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Posts tagged ‘South China Sea’

Sailing by: Trouble in The South China Sea

Most eyes may still be on Syria as the epicentre of global tension, but the temperature just rose in South China Sea too where several countries, including China, lay claim to the same waters.

The much-previewed US challenge to China’s claims has finally taken place with an American navy warship sailing within 12 nautical miles of one of the artificial islands Beijing has built in the disputed waters of the Spratly, or Nansha, archipelago.

Chinese naval vessels shadowed the US ship and warned it off, but no clash took place – this time.  China’s navy commander has warned his counterpart of the danger of an accidental war if the Americans do it again.

The American move comes just a few weeks after President Obama gave President Xi the red carpet treatment in Washington. So what’s going on?

The US was demonstrating that it doesn’t recognise China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.

It also insists it doesn’t take sides over Beijing’s disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, which also claim parts of the Sea.

To try to substantiate this, the US patrol also passed through areas claimed by Hanoi and Manila, but as Washington has been distinctly quiet over the island-building activities of other countries, which pre-dated China’s, it is clear the Americans are only really bothered by the Chinese.

The Pentagon characterised the patrol by the USS Lassen as “routine”, but given the months of discussion and open hinting by Washington that it would carry out such a patrol, it clearly wasn’t.

There are other inconsistencies in the US position too, although both Beijing and Washington are being disingenuous.

The Pentagon describes the patrol as a Freedom of Navigation exercise to demonstrate that its ships can sail wherever international law and customary practice allow.

But despite its extensive claims in the South China Sea, there is no evidence China is threatening that freedom. In fact, given the dependence of its economy on trade and energy imports passing through the Sea, it is not in Beijing’s interest to do so.

By sailing close to one of China’s artificial islands, the Americans were seeking to utilise one of the clauses of the international treaty governing use of the seas – UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The only problem is the US itself has never ratified UNCLOS.

If Washington is concerned about establishing the right of freedom of navigation for its ships, a more effective and consistent way to do it would be to push the Senate to ratify the treaty.

This patrol was less about international law than raw power. Everybody, including of course China, knows the US did it to show that it can and to show the Chinese it is still boss on the water to try to deter Beijing from consolidating its extensive claims in the region.

As for China, it is a party to UNCLOS, but its position is also flawed.

Beijing denounced the sail-by as “illegal”, but under the Convention it wasn’t.

China has also shown a lack of regard for UNCLOS by refusing to take part in arbitration with the Philippines under the Convention – a refusal that has not had the desired effect of preventing the Permanent Court of Arbitration from allowing the case to go ahead.

Chinese officials say Beijing has built the artificial islands – seven in the past year – to provide airfields and docking facilities to support disaster relief operations in the typhoon-prone region.

That is valid as far as it goes, but by asserting the 12-mile limit around these installations, China is also clearly using them to advance its territorial claims.

If it wants to uphold the international law it says is essential for maintaining peace, China should agree to talks to settle these claims by compromise as it has done on several of its land borders. Instead, it says it wants to agree a code of conduct to manage relations in the South China Sea with its South East Asian neighbours, but talks on that have yet to yield any fruit.

This has led to rising tensions, particularly between China and the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which have turned to Washington for support, giving the US another reason for its challenge to Chinese claims – to show its friends it can be relied on when push comes to shove.

Although, Chinese and American officers have been talking about ways of reducing the risk of accidental clashes on the sea and in the air, more is needed if the two sides want to avoid getting into a shooting war.

A better course would be for China to sit down with its rival claimants and settle their maritime borders – and for the US to leave them to it.

As things stand this is unlikely to happen.

Beijing shows no appetite for multilateral talks and despite Washington’s lip service to the changing global order, the US attempt to stop its allies joining Chinese-led initiatives, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, shows it has still not been able to truly accept that the rise of China means it has to treat Beijing as more of a military and diplomatic equal.

