring state must obtain to carry on foreign commerce and command distant waters. Bases provide forward-deployed vessels and aircraft fuel, ammunition, and spare parts, execute repairs and upkeep, offer venues for crew rest and relaxation, you name it. It's hard to project—and sustain—power across thousands of miles without such outposts. The United States has ruled Asian seas and skies for seventy years, in large part because of bases such as Yokosuka and Sasebo in Japan. Indians fretted that a predatory China might replicate this feat in South Asia.

China has grown far stronger since the Booz Allen report, yet India has mellowed. Why? Because some elemental facts about strategy, hardware, and tactics have sunk in—and prudence with them:

- One, India is the home team in any Sino-Indian contest. India is closer to likely theaters of action, boasts more manpower and bases, and knows the physical and cultural terrain better than remote China does. It can deploy the logic of access denial to curb Chinese inroads in the Indian Ocean—much as China has employed this logic to inhibit America's freedom of action in East Asia.

- Two, New Delhi isn't alone in the nautical competition. Strong seagoing states like Japan, Australia, and of course the United States have a stake in deterring Chinese aggression in India's backyard. Beijing's provocative actions in the East and South China seas supply an adhesive for a balancing coalition, portending what could come to be in South Asia. New Delhi can tap the potential for coalition-building, supplementing its strength with that of likeminded sea powers.





General view of the meeting between Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (5th L) and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (5th R) at the Government's Guesthouse, in Hanoi June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Luong Thai Linh/Pool

General view of the meeting between Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (5th L) and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (5th R) at the Government's Guesthouse, in Hanoi June 18, 2014.

(Reuters) - China's top diplomat scolded Vietnamese officials during talks in Hanoi on Wednesday for "hyping up" a row over a Chinese oil rig drilling in disputed waters in the South China Sea, in tough comments that suggest relations will remain rocky.

State Councilor Yang Jiechi also told his hosts that the rig's activities in waters also claimed by Vietnam were "completely legal", China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing in Beijing.

Yang, who outranks the country's foreign minister, made the remarks in a meeting with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.

Before the visit, experts had said many obstacles remained to resolving one of the worst breakdowns in Sino-Vietnamese relations since the neighbours fought a brief war in 1979.

Among them is Beijing's demand for compensation in the wake of anti-Chinese riots that erupted in Vietnam after the drilling platform was deployed on May 2.


China’s advance spurs Indonesian military shift

Thursday, May 29, 2014 09:07

Indonesian navy commandos guard a beach in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia during an economic summit.

China’s intensifying move to assert claims over the South China Sea has given fresh impetus to a military buildup in Indonesia that will see its forces deployed with greater focus on external risks.

After years of concentrating on separatist threats across an archipelago long enough to stretch from New York to Alaska, Indonesia plans to deploy attack helicopters to its islands at the southern end of the South China Sea and expand its naval power. The front-runner for July’s presidential election, Joko Widodo, aims to boost defense spending to 1.5 percent as a share of the economy, which is Southeast Asia’s largest.

The strategy shift comes as China escalates disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam, fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asean Nations. China’s standoff with Vietnam over an oil rig this month followed its 2012 success in taking control of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.

“The focus in defense spending is moving to dealing with external threats,” said Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. “There is a concern from an Indonesian perspective that the South China Sea should not become a Chinese lake and that freedom of shipping should be maintained.” That is influencing Indonesia’s defense spending and procurement, he said.

The military is about 40 percent of the way to developing a minimum-essential force, or MEF, by 2029, to guard its territory as it adds tanks, submarines, helicopters and jet fighters to its arsenal, Deputy Defense Minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin said in an interview in Jakarta. Under the MEF, the government is seeking to acquire 274 Navy ships, 10 fighter squadrons and 12 new diesel-electric submarines.

“We’re part of maintaining regional stability and peace and to maintain that we must certainly have powers that support that regional strength,” Sjamsoeddin said.

China’s map

Indonesia has sought to stay out of its neighbors’ spats with China over the South China Sea, and is not an official claimant to areas in dispute. But in recent months it has said that China’s interpretation of its nine dash-line map -- the basis for its territorial claims -- is seeping into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in an interview in April that he wanted an explanation of China’s map and asked the United Nations to help obtain clarity.

