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South China Sea Tensions Are At Boiling Point

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South China Sea Tensions Are At Boiling Point

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Both the US and China are staging frequent maritime military exercises throughout the Asian Pacific region, major hotspots including the airspace and coastal waters around Taiwan and the islands in the South China Sea. Senior officials and former officials from both sides are speaking of a looming ‘Cold War’ between the two countries as their bilateral diplomatic and economic relations hit rock bottom.

As the two Pacific giants face off, their respective efforts to enforce their claims and gain supremacy are becoming entangled in other intra-regional disputes, accusations and long standing rivalries and enmities.

The entire Asian quadrant of the Pacific region remains fraught with simmering conflicts and disputes, of which the competing territorial claims are among the most complex as well as constituting some of the most likely trigger points for a major clash between two or more countries from the region, apart from providing a prefect pretext for the US to intervene to further its own interests.

To the north, the seventy year on-again off-again war between North and South Korea (and the US), with its ugly twin the stalemate between China and Taiwan.

Of similar vintage are the territorial disputes between Korea and Japan, and between Russia and Japan; though both keep a permanent sour note to relations between the respective neighbours, they have generally not had the potential to trigger armed clashes (though South Korean and Japanese air force and navy vessels have had numerous confrontations over the last year).

The most complicated territorial disputes however are probably those of the South China Sea, involving China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Alongside its most recent challenges to Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, the US has also been particularly active in the air and coastal waters around Taiwan, another area that is threatening to become a major flashpoint as China has declared its intention to deploy both of its aircraft carriers to pass through the area during a months-long set of manoeuvres that will also take them to the South China Sea.

The US’ military exercises often involve other countries and in such cases are generally less provocative and dangerous than its unilateral ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols and manoeuvres,  which frequently involve direct challenges to China’s territorial claims resulting in confrontations, such as shadowing each other’s vessels and aircraft while they are on patrol in zones claimed by China. These jousting matches are the front line of the war of nerves and posturing from both sides’ military and political leadership which could very easily get out of control and lead to armed clashes.

A report posted at ZeroHedge by Taylor Durden on 28 May describes some of the latest military deployments and manoeuvres by the US as its aircraft and warships conduct ‘freedom of navigation’ flights and patrols close to, and at least in one reported case within, areas claimed by the Chinese as their exclusive territorial waters. (LINK)

The report at ZeroHedge in turn cites several comments by Fox’s Lucas Tomlinson earlier the same day, that one month after the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Mustin was ‘harassed’ by Chinese warships from a carrier strike group, the Mustin was sent on patrol around the contested Paracel Islands in the northern sector of the South China Sea (or the East Sea, as it is referred to in Vietnam).

Referring to the earlier incident, CNN has quoted Pentagon Spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn alleging that a Chinese vessel conducted ‘unsafe and unprofessional maneuvers’ near the USS Mustin. During the latest ‘freedom of navigation’ manoeuvres on 28 May, the guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Woody Island and Pyramid Rock, both of which are claimed by Beijing, a US navy official stated.

Apparently, two days earlier two B-1 bombers flew over the same area after taking off from Guam, while two other B-1 bombers flew over the Sea of Japan for training with 16 Japanese fighter jets. Since the start of April there have been no less than 15 US military aircraft flights in the vicinity of Taiwan, with at least three bombers approaching the area since the start of May.

The US Navy has also just dispatched two more warships to the East China Sea, USS New Orleans out of Japan and the guided-missile destroyer Rafael Peralta, based in the Western Pacific region as part of the Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group.

Citing military sources, the Chinese news agency Global Times stated of the USS Mustin’s latest manoeuvres near the Paracel Islands: “The PLA Southern Theater Command organized naval and aerial forces to follow the US guided missile destroyer USS Mustin when it illegally trespassed into China’s territorial waters off the Xisha Islands without authorization from the Chinese government.”

The PLA sources said they followed and monitored the ship’s course before ultimately driving it out of Chinese-claimed waters.