As much as anything else this is what lies behind the US Navy sail-by, which instead of encouraging compromise over the South China Sea, is only stoking further tension.

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China’s big parade: evidence of expansionist threat or a normal great power?

For the first time ever, China has held a military parade, complete with its most modern missiles and watched over by 30 visiting Heads of State, to mark the defeat of Japan in 1945.

The decision to mount this display in the first place, and the way it was staged, tell us quite a bit about what Beijing intends to do with the new kit it showed off.

Many headlines in the West – whose leaders largely stayed away – framed the parade as an aggressive show of force. And there are loud voices among US military officials, commentators and politicians accusing Beijing of modernising its armed forces for nefarious purposes – namely territorial expansion.

Some of China’s neighbours, especially Japan and the Philippines which both dispute ownership of islands and atolls with China also level this charge.

They point to China’s rapidly increasing spending on its military and its more assertive approach to territorial disputes in the past five years as evidence.

In the past few months, they have focused criticism on Beijing’s island building programme in the South China Sea where small islands and atolls have been expanded and some equipped with airstrips capable of handling military aircraft.

But is this evidence of expansionism?

President Xi Jinping used his speech at the parade to try to reassure onlookers, announcing a 300,000 cut in the number of troops and insisting his is a peace-loving country.

While it’s true China’s defence spending has been rising at unprecedented rates, Beijing’s budget is still dwarfed by Washington’s, both in dollar terms and as a proportion of GDP.

Also, Beijing is not the first country to indulge in “island building” in the South China Sea, other claimants were at it before the Chinese, even if the scale of what Beijing has been doing is much larger.

At a recent conference dinner, I was at the same table as a well-known hawkish American commentator. The conversation turned to the South China Sea and the assumption behind most of the talk was China is an old-fashioned expansionist power which the US and its allies have to put in its place.

When I ventured the opinion that perhaps Beijing did not fit that mould, I was literally scoffed at.

But if you compare American and Chinese history there is a big difference – in both motivation and approach.

One of the messages President Xi is sending with the September 3rd parade is that China will stand up for itself and never again allow itself to be invaded and intimidated.

It’s easy for non-Chinese to forget how the country was invaded, first by the British who seized Hong Kong in the Opium war of 1839-42 and culminating in the full-scale Japanese assault of 1937 with its accompanying atrocities and the death of up to 20 million Chinese. What is called “the century of humiliation” in China.

The territorial claims Beijing makes today are also based on its interpretation of history, rather than a future scheme to conquer its neighbours.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands it disputes with Japan in the East China Sea are nearer Taiwan than Japan and were taken by force by Tokyo during war with China in the 1890s. China argues they should have been returned after 1945 under the Potsdam Declaration.

Instead the US kept them, using the islands as firing ranges until 1972 when it returned them to Japan which by that time had become a close American ally.

The Chinese also argue their claims in the South China Sea are historical, although these are a lot vaguer than those in the East China Sea.

Compare that with the United States.

It grew from the original thirteen colonies on the East Coast to include Hawaii, 2,400 miles from the West Coast.

The justification for this expansion – much of which was achieved by military conquest – wasn’t history. It was the nineteenth century idea of Manifest Destiny – that despite the presence of indigenous peoples, Americans had a God-given right to take the land they wanted.

It was a powerful, unequivocally expansionist ideology.

Washington has never really looked back and today its military bases have spread to at least 74 countries and its navy patrols the world’s seaways unhindered.

It routinely sends spy planes and ships right up to the territorial waters of other countries, including of course China. When others do the same to the US – and Chinese ships were sighted off Alaska at the same time it was parading military hardware through Tiananmen Square – the Americans don’t exactly welcome it.

The modernisation of China’s armed forces and its assertion of its maritime claims can be seen as normal business for a large country with an economy dependent on oil imports which have to pass through the South China Sea.

