Waves in the South China Sea are getting higher
For almost two months, a Chinese research chip has been conducting survey activities without permission in the Vietnamese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an action condemned by Vietnam, the U.S., Australia, Japan, India, and the E3 (France, Germany, and the U.K.) Currently, the ship is about 150km southeast of the Vietnamese coast. Hanoi has asked China to immediately withdraw, but China insists the ship is in Chinese jurisdictional waters. Washington uses the word “bullying” – using brute force or strength to hurt or frighten someone who is weaker – to describe China’s actions against Vietnam and other Asian countries. In fact, the power gap between China and other countries has been widening, as Chinese leadership becomes increasingly confident that it can dominate the South China Sea as a “China Lake” through its expanding military and economic influence, and amid increasing doubt about American commitment to regional security.
Vietnamese-Russian joint exploration and China’s counteraction
On May 12, Rosneft Vietnam B.V., a Russian-Vietnamese joint venture, started exploring an underwater oil field using the Japanese drilling rig Hakuryu-5 in the mining Block 05.3/11 in the Vietnamese EEZ in the South China Sea (SCS). The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows coastal countries to declare 200 n.m. (approximately 370km) EEZ from their coastline, and exercise sovereign right over the management of maritime resources within that zone. When the rig was moved to Block 06.1, west of the Vanguard Bank in the Vietnamese EEZ (See Map 1) – an area never challenged by China in the past – China deployed its survey ship to the Vietnamese EEZ, where China claims its jurisdiction overlaps. The joint venture announced that it would prolong its activities until September 15, six weeks beyond the original completion date of July 30.
Responding to Vietnamese activity, China deployed Haiyang Dizhi-8, a research ship that belongs to the China Geological Survey. It was escorted by several Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels, including Hai Jing 3901, the biggest coast guard vessel in the world with 12,000 tonnage, and maritime militia boats. The Haiyang Dizhi-8 started geological survey activities without any advance notification or permission from the Vietnamese government in waters around a triangle delineated by Long Hai Island, the Ladd Reef, and the Prince of Wales Bank – even though Article 246 of UNCLOS clearly states that “marine scientific research in the EEZ shall be conducted with the consent of the coastal state.” On August 23, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson mentioned the issue for the first time, criticizing Vietnam for starting exploration unilaterally in a zone the Chinese consider under their jurisdiction, and blaming Vietnam for the standoff. After September 15, China continues to deploy the research ship in the water and calls Vietnam to stop immediately anti-Chinese information campaign.
In the same period, Chinese research ships also conducted several surveys in the EEZ zones of Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, and the Pacific Islands Forum countries without the consent of those states. However, nobody can take action against these survey ships, because Article 32 of UNCLOS gives immunity to warships and other government ships operating for non-commercial purposes, which means no country can inspect and capture foreign government ships in its EEZ. China makes maximum use of this rule, utilizing and mobilizing government ships to gather important maritime data. China also regularly using Chinese Coast Guard vessels, part of the People’s Armed Police since last July, and maritime militia boats to express its sovereignty over contested waters.
China uses a double standard in sovereign claims over the SCS
On August 19, two months after the standoff began, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson claimed at a press conference that “China has sovereignty over the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and its adjacent waters and has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters.” However, it is hard to find any compelling arguments to justify China’s actions in the Vietnamese EEZ.
China regards almost 90% of the South China Sea as Chinese territory, historically invoking the so-called “Nine-dash Line” to claim Chinese sovereignty over these waters, even though China has never supplied the international society with a precise definition and detail of where the line is. On July 12, 2016, a judgment by an Arbitral Tribunal under UNCLOS totally denied China’s legal basis for this claim but China has completely rejected and ignored the decision. However, the spokesperson at the press conference did not specifically mention the Nine-dash Line, suggesting that China is hesitant to cite it as a legal basis for its claim over the South China Sea.
Instead of the Nine–dash line, the spokesperson referred to the Spratly Islands as the basis of China’s claim to justify its research activity in the Vietnamese EEZ. This would allow China to operate within 200 n.m. EEZ from the Cuateron Reef and the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands (see Map 1). These islands are well-known due to China’s illegal land reclamation and militarization there in recent years. In fact, most of the activities conducted by the Haiyang Dizhi-8 were within 200n.m. from the Cuateron islands or the Fiery Cross Island. However, according to UNCLOS, an island used to claim sovereignty should be “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide”. Based on these points, China cannot declare sovereignty over the Cuateron or the Fiery Cross islands, which were submerged rocks before the reclamation, nor set an EEZ from them.
Thinking further about the basis of China’s justification, it might seem an EEZ claim from the Gaven Reef (see Map 1) could be made, because some rocks of that reef were originally above the water at high tide. However, China has always insisted that Japan cannot declare an EEZ from Okinotorishima Island, a small body of land comprised of a coral reef and islets located about 1,740 km south of Tokyo, because Okinotorishima is not technically an island but a rock. Therefore, according to China’s own standards, it cannot declare sovereignty over the Gaven Reef. In any case, we should be aware that artificial islands do not generate any maritime entitlements and nobody can claim an EEZ from them. To ignore this rule means challenging the modern international legal order.