Commodore Fahru Zaini, assistant deputy to the chief security minister for defense strategic doctrine, said in March that China’s map included an “arbitrary claim” to waters off the Natuna Islands in the Indonesian province of Riau. “This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters,” he said, according to Antara News.

17,000 islands

Indonesia has some 17,000 islands to police, stretched across 5,300 kilometers (3,293 miles) from east to west. The Malacca Strait that Indonesia shares with Malaysia is a key shipping lane that links the economies of countries such as India, China and Japan.

“It’s the largest country in Southeast Asia and they want to play what they think is a corresponding role,” Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said. “You’re not going to get that unless you develop a sizable, modern military, because at this point the military is pretty small potatoes.”

Military spending increased to 81.96 trillion rupiah ($7.1 billion) in 2013 from 72.94 trillion rupiah in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

‘Balanced force’

China’s defense budget will rise 12.2 percent this year to 808.2 billion yuan ($129 billion). President Xi Jinping has made a navy with longer reach a priority to boost China’s claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Despite being a maritime country, Indonesia seeks to build a “balanced force” between the army, the navy and the air force, Sjamsoeddin said in the March interview, as “eventually all battles end on land.” Indonesia, which is also spending on tanks, faced decades of internal discord in East Timor, an independent nation since 2002.

Indonesia isn’t in an arms race and spends less than 1 percent of gross domestic product on defense, compared with 3 percent to 4 percent among other Asean nations, Sjamsoeddin said. If countries in the region have heavy tanks then Indonesia should have heavy tanks, said Sjamsoeddin, 61, adding some military equipment in use is older than he is.

Natuna islands

Indonesia will deploy four Boeing Apache attack helicopters to the Natuna Islands, IHS Jane’s reported on its website in March, citing General Budiman, the army’s chief of staff, as a pre-emptive measure against instability in the South China Sea.

With China more assertive in the southern part of the South China Sea, “the Indonesian armed forces are strengthening their military presence on the Natuna Islands, and that includes preparing facilities on the Natuna Islands to accommodate jet fighters,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

How far Indonesia pushes back against China may depend on the presidential election, with neither candidate detailing foreign policy goals so far. Widodo, who will face off against a former general, Prabowo Subianto, pledged to boost defense spending to 1.5 percent of GDP within five years, according to his policy paper. Spending is now 0.9 percent of GDP, according to Sipri.

“There seems to be a commitment to increasing defense spending, increasing Indonesia’s overall military strength, more in accordance to what they see is a normal, large power in the region,” Bitzinger said. “They’re increasingly interested too in being able to be a modern military, to project power.”


China Undeterred and Unapologetic


China’s audacious land reclamation activities in the South China Sea are only the latest sign that its approach to settling maritime disputes with its neighbors has taken a sharp and dangerous turn. Although China began acting more assertively after perceiving its ascension to great power status in the wake of the global financial crisis, Beijing still felt compelled to justify its muscular movements in Asia as necessary reactions to the provocations of “troublemakers” in the region. Sure, China was standing strong, but arguably in response to the adventurism of others. It was more retaliatory than overtly belligerent.

As Beijing made a habit of tempering and justifying its behavior, leading Western analysts developed terms like “reactive assertiveness” and described Chinese revisionism as “cautious and considered.” The seizureof Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea in April 2012 was explained as a compulsory response to the Philippines’ use of a naval vessel (rather than a coast guard ship) to interdict illegal Chinese fishermen.

Similarly, China’s persistent incursions into Japanese-administered waters around the Senkaku Islands have been, according to Beijing, an obligatory answer to Tokyo’s purchase and “nationalization” of the islands in September 2012.

Over the last eight months, however, China’s efforts to alter Asia’s geography have become unequivocally self-initiated. On the eve of Vice President Biden’s trip to Beijing last November, China announced the establishment of a new air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that extended over areas controlled by Japan and South Korea. This triggered widespread speculation about what had compelled Beijing to make this provocative move. Was it comments by the Japanese defense minister threatening to shoot down Chinese drones that wandered into Japanese airspace? It had to be something, right?