A spokesman for the US Navy`s 7th Fleet stated of the incident:

“On May 28 (local time), USS Mustin (DDG 89) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law.

By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea.”

Taiwan

Meanwhile, the possibility of an extended deployment by China’s aircraft carriers on a course that would send them close to Taiwan’s shores was first revealed by a report by Kyodo news agency in Japan on 12 May, and was confirmed by Chinese officials earlier this week. On 14 May the U.S. Navy had posted pictures of one of its warships sailing through the sensitive Taiwan Strait for the sixth time this year.

Several days ago Taiwan News picked up the reports that China is planning on deploying two aircraft carriers in waters near Taiwan as part of its war games scheduled for August to rehearse for a future assault on the Taiwan-controlled Dongsha Islands.

On Monday of this week News.com.au had reported that for the first time, both of China’s aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, are being deployed together in Bohai Bay in the Yellow Sea to conduct combat readiness drills. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carriers are engaged in the second week of an 11-week simulated military confrontation that will later extend into the South China Sea.

The South China Morning Post subsequently cited a military source as saying that “An aircraft carrier strike group will pass through the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands) on its way to the exercise site to the southeast of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea.”

The US and Chinese exercises and manoeuvres around Taiwan continue to preoccupy senior officials from all three countries.

Speaking at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on the 15th anniversary of the Anti-Secession Law, Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department and member of the Central Military Commission, left the door open to using force. The 2005 law gives the country the legal basis for military action against Taiwan if it secedes or seems about to. Taiwan’s government denounced the comments, saying that threats of war were a violation of international law and that Taiwan has never been a part of the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan is one of China’s most sensitive territorial issues. Beijing says it is a Chinese province, and has denounced the Trump administration’s support for the island. Li Zhanshu, the third-most-senior leader of China’s ruling Communist Party and head of China’s Parliament, told the same event that non-peaceful means were an option of last resort:

“As long as there is a slightest chance of a peaceful resolution, we will put in hundred times the effort,” Li Zhanshu said. However, he added: “We warn Taiwan’s pro-independence and separatist forces sternly, the path of Taiwan independence leads to a dead end; any challenge to this law will be severely punished”.

In further comments on Friday 29 May, Taiwanese Minister of National Defense Yen Teh-fa tried to play down the gravity of the current developments, pointing out that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has never relinquished the threat of force against the island nation, and that the Ministry of Defence (MND) is prepared to defend the country against any invading force if that should be necessary.

He also added more comments concerning the forum held in Beijing commemorating the 15th anniversary of the ratification of the “Anti-Secession Law” on Friday morning.

Li Zhanshu, a member of the CCP Politburo standing committee and chairman of the National People’s Congress standing committee, gave a speech addressing anti-independence and reiterating the “one China principle” and the so-called “1992 consensus.” He also spoke about “peaceful reunification with Taiwan” and the “one country, two systems” framework.

The Taiwan Times reported that, in response to Zhanshu’s assertions, Taiwan’s Defence Minister Yen said the CCP has never given up the use of military force against Taiwan, which has been its long-standing policy. The defence minister noted the CCP has already conducted eight military deterrence exercises since the beginning of this year.

This is something that can be felt and seen, making the situation in the Taiwan Strait increasingly grim, Yen said. However, he added that Taiwan’s armed forces are cautious about evaluating political dynamics in the Taiwan Strait and will do a good job of protecting the nation.

Surveillance and investigation shows the current situation is not unusual, Yen said. Nevertheless, he asserted, the armed forces are determined to hold fast to Taiwan’s sovereignty, democracy, and freedom and are prepared for the worst.

No doubt Taiwan will be closely monitoring the scale, composition and trajectory of the forces accompanying the Chinese aircraft carriers.

Rival claims in the South China Sea

Meanwhile, further to the south, on 24-25 May the US and Singapore concluded a set of joint drills in the South China Sea, in which the littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) and the Republic of Singapore Navy’s Formidable-class multi-role stealth frigate RSS Steadfast (FFS 70) conducted a bilateral exercise in the South China Sea.