To its east, there’s no doubt Beijing is also trying to develop the military capability to prevent US forces from intervening to stop it retaking Taiwan – if it ever judges its attempt at gradual, peaceful reunification has failed. Although, Beijing sees this as completing its historic mission to win back all the territory lost in the recent past.

This doesn’t mean a rising China isn’t capable of aggression.

It does mean its territorial ambitions are probably much more limited than some seem to fear and Washington’s ever were.

On global leadership – or the lack thereof

The world’s major powers are failing when it comes to providing global leadership.

That was the refrain running through this week’s annual Chatham House London Conference where the US, China, Russia and the UK came in for varying degrees of criticism from panellists and participants.

To the apparent surprise and irritation of some Americans present, there were constant references to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and how damaging it had been, not just to the Iraqi victims, but also to the global order and the legitimacy of the US as a global leader.

I was not sure why this should have come as a surprise at a conference dedicated to discussing the crisis in global order and challenges to a rules-based international system, but there you are.

Many Americans may want to draw a line under it and move on, but despite the twelve years that have passed since the invasion, the consequences are still unfolding. Other countries committing acts of aggression use it to justify their own actions and in the region itself the political and military challenge of ISIS amply demonstrates how it remains at the root of contemporary events.

There was also criticism of the Obama Administration for overcompensating for Iraq and failing to provide leadership when it is needed– leading some to complain Washington can’t win and to cite the “damned if you, damned if you don’t” syndrome.

Russia also came in for castigation with Moscow characterised as having gone rogue in the international system. American and European participants made constant passing references to “Russian aggression” and there was no doubt whose side they are on in the Ukraine conflict.

The criticism of Britain was of a gentler sort with many wondering whether London is disengaging from the world as it debates its future in – or out of – the European Union and cuts its defence budget to such an extent the US government, in the words of the British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has started openly lobbying London to boost its military spending.

Then there is China. The Chinese panellists were pushed on several occasions by Japanese and other participants to justify Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea where tensions have risen in recent weeks following the US decision to challenge China’s territorial claims by sailing and flying close to the artificial islands China has been constructing in disputed waters.

What stood out was the way the Chinese responded.

Ambassador Wu Jianmin robustly defended his country’s conduct in the South China Sea by pointing out freedom of navigation is essential for China as well as other countries given how much if its trade passes through it. He said the installations being created would also serve a humanitarian purpose for disaster relief operations and pointed out that other countries had started building artificial islands before China without attracting any criticism, so, he asked, why is Beijing being singled out.

But Ambassador Wu was also on a mission to explain what his government calls its “win-win” approach to international relations. He pointed to the newly established and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB, which the US unsuccessfully tried to persuade its allies not to join, as an example of this approach. He emphasised how Chinese investment abroad benefits both China and countries where it is investing. And indeed a World Bank official, Dr Vera Songwe, endorsed this argument by pointing to Africa where Chinese infrastructure investment has helped the continent grow and become more integrated into the global economy.

Responding to complaints that China’s extraordinary economic growth and its re-emergence as a great power had taken advantage of the rules-based international system put in place by the US in the wake of the Second World War – the term “free-rider” was used – Professor Wu Xinbo argued that China is now providing international public goods, such as the AIIB.

He was sitting next to Professor Joe Nye who was arguing the US will remain the predominant power in the world for the foreseeable future and will not be overtaken by China, and at one point it seemed the two were almost competing to show which country does the most for the international community.

A far cry from Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy maxim of “keep a low profile and try to accomplish something”.

We have also come a long way from a decade ago when the then US Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, called on China – in somewhat patronising language – to be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

The consensus among conference participants seemed to be that despite current turbulence in the South China Sea, Beijing does not want to undermine the established global order, but it does want to be accorded its due weight in that order.

This means the US and the Europeans will have to accede to such things as greater Chinese clout in international bodies such as the IMF. If they don’t, the former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd pointed out, China’s creation of the AIIB shows Beijing will go round the system if it thinks it is being blocked.