The following month saw the promulgation of new fishing regulations with which China blessed itself with additional legal authorities in the South China Sea, further advancing its claims over hotly contested territories. Nowhere to be found, however, was the kind of defensive pretext that would have accompanied a similar step in years prior.

Fast-forward to May 2014 and China sent a $1 billion oil rig into disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam. Desperate for an explanation, American commentators speculated that perhaps this was a retort to President Obama’s April trip to the region. But again, the Chinese offered no excuses, arguing instead that they were conducting normal economic activities in Chinese waters.

And now comes land reclamation and the enlargement of small outcrops into islands that will likely be used for military activities. Not content to simply change facts on the ground, China is now changing the ground.

In public, Chinese officials continue to deny this shift toward proactive assertiveness. Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong told a capacity crowd at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 1 that, “China has never taken the first step to provoke troubles.” This rhetoric is likely to endure, but unfortunately for China’s propaganda machine, the track record of the last several months speaks for itself.

So what’s changed? At least three elements explain this more assertive turn. First, the newly appointed President Xi Jinping is willing—and he hassaid as much—to be more forceful in achieving China’s territorial aims and to accept higher degrees of regional instability in the process. Second, China’s governing institutions have become more coherent through theconsolidation of maritime agencies and stronger coordination among its national security policymaking bodies. And finally, Chinese capability is growing in terms of both military and maritime capacity, as well as economic instruments like the deep water oil rig now floating off the coast of Vietnam.

It’s actually not that complicated. China is changing the status quo in Asia because it wants to and thinks it can. Xi Jinping is a confident and powerful leader with a high-priority to-do list, and he’s increasingly enabled with greater capabilities and the institutions to deploy them. Mix in an economic slowdown and a healthy dose of nationalism and you have a recipe for revisionism.

The result, however, is that American aspirations for China’s rise have gone terribly off-script. For decades, U.S. policy toward China has comprised a dual-track “hedging” strategy that includes engaging Beijing in an effort to induce China to support the existing international order, accompanied by a balancing component in which the United States and its allies deter Beijing from choosing an aggressive path. But now this strategy is coming apart at both ends: China neither accepts the territorial realities of Asia, nor is it deterred from coercive acts of revisionism.

The real problem is that China’s bullying will endure as long as no one gets in the way. Why wouldn’t it? Beijing is pushing on an open door, incurring few tangible costs for its assertiveness and appearing to believe (perhaps rightly so) that it can ride out whatever regional criticism arises in response. Based on its track record of the last several years, it’s understandable that Beijing remains confident that most countries in the region will, at the end of the day, be unwilling to imperil their economic relationship with China.

Alarm bells ought be ringing more loudly in Washington. Ultimately, it will be up to the United States to staunch China’s mounting revisionism. But this will first require a sober recognition that the old theories of how to shape China’s rise aren’t working. This is a difficult conversation to have in Washington because acknowledging Chinese behavior for what it is—undeterred and unapologetic assertiveness—will necessitate a more serious American response than we have seen to date.

This doesn’t mean forgoing the cooperative elements of the “hedge” and committing to a highly competitive relationship with China. We’re not there yet. And besides, there’s a big difference between determining that China is presently undeterred versus determining that it is patently undeterrable. Before definitively drawing the latter conclusion, the immediate task for U.S. policymakers is to test the elasticity of Chinese decision-making.

This calls for greater attention to cost-imposition strategies that attempt to shape the relative value of continued revisionism for China. Washington will have to explore the full potential range of economic, military, diplomatic and political points of leverage over Beijing (and there are many) to increase the costs of Chinese assertiveness, including areas that directly impinge on the interests of China’s leaders. The United States will also have to develop more tailored options for responding directly to maritime coercion in ways that repel specific acts of revisionism, rather than simply exacting lateral forms of punishment after the fact.

China’s slow but steady revisions to the territorial status quo in Asia are not a legacy the Obama administration wants to leave behind. Being more proactive in stemming this behavior represents the principal challenge for Washington’s China policy today.



How Indonesia and the Philippines Solved Their Maritime Dispute

Image Credit: Flickr/ anthonylibrarian

How Indonesia and the Philippines Solved Their Maritime Dispute

The recent Indonesian-Philippine maritime pact offers important lessons for the South China Sea disputes.