It is also clear that China’s behavior goes against the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which was signed by Chinese and ASEAN leaders in 2002. While DOC is not legally binding, every signatory agreed to ten principles for developing friendship and cooperating in promoting regional peace and stability. Specifically, the declaration encourages the signatories to respect the principles of freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea. It also invokes international laws, including UNCLOS, as the means for resolving territorial and jurisdictional disputes peacefully, without resorting to threats or the use of force.
Turning off a switch of transponder for Automatic Identification System (AIS), which is a system to track current position of a ship automatically, by Chinese Coast Guard vessels is another sign that China wants to hide actual actiivities and position of its Coast Guards vessels in the water to escort Haiyang Dizhi-8.
Map 1: Ship wake of Haiyang Dizhi-8 in the South China Sea
(Author made the image on Google map with open information including Twitter of Ryan Martinson, China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College)
Widening capability gaps between PRC and its neighbors
Behind the standoff, there are widening capability gaps between China and Southeast Asian countries, even though China's neighbours are also making efforts to modernize their naval and coast guard capabilities. For example, to compare major naval vessels: It is estimated that the South Sea Fleet of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) consists of 12 missile destroyers, 21 frigates, 14 corvettes, 17 diesel submarines, and 10 replenishment ships (In addition to the South Sea fleet, PLAN has another two fleets in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea). In contrast, the Vietnam People’s Navy has nine frigates, 14 corvettes, and six diesel submarines. The Royal Malaysian Navy has two frigates, six corvettes, and two diesel submarines. The Philippine Navy possesses a secondhand patrol ship from the U.S., and a secondhand corvette from South Korea.
In addition to naval power, China has the highest number of Maritime Law Enforcement vessels in the world. The Chinese Coast Guard has almost 120 offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) with a displacement of 1,000 tons or more and has the authority to deploy about 40 of those ships to the South China Sea. In contrast, the Vietnam Coast Guard possesses 8 OPVs, and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency has 4. The Philippine Coast Guard has ordered an OPV from the French shipbuilder OCEA, which will be Manila's first modern OPV when the ship is delivered and commissioned in December. Therefore, in contrast to China, many countries lack the maritime domain awareness (MDA) capability to detect when and where irregular incidents happen, not only in their territorial waters but also in their EEZs.
China has also developed a so-called anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) as part of its Anti-access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy for preventing enemy forces from entering the Chinese theater of operations – in this case, the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and the East China Sea. NBC news reported that China carried out two test launches of DF-21D (estimated flying range: 1,440km) or DF-26D (5,740km) ASBMs from inland China to the South China Sea in early July. Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that a dozen DF-26Ds are stationed near Alxa in Inner Mongolia, although the exact position of the test launches is not clear. These ASBMs may pose a serious challenge to naval vessels such as U.S. aircraft careers in offshore waters near China, even experts agree that China needs to further develop the information-gathering and targeting capabilities required to guide the missile, as well as final guidance communication with the warhead during its terminal phase.
We should pay great attention to the fact that during the standoff in the Vietnamese EEZ, China effectively used its artificial island to replenish vessels. For example, the Haiyang Dizhi-8 left standoff waters and visited the Fiery Cross Island on August 8, then returned to the waters again for further surveying. There is another example: Since the end of August, the Chinese state-owned survey ship Haiyang Dizhi-4, escorted by maritime militia ships, has been stationed at Mischief Reef for a month-long survey of the Vietnamese-Malaysian joint extended continental shelf. According to the Chinese government website South China Sea Net, China reclaimed a total of 290,000 km² in the Spratly Islands for civilian and defense purposes. China constructed port facilities, 3,000 m runway, several types of radar, communication facilities, a lighthouse, barracks with naval guns, and facilities for anti-aircraft missiles and anti-ship missiles on these seven artificial islands – all of which Beijing claims are originally only for civilian purposes.
As noted above, China enjoys ultimate superiority over other Southeast Asian states in almost every dimension of military power, including electromagnetic equipment, advanced weapons systems, air support, ballistic and cruise missiles, manpower and training levels, military infrastructure, and logistics networks. In this context, it is not surprising that a report published in mid-August this year by the United States Research Center at the University of Sydney estimates that “China could ‘render US military bases useless’ within hours of a conflict in Asia.”