So paradoxically, if the rules-based system with the UN and the growing canon of international conventions and law at its heart is to be maintained and strengthened, the leadership required of the US at this point is to truly accept it is no longer the paramount leader.

The key to a stable world is for the West to make good on its rhetoric and make room at the top table for China – and other emerging powers such as India and Brazil – or we could well be in for a bleak beggar-thy-neighbour future.

US set to escalate tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea

If reports this week are anything to go by, the US is sending strong signals it is about to take a more aggressive approach to China in the South China Sea – and if it does send its warships and aircraft to challenge China’s maritime claims, it can only mean at best a deterioration in relations and at worst a dangerous escalation of tension with Beijing.

It is probably no coincidence these media reports came just before US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arrives in China for talks with his team promising a tough line over Beijing’s actions in the Sea, though Kerry can also expect intense questioning over his country’s intentions there.

In the past few years, China has upped the assertion of its extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea – defined by the “nine-dash line” first established by Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist state in 1947.

Beijing has historical claims to some of the islands and with the growth of the Chinese economy it needs to guarantee the security of its energy imports from the Middle East through the Sea and also has the means to do so as it can afford to build up its navy, coast guard and air force.

This has led to confrontation with the Philippines and Vietnam, which lay claim to some of the same islands and coral reefs.

Since President Obama initiated his pivot – or rebalancing – to Asia in 2011, the focus has seemed to be on ensuring strengthened US economic integration in the world’s most dynamic region with Washington concentrating on expanding and sealing the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

So far the pivot has had a relatively modest military component with plans to establish a base for marines in Australia and the recent agreement to deepen defence cooperation with Japan.

But we have also seen opportunistic diplomatic and military support for Manila and Hanoi who – in what is something of a diplomatic setback to China – have looked to Washington for help in their disputes with Beijing.

These American moves, added to the exclusion of China from the proposed TPP, have led many in China to suspect the US of trying to contain Beijing – much as the US had confronted the Soviet Union with its containment policy during the Cold War.

So if the US does now adopt a more aggressive policy by using its own ships and aircraft to directly challenge Beijing’s claims by sailing or flying right up to the twelve mile nautical limit around Chinese controlled islands, this will confirm those suspicions and strengthen the hand of those Chinese policy-makers who advocate a tougher approach to Washington.

The reports that the US is “considering” using its own military to challenge China’s claims follows a plethora of reports in the media that Beijing is building artificial islands on coral reefs to support airfields and docks in the Spratly Islands near the Philippines.

Importantly, under international maritime law territorial claims can be based on the area around islands but not coral reefs, which are submerged much of the time.

The apparent leaking by the Pentagon of its strategic thinking may in itself be intended to deter China, but if it is, then judging by Beijing’s reaction so far it has been counterproductive.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday: “China will stay firm in safeguarding territorial sovereignty. We urge parties concerned to be discreet in words and actions, (and) avoid taking any risky and provocative actions…”

So how will China respond if US does more than say it is considering taking action?

If Beijing’s approach to its dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a guide, you can expect to see Chinese ships and aircraft intercepting their American counterparts which will increase the chances of an accidental clash – it has happened before when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter off Hainan in 2001 killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to land in China where it was dismantled for its secrets before being returned in boxes.

But this is 14 years later and Beijing’s new leadership under President Xi Jinping is much more prepared to assert what they see as China’s key interests – added to which China’s military capabilities are much greater than they were then.

So the Americans would be playing a dangerous game. It is also a puzzling one given the recent US push to improve military to military communication and understanding with Beijing.

With the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine pulling the US back into the regions it was hoping to disengage from, the Obama Administration has struggled to maintain its focus on Asia and how to engage with China. But it now seems the hawks may be winning the argument in Washington, in which case the legacy of Obama’s Asia Pivot may end up being escalating confrontation with Beijing.

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