The recent conclusion of negotiations over maritime boundaries between Indonesia and the Philippines was a significant development for the two ASEAN member states. Their negotiation commenced in June 1994 and was dormant until 2003.

The positive turn came amidst rising tensions in the South China Sea sparked by worsening disputes over competing maritime claims. The successful conclusion of the talks between Jakarta and Manila holds important lessons for all claimant states over disputed waters in the South China Sea.

How it began

In December 2003, I was assigned to jumpstart the maritime boundaries negotiation with the Philippines that was left dormant by both countries for almost a decade. I worked with my counterpart until 2010 when I left for Brussels, with my successor continuing the negotiation until it was completed and signed just last month on May 23, 2014 in Manila.

Negotiations on maritime boundaries require patience and resolve. It is a long haul. Negotiation with the Philippines is particularly significant because Indonesia and the Philippines are two of the largest archipelagic countries in the world, initiators of the archipelagic legal principle, and member states of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Yet the Philippines was left with the historical issue of the rectangular line of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, which ended the Spanish-American War but left behind unclear territorial boundaries with Manila’s neighbors.

Indonesia disputed the rectangular line of this Treaty on the ground that it did not conform with UNCLOS 1982, which Indonesia and the Philippines are parties to.

It was a complicated issue for both countries because Indonesia rejected the claim. While my Philippine counterpart understood the reasons for our objection, they were under intense domestic pressure to somehow keep the Treaty of Paris on the table. The Philippines eventually aligned its position with UNCLOS 1982 and thus cleared the way for the conclusion of the maritime boundaries negotiation. The alignment of the Philippines position with UNCLOS 1982 can be seen as commendable state practice in international law.

Negotiation over Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI)

When maritime boundaries negotiations were going on between Indonesia and the Philippines as well as Indonesia and Malaysia, I was also involved in 2007 in the negotiation over the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) – a multilateral partnership of six countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands.

Of these countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste had no maritime boundaries in 2007.

Yet they managed to work together, even establishing a Secretariat, to address the urgent threats facing the coastal and marine resources of one of the most biologically diverse and ecologically rich regions on earth.

On another front, in the busiest waters on earth – the Strait of Malacca and Singapore – the three littoral states of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have been able to work together in the areas with little maritime boundaries, all for the larger good.

Two lessons for South China Sea claimants

There are two important lessons arising from the negotiations between Indonesia and the Philippines over their bilateral maritime boundaries.

Firstly, whether you like it or not, the current prevailing law to settle maritime boundaries is UNCLOS. This is true regardless of your historical record, even if it is 115 years old. If a rectangular line map from a century-old Treaty had to be aligned with UNCLOS, aligning a dash-line map that was created only in the mid-1940s with UNCLOS should be relatively problem-free.

While there is a difference in shape between the rectangular line of the Treaty of Paris that the Philippines previously used with Indonesia, and the nine dash-line map that China currently bases its maritime claims in the South China Sea on, they share one similarity: both are unilateral expressions of claims that are not based on international law. The first Indonesia-Philippines maritime boundary signifies the emergence of a state practice whereby in a maritime boundary dispute a unilateral proclamation of maps will eventually be aligned with prevailing international law.

Secondly, the claimants need not look far to see how countries in the region can work together for the larger interest over a large swath of waters devoid of maritime boundaries.

The larger interest in CTI is the protection of the environment; in the Straits of Malacca, it is maritime security.

They are public goods promoted and protected by countries regardless of the lack of maritime boundaries.

These are concrete and excellent state practices in Southeast Asia. These are also clear examples demonstrating that we in Southeast Asia do have a culture of international law.

Therefore, the recent escalations in the overlapping claims in the South China Sea are not the regional norm.

They are an anomaly to the existing state practice in Southeast Asia and must be corrected.

It is my conviction that all claimant states in the South China Sea, especially China, which is also a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, carry the moral, political, and legal responsibility of creating peace and stability in the world and are able to work together peacefully.

Asia could very well be a world leader in conflict prevention and management of disputes regardless of the existence of boundaries. This can be done by putting the larger common interest and public goods, namely regional stability and security, over and above narrow national views. Are we up to the test?


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