Maritime muscle in the South China Sea

What next after the Spratly islands sail-by?

Sarah Kirchberger

International relations, Law, National security | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

6 November 2015

The latest US demonstration of non-compliance with China’s demands in the South China Sea could be seen as a message of support to the outgunned Southeast Asian nations contesting China’s position, writes Sarah Kirchberger.

On 27 October the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen entered into waters close to an artificial island built on the Chinese-occupied Subi Reef in the South China Sea. According to US officials it was carrying out a freedom-of-navigation operation in accord with international law.

The ship seems to have deliberately entered the ’12 nautical mile zone’ around the reef claimed by China, and available analyses suggest that Subi Reef was carefully chosen to demonstrate that the US will not respect any maritime claims made around artificially fortified reefs. The operation was sharply criticised and termed illegal by China’s Foreign Ministry on the same day.

Looking beyond the specifics, what could be behind such maritime muscle play? And is there a risk of escalation?

First, it’s worth noting that this is only one among a series of ‘close encounters’ between the US and China during the past years. Many of those were triggered by routine US surveillance activities, and some were connected with Chinese attempts to declare various kinds of ‘zones’.

In April 2001, a US surveillance aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet whose pilot perished. This caused a major diplomatic rift, even though the Chinese pilot was later found responsible.

In March 2009, the ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable was harassed repeatedly by Chinese paramilitary and civilian vessels while operating in international waters off Hainan.

One further incident seems somewhat comparable: in November 2013, when China had just declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) including the airspace over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the US promptly let two B-52s cross this airspace unannounced. The fly-by demonstrated that China was unable or unwilling to enforce its ADIZ.

The second issue to consider is timing. The basis for the present disagreement originates from China’s ‘U-shaped’ or ‘Nine-dotted line’ claim which holds that essentially all the land features in the South China Sea are Chinese sovereign territory. Several notes verbales submitted to the UN in 2009 have additionally made maritime claims of territorial waters emanating from those rocks, shoals and reefs.

The Chinese position was officially challenged in July this year when the Philippines opened a case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. The court’s impending ruling will for the first time clarify whether China’s position is compatible with international law.

Meanwhile, a US State Department study in 2014 suggested that UNCLOS grants the right to make maritime claims only around uncontested sovereign territory – which the Spratlys clearly are not – and only to islands able to sustain human life, a condition most rocks and reefs in the Spratly archipelago do not meet. Not itself a signatory to UNCLOS, the US has consistently maintained that it will not accept restrictions imposed by other countries’ maritime claims on its freedom of navigation.

With the Chinese claim currently under legal investigation, and given the possibility it might be found untenable partly or wholly, this is a particularly sensitive time for the US to challenge China’s expanding maritime presence.

Then there’s the situation in China itself where the government is under considerable domestic pressure to enforce its hold on the Spratlys. As Bill Hayton notes in his recent book The South China Sea, the U-shaped line claim has pretty much been promoted to the status of a secular religion (p. 267). Backpedalling could prove near impossible given powerful nationalist sentiment built up through decades of propaganda.

Beijing is unlikely to accept any ruling not in its favour, even though China is a signatory to UNCLOS. An official rebuttal of China’s claim by an internationally recognised court of law would certainly strengthen the moral position of other claimants and make the Chinese position much more difficult to maintain. It is therefore likely that the ongoing case causes considerable uneasiness in Beijing.

Finally, the current incident must be seen in light of China’s recent maritime behavior.

The Lassen incident came after a period of intensified Chinese fortification activities in the South China Sea. Satellite images published in 2014 and 2015 have shown runways, airstrips and hangars being built on artificially fortified islands in increasing numbers. In the perception of many Western and regional observers, China has been quietly encroaching upon the South China Sea, factually enlarging its presence to the detriment of other claimants who don’t have comparable resources to command.

In addition to the newly erected structures, observers have noted China’s streamlining of civilian and paramilitary forces under the newly established Coast Guard with some alarm. Andrew Erickson in particular has drawn attention to China’s Maritime Militia, a little understood force consisting of civilian and paramilitary vessels.

Regional observers have pointed out how in the various island conflict scenarios it is facing, China seems to calibrate its maritime behavior very carefully depending on the opponent’s capability level and alliance status. In the South China Sea, China seems to consciously exploit the fact that it has no equally capable opponent or alliance structure to contend with.

Resisting all efforts to negotiate a multilateral agreement and insisting on bilateral negotiations, China automatically puts smaller countries at a disadvantage. It certainly didn’t dispel any ‘China Threat’ perceptions in Southeast Asia when China’s then Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi remarked at the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum in 2010 that “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”

Simply going by the number of human casualties caused by each claimant country in all the conflicts in the South China Sea so far, China undoubtedly takes the lead in terms of aggressiveness displayed.

Taking all these factors into account, the latest US demonstration of non-compliance with China’s demands in the South China Sea could be seen as a message of support to the outgunned Southeast Asian nations contesting China’s position.

The risk that this and similar actions could lead to an actual naval confrontation between the US and China seems low given the effective lack of punitive measures employable by China without risk of self-destruction. Further low-key incidents, especially involving China’s Maritime Militia, are however likely to occur much more often in the future.

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26 Responses

  1. Samotus says:

    It looks for me that Australia is still not aware of being in danger. This country rich in natural resources inevitable for Chinese developing industry can be next after successful possesion of the islands. It is time to form Chain of Democracies along eastern banks of Pacific from Japan up to Australia as a common assistance security agreement.