Increasing “discrepancy of security provider and economic partner”
In contrast to the rising security tensions in the South China Sea, trade between Southeast Asian countries and China has been increasing. According to the Global Trade Atlas, China’s trade value with ASEAN in 2018 was a record 577.4 billion USD – a figure 250% bigger than the 2008 figure, even larger than the 180% increase in global Chinese trade during the same period. It is clear that China is the most important trading partner for each of the 10 ASEAN members. Therefore, current economic relations with China and future expectations cannot be ignored by ASEAN countries, despite the need to secure their territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Vietnam is no exception to the discrepancy between security and economics. Although Vietnam has territorial disputes with China, since 2007 China has been Vietnam's biggest import source. Vietnam imports electronic components, iron, woven fabric and textures from China, then exports final products to the United States. The cycle has contributed to Vietnam’s rapid economic growth; in 2017, Vietnam became the fifth-largest trade deficit country for Washington.
Vietnamese President and Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong is expected to visit the U.S. in October. Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, anticipates possible negotiations on bilateral relations for a strategic partnership promoting further security cooperation in response to Chinese intimidation and bullying in the South China Sea. However, for U.S. President Donald Trump, the main topic at the summit might be the trade deficit rather than security talks. The deficit of U.S. goods and services with Vietnam reached a recorded $37.3 billion in 2017. And Vietnam has been one of the largest beneficiaries of roundabout trade and factory relocations from China amid the U.S.-China trade war. Purchasing American military equipment or grain are possible measures for Vietnam to offset its trade surplus with the U.S., as the Abe administration in Japan does. However, strengthening security ties with the U.S. could destabilize Vietnam’s balanced diplomacy between economically important China and the U.S.
China’s ASEAN dominance 2.0
In mid-July, Wall Street Journal reported that China has struck a secret agreement with Cambodia that grants it exclusive rights to lease one-third of the Cambodian Ream naval base near Sihanoukville in the Gulf of Thailand for 30 years, with automatic renewal every 10 years after that. Although both Beijing and Phnom Penh deny such an agreement exists, dismissing the news as “fake,” if Cambodia were to allow Chinese military stationing, it would violate Article 53 of the Cambodian Constitution, which prohibits any stationing of foreign armed forces in Cambodian territory. Moreover, the U.S. and regional states are concerned about a 99-year lease for an airport being built by a Chinese company at Dara Sakor in Cambodia. New Chinese outposts in Cambodia would seriously increase China’s power projection capabilities, and destabilize Sea lines of communication (SLOC) in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea.
According to Nikkei News, Cambodia plans to be the first 5G network country in the ASEAN and the Malaysian Axiata Group, with the local company Cellcard and the Chinese phone manufacturer ZTE employing Huawei technology to join the race for hundreds of millions of dollars. This case shows the expansion of China’s dominance over ASEAN through huge investments and loans, which lack specific conditions such as the promotion of democracy and transparency, supply of massive raw materials and components, arms trade, and infrastructure projects in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China has also initiated negotiations of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). According to Thai PBS World, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised early completion of the first reading of papers related to the negotiations as “major progress” at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting at the end of July. However, diplomatic sources point out that China is attempting to build advantageous clauses into the COC, such as requiring China’s prior consent for ASEAN countries to conduct joint military drills with external countries, or possibly limiting freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea. Overall, China would prefer that the COC is not a legal-binding document, like the DOC. However, Beijing should pay attention to the fact that China’s unilateral actions make it difficult for ASEAN members to agree with the COC.
What is required to solve the issue?
Though it is a cliché, in this case it is clear that until the parties reach peaceful solutions of their disputes, maintaining the status quo through diplomatic negotiations is necessary to keep regional stability and promote further economic growth. This is not only an issue for regional states, but also European states including the Czech Republic, because their economies depend on the global supply chain as well as Asian economic growth. When Prime Minister Andrej Babiš visited Singapore, he emphasized the high potential of Czech national interest in the Southeast Asian region. In fact, ASEAN trade with the Czech Republic doubled from $1.67 billion in 2007 to $3.20 billion in 2017. And ASEAN imports from the Czech Republic tripled, from $0.35 billion in 2007 to $1.09 billion in 2017 (ASEANStatsDataPortal).
To avoid further standoffs and keep the status quo, international society should pay more attention to what is happening in the South China Sea and bring it to full view for everyone in the world. This should help deter further unilateral action by the PRC. The continuing turmoil in Hong Kong tells us that China worries about losing face.
It is also vitally important for ASEAN countries to develop capabilities for maritime domain awareness and scientific research being used to protect their maritime interests. China systematically conducts marine geologic (seismic) surveys on the continental shelf around the South China Sea. These surveys are ostensibly for exploring underground resources and gathering oceanic data such as bathymetric charts for submarine operations. However, we should also suspect Chinese attempts to find some possible scientific basis for justifying the Nine-dash line. To counter China’s aggressiveness, ASEAN states should modernize Coast Guard and conduct their own maritime surveys, which will give them data for calm refutation. In this context, capacity building efforts by the U.S., Japan, Australia, and European countries are crucial to enable Southeast Asian countries to arrange offshore patrol vessels and educate the ships’ crews so they can close the capability gaps with China.
About the author
Takashi Hosoda is a researcher about Asian security and defense cooperation between Japan and Europe. He is also a lecturer at FSV UK about Asian security.
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