The last time the two countries exercised at sea was during Exercise Pacific Griffin in 2019. During last year’s joint exercise, held from September 24 to October 10 in waters off Guam, the navies of the US and Singapore staged their first ever cooperative anti-surface drill, fired a naval strike missile, and engaged in anti-submarine and anti-air warfare manoeuvres.

The United States held at least 85 joint military exercises with its allies in the Indo-Pacific region in 2019 according to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, affiliated to Peking University, which completed a report on the topic late last year. While the drills – carried out between January and November – have varied in size, their aim has been consistent: to extend America’s presence in the region and strengthen the defence capabilities of its allies.

“Through these exercises, the US is enhancing its interoperability with other nations and making a stronger military presence to contain the rise of China as a maritime power,” it said, adding that America was “likely to stage more drills on core combat capability … to handle the perceived regional security threat”.

Of the joint and multinational exercises staged in the period, the Philippines was involved in at least 16, Thailand nine and Singapore six.

Although neither Singapore nor Thailand are involved in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea – the Philippines,  Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are – military cooperation between the two Southeast Asian nations and the US is deepening. The US has also invited other allies, including Japan, India and Australia, to take part in exercises in the South China Sea, in an effort to “drag more nations into the (issue)”, the report said. (LINK)

Although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has generally been wary of becoming entangled in the shows of force between China and the US, last year they held their first major multilateral military exercises with the US which included manoeuvres in the South China Sea. On 2 September 2019 The Defense Post reported that:

“The United States and 10 Southeast Asian countries kicked off maritime drills on Monday, as part of a joint exercise extending into the flashpoint South China Sea with eight warships, four aircraft and more than a thousand personnel.

The first ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX) between the regional bloc and Washington will last for five days, starting September 2 at the Sattahip Naval Base in Thailand and ending in Singapore.

The drills come at a time of stepped-up U.S. engagement in the region and tensions between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Co-led by the U.S. and Royal Thai navies, the exercises will stretch into “international waters in Southeast Asia, including the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea” before concluding in Singapore, according to a statement from the U.S. embassy in Bangkok…

U.S. assets participating in the exercise include the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery, guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer, three MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters, a P-8 Poseidon aircraft and staff assigned to Destroyer Squadron 7 and CTF 73.”

Although bilateral exercises with some of the individual ASEAN member countries are much more common, it remains to be seen whether US exercises with the regional block will become a regular feature.

Meanwhile, in a development that goes against the deluge of belligerent actions, threats and accusations, according to the Philippines news agency the Inquirer President Duterte and Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc spoke over the phone on Tuesday evening (26 May) where they “reiterated their commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes” in the South China Sea. The Philippines has been actively pushing for the conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Like the Philippines, Vietnam claims part of the South China Sea whereas China asserts sweeping claims of ownership that cover almost the entire area.

The Philippines and Vietnam elevated their bilateral ties to a Strategic Partnership in 2015. The two sides committed to enhance cooperation in a wide of areas — political, economic, socio-cultural, and defence and security cooperation, including in the area of maritime security. Their strengthening of mutual ties and cooperation are in part a consequence of the failure to resolve the territorial disputes, and the inevitable clashes that have occurred as a result. Both nations have had fishing vessels sunk in collisions with Chinese vessels in the course of the last year.

In June last year, a Chinese trawler sank a boat carrying 22 Filipino fishermen at Recto Bank, which is within the Philippines’ claimed 370-kilometre exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. The fishermen were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel.

Vietnam lodged a protest with Beijing after the Chinese Coast Guard “hindered, rammed and sunk” a Vietnamese boat with eight fishermen on board near the Paracel Islands on 3 April 2020. The sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat prompted the Philippines to issue a statement of support to its Southeast Asian neighbour.

“Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it; and how much trust was created by Vietnam’s humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen,” the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) said in a statement.

