Sunday, September 28, 2014

Blocking China’s salami-slicing tactics on the South China Sea require region-wide cooperation

 YaleGlobal: Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh and US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet in Washington early October. The two nations, at war more than 40 years ago, now find common interest in protecting open sea lanes in the South China Sea. China asserts sweeping claims, going as far as to construct new islets and impose limitations on the use of other nations’ exclusive economic zones. China signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States has not. “Kerry and Minh should work out a middle course that protects US policy autonomy while maintaining balance in the region,” writes former US diplomat David Brown. Diplomacy and increased US engagement could include training regional coast guards with the aim of minimizing risky maneuvers that could trigger greater conflict, lifting a ban on weapons sales to Vietnam, encouraging joint explorations for oil and gas and encouraging multilateral fisheries management. In the meantime, Brown urges Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines to waste no time in sorting out their own competing claims.

Blocking China’s salami-slicing tactics on the South China Sea require region-wide cooperation
David Brown / YaleGlobal, 25 September 2014
Battle over waters: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh will meet in early October to discuss the South China Sea (top); earlier in the summer China's coast-guard ships rammed a Vietnamese  vessel near a Chinese oil drilling rig
FRESNO: When Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet in early October, China's aggressive behavior in the waters of Southeast Asia will top their agenda. In the months leading up to the meeting, Washington’s foreign policy elite have been debating whether it is in America’s interest to get involved in the dispute. The strategic implications of letting China have its sway are too serious for the US to adopt a binary policy of going in all guns blazing or looking the other way. Kerry and Minh should work out a middle course that protects US policy autonomy while maintaining balance in the region.
China is a rising power and its cooperation is essential in efforts to contain terrorism, slow climate change, curb nuclear proliferation and so on. But the US cannot ignore China's drive to establish hegemony over the seas that touch its shores. Cautiously in the East China Sea, where Japan, allied with the United States, is a formidable opponent, and confidently in the South China Sea, China has mounted a determined challenge to the international order expressed in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, and the notion that territorial disputes should be settled, not by force, but by negotiation or arbitration.
Six years ago China presented a crude map to illustrate its claim to "indisputable sovereignty" over the area bounded by a nine-dash line enclosing 3.5 million square kilometers.
With each year that's passed since then, China's upped the ante. Deploying hundreds of deep-sea fishing boats and many dozens of coast guard vessels, Beijing has challenged its neighbors' sovereignty over exclusive economic zones drawn according to UNCLOS rules. It has driven Vietnamese fishermen out of traditional fishing grounds, wrested the aquatic resources of Scarborough Shoal from Manila's control, harassed oil and gas exploration off Vietnam's central coast, and planted markers on James Shoal, 50 miles off the Malaysian coast and 2200 miles south of China's Hainan Island. This year China again proved its mastery of the tactical initiative, deploying a deep-sea oil drilling rig and an armada of escort vessels into waters near Vietnam's central coast while sending a flotilla of seagoing pumps, dredges and cement mixers further south with the mission of converting a handful of reefs into artificial islets.
The US cannot ignore China's drive to establish hegemony over the seas that touch its shores.
Beijing has been impervious to persuasion and angered by tough talk from US diplomats – from Hillary Clinton and Kerry on down. Xi Jinping's government may know that the records it relies on to support an "historic claim" to the South China Sea are legally untenable, but Chinese public opinion finds them persuasive. China's man in the street is furious that countries on the periphery of "China's South Sea" are "stealing China's resources" when they fish on the high seas or drill for offshore oil and gas.
China, it seems, has no intention of submitting its sweeping territorial claims to rulings by international tribunals. It evidences little more interest in negotiating a Code of Conduct with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. At most, Chinese spokesmen have hinted at a disposition to be generous when and only when Vietnam or the Philippines acknowledge the superior merit of China's claims.
It has thus become impossible to regard the South China Sea as an inconsequential sideshow to a hoped-for entente between the United States and the emergent Chinese superpower. The conflict is not inconsequential – the sea lanes carry nearly half the world's commerce. Added now is profound worry that Beijing's steadily more aggressive tactics there and its dismissal, whenever inconvenient, of the rules of the international order reveal China’s true nature with which the international community must contend in other places in times to come. China's actions and attitudes have made confrontation in the South China Sea a central concern of US diplomacy and strategic planning.