    • dagger44 says:

      no worries, little what the philippines can deploy to resist, people may wonder how a corrupt country can manage such a big opponent. we shall see, philippines may not appear impressive, been a mini super power in the area on the 50’s & 60’s . . in another 1O years to date, the outward projection by this nation, that of japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam and some Indian & US moves will make china likely changed to an amenable leadership than suffer a total embarrassment and utter defeat

    • ernesto denis says:

      damn. australia just sat there growling like a tiger but hiding in his den.

    • MarkA says:

      Samotus: I totally agree with you. It is not just Australia. It is the entire SEA. However, this is not likely the case to happen. China have successfully made their foundations deeply rooted and rock-solid within the Asian nations, even in EU and ME as far as Economy is concerned. It’s the 1 major factor considered by the countries involved in this maritime row.

  2. anthony says:

    The big question is when shall concrete actions occur? Time is of essence the longer this drags on China will definitely continue with their encroaching activities. At the end of the day it may be too late!

  3. Jack Adan II says:

    China is one of the oldest civilization on earth, yet she is uncvilized. She should learn her lesson from history.

  4. ernesto denis says:

    if australia and most of all America showed their might in west philippine sea before Chinese constructions, it would have been easier to enforce international water laws. How can you remove those structures in that area now without a firefight? Now China have the right to claim. All asian countries will be affected if the West philippine sea will be controlled by China and it is very clear that that is an international water. The UN should have reacted immediately. stupid world.

    • Narendra Kumar says:

      yes, this is true , with out firefight its not possible to remove the encroached and built islands. China always says its doing everything for peaceful coexistence. But the reality is fully opposite. In fact china aggressiveness has become so high that almost all asian countries and now under risk. May be India is the only Asian country that can truly standup and where china cannot wag its tail. Where as the rest of Asian countries are fully vulnerable to the chinese aggressiveness.

      • Melchor Chan says:

        Yes, it is not for peaceful activities but military in nature – many Filipino fishermen have been prevented from fishing in the contested area that use tio be their fishing ground.

  5. Buddy Maravilla says:

    Greediness of humans in the planet earth will destroy itself. Considering China is already the largest country in Asia, what in the world she still in want of more territories to occupy? SADLY, at the expense of its small neighboring Asian Nations, who needed it most… It’s like an epic story ” The Giant taking the food of the Dwarfs” SHAME!!!

    • nnnyyylove says:

      I don’t agree with you. This is nonsense that if one country is large in territory, it should not protect it. it’s like you have a big family, what’s the deal if you lost one or two brothers? It’s also like if you are richer than us,then we should rob you, and you call this civilization?

  6. philip.t.m says:

    To neutralise the tensions in the area, it is a good to keep vigil in the area by a superpower..without escalating tension on both side.

  7. alvin palabrica says:

    It just a simple fact .I dont care if china claim whole china sea.. but must be outside the EZZ of every Asean nation to promote peace in the region and china must respect international rules…dont
    use youre size to bully other nation.. b responsible as a giant..

  8. Dr. Stephen Newdell says:

    I have no doubt that China’s long range desire is to conquer Manila and possess her hidden assets, and the country’s minerals, timber, farms and hard working people. Long range view indicates a dangerous conflict. The Chinese government created this mess and they had better create a “peace with honor” concept and avoid a hot war. Japan will not let this go without a fight and I fear for the safety of the good Filipino people.

  9. Joel Ayroso says:

    The problem is we keep on nagging China for occupying the dispute islands in West Philippine Sea. But we don’t have strong principle not to patronage all Chinese products in order to show we’ve been protesting for there illegal and no basis on occupying our Philippine territories in Spratly’s. We have to show to them our grievances base on there unconditionally occupying without basis at all the dispute islands.

  10. T. Ali says:

    China’s actions are outrageous and very, very worrying. ASEAN needs to protest even if it is just by changing the name of the South China Sea to the ASEAN Sea and ASEAN should cancel their no tariff agreement for Chinese exports. To sit still and do nothing is deeply worrying. Also the amount of money that China is lending to coutries like Indonesia for development programs is worrying. Why are we behaving so studiply? The day we can start to trust China is the day it becomes a democracy.

  11. PutAr singh says:

    China also claims Indian states as part of china. And always crosses Line of actual control. And now we Indians will never sit quietly We are also doing naval exercise their in South China Sea with other countries Vietnam and Japan.
    We should unite and stop china from expansionist ideas

  12. Narendra Kumar says:

    The Best way to counter china is to attach china economically and not militarily. Only if china is protested and opposed economically by all ASIAN nations it will fall will line and give up its military aggressiveness.
    Trying to fight militarily will only result in human loss and ecological loss.which is simply unwanted.

  13. ferdinand paloma says:

    war is the solution of that problem

  14. jay fuster says:

    “si vis pacem para bellum”…if you want peace, prepare for war.

  15. Agapito says:

    look at tibet and other neighbouring countries where china has border problems..this is chinese politicians character to get and snatch more if given a chance

  16. Bill P says:

    China’s posturing is no different from US posturing over Central America. You think the US could tolerate a left wing or communist government in Central America? It is just as unfortunate that the US decided to hand over the Diaoyu Islands to Japan after they finished using it for practice bombing runs. Nothing in history suggests it belonged to Japan. It was just an administrative decision by the US at a time when China was too weak to challenge it.

  17. mike says:

    Well the Chinese step up their claims thru putting up of structures, other facilities and yet the western allies did nothing but use the voice thru international arbitration. What they should have done is to show their force too and made themselves visible and let the international decide.

  18. johnwin says:

    We are in a brink of a war because of Chinese greed.War is imminent but with this kind of provocation showed by the Chinese government trying to oppress smaller country,I think it will happen too soon than expected.China can’t defeat USA in any battle and all aspect of aspiring supremacy..it is just but a dream of the Chinese and it will not become a reality surely.Greed will end up to have nothing at all in the end.

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