The DFA pointed out that it is crucial that such incidents be avoided and that “differences be addressed in a manner that enhances dialogue and mutual trust.”

The Philippines said that with the discussions on a Code of Conduct in the maritime area ongoing, it is “crucial that such incidents be avoided and that differences be addressed in a manner that enhances dialogue and mutual trust.”

The DFA added that such incidents “undermine the potential of a genuinely deep and trusting regional relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China,” and that “neither fish nor fictional historical claims are worth the fuse that’s lit by such incidents.”

“There is never a good time to indulge in provocations; they usually end in the defeat of aggression or a devastating price of victory. But it is always a good time to rise in the defence and affirmation of our respective sovereignties and in the peace and stability of our region especially in a time of pandemic… As we have said the creation of new facts in the water will never give rise to legal right anywhere or anytime.” (LINK)

However, the potential for clashes between China and Vietnam in particular remain high. Malaysia’s New Straits Times reported on 5 May that Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development rejected China’s announcement of a ban on all fishing in certain parts of the Paracel Islands archipelago subject to territorial claims by both countries.

There is still a considerable historical legacy of enmity between China and Vietnam, particularly since China invaded its southern neighbour in 1979 in a military campaign that lasted for several weeks. The maritime territorial disputes are on ongoing source of hostility and occasional clashes, precluding any attempt to improve relations and expand cooperation in areas of mutual concern.

In early May, the Vietnamese government urged its fishermen to fish in some of the disputed areas in the Paracel Islands area during the summer season (from May until mid-August). Chinese officials denounced the statements and warned Vietnamese fishing vessels to stay out of ‘China’s territorial waters’. The NST reports:

“VIETNAM has rejected China’s ban on summer fishing in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and has encouraged its fishermen to continue their activities there.

Its Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said the waters were Vietnamese sea territory and the ban was invalid.

It also directed provinces and cities to encourage fishermen with guide groups and teams to support the fishermen at sea.

According to the Vietnam Express, the ministry said fishing vessels with licenses valid until the end of this year can fish in the Tonkin Gulf common fishing area, but asked them to avoid the area east of the Tonkin Gulf delimitation line.

On April 30, China announced that the annual fishing ban on the South China Sea has begun on May 1 and would last until August 16, Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.

The ban would apply to certain sea areas of the South China Sea that encompass parts of the Tonkin Gulf and Paracel Islands.

China said no fishing activities are allowed in sea areas under its sovereignty within the time period, except in certain cases.

The Vietnam Fisheries Society has also opposed China’s unilateral decision, saying the fishing ban has no legal value over sea areas under Vietnam’s sovereignty.

Four days later, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry also expressed clear opposition and asked Beijing not to complicate the situation further.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said Vietnam has full legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, as well as its legal rights over its waters in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China has been issuing similar fishing bans every year in recent times and Vietnam has consistently condemned and rejected them.

China claims the bans seek to promote sustainable fisheries development and improve marine ecology.

China had seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in 1974, and has been occupying it since.

In 2012 it established the so-called Sansha City with the archipelago’s Woody Island as its seat.

The ‘city’ also covers a number of reefs in the Spratly Islands that China seized by force in 1988 as well as the Scarborough Shoal.

Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry responded saying Vietnam had no right to comment on China’s summer fishing moratorium in the South China Sea waters since the measure was its administrative rights.

Xinhua reports Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian saying the measure was beneficial for the protection of fishery resources and sustainable development in South China Sea.

In a separate development, Indonesia has also rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea by raising the 2016 Hague ruling in its letter to the United Nations (U.N.) earlier this week.

In a letter addressed to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres on Tuesday (May 26), the Indonesians pointed out the ‘nine-dash line’ issued by Beijing ‘lacks international legal basis’ and contradicts the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982). It added the nine-dash line map, which encroached on the economic zones of several Southeast Asian countries, is fictitious and does not give China sovereignty over the area.

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