China shows no intention of submitting sweeping claims to rulings by international tribunals.
In the South China Sea, as elsewhere in the world, US engagement is essential if China's ambitions are to be effectively countered. Tough talk alone will not stiffen the ASEAN backbone nor impress Beijing.
From a tactical perspective, the US has behaved as if there were no viable options in the large space between denunciation of Chinese provocations and deploying the 7th Fleet. China on the other hand has consistently exploited opportunities in the middle space. It has relied on paramilitary assets, coast guard ships and auxiliary "fishing boats," to further its sovereign ambitions while the Peoples Liberation Army Navy, PLAN, waits discreetly just over the horizon.
Mimicking Chinese tactics, the US and Asian friends and allies could step up cooperation among their coast guards, prominently including a robust schedule of multilateral training exercises at sea. Military assistance that enhances Southeast Asian states' abilities to keep watch over their maritime frontiers will reduce China's capability to spring unpleasant surprises. Skillfully managed, such activities would, Carlyle Thayer has argued, "put the onus on China to decide the risk of confronting mixed formations of vessels and aircraft."
Washington ought also to forge a much closer relationship with Vietnam, the only Southeast Asian country with both the military deterrent capacity and, assured of American backing, the will to stand up to China. China's drill-rig deployment in May stunned Hanoi's Communist leaders and may have tipped the Politburo balance against continued strenuous efforts to appease Beijing.
A higher profile of American engagement vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea ought to reinforce diplomacy.
Hanoi and Washington have been courting since summer of 2012 and that intensified this summer. Largely for reasons of face – Vietnam doesn't like being lumped in with North Korea, Iran, Syria and China – it wants the US to drop its ban on lethal weapons sales. Washington, meanwhile, has conditioned such sales on "movement" on human-rights issues – an issue also likely to figure in Kerry-Minh talk.
Forging a strategic entente is not easy for either Hanoi or Washington. Each must give a bit on political rights. Yet, with the wolf at Hanoi's door, pragmatic adjustments may lay the foundation of an effective counter to Beijing's drive for hegemony over the South China Sea and domination of adjacent nations.
The US has already intervened effectively in support of the Philippines. Steps to upgrade and reinforce Philippine maritime surveillance and self-defense capabilities have had a tonic effect, allaying concerns that Manila may engage in risky, desperate behavior.
A higher profile of American engagement vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea ought to reinforce diplomacy. In that respect, the US could press Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines to sort out their claims among themselves. It could foster initiatives to draw Chinese authorities into discussions of multilateral management of rapidly depleting ocean fisheries and Chinese firms into joint exploration of the seabed for oil and gas.
There's no way for the United States to engage more actively in the South China Sea issues without angering China. That would probably have short-term negative consequences for US-China cooperation in other arenas, though Beijing is unlikely to refrain from cooperation that is in its own interest in order to punish Washington. The longer-term consequences of limiting China's overweening ambition will be salutary – Beijing will understand that it cannot rewrite the rules of international relations at will. 
David Brown is a retired American diplomat who writes on contemporary Vietnam. He may be reached at

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


(*) Please, note that the term of "East Sea" is used in stead of  "South China Sea" by the author of this article. Thank you.   

This map describes the litoral states' territorial and marine claims basing on the Convention of Law of  the Sea 
China on its sway in the East Sea 

Recent news show Chinese forces hurriedly turning reefs and rocks in middle of the East Sea into floating islands and military bases sitting across international marine lines in and out from the Malacca Strait. China has so far proved successful with its acrobatic trick of "turning from nothing into something". With those newly built basis Chinese forces can shorten distances of only about 830 and 890 km to HCM City and Manila respectively, merely 490 km to Western Malaysia and not too far to reach Malacca Strait.

Satellite photographs show  Chinese workers, vehicles and equipment all together pushing up reclaimed lands and concrete structures at the Johson Reef  and others once belonged to Vietnam but invaded by Chinese in 1988.
Chinese medias openly advertise that Johnson Reef  used to be a small submerge rock but of an extremely important position has  now being built into a  strategic base. Reports reveal the PLA's South China Sea Fleet amphibious ships disguised as civilian vessels took 25 days to transport tanks 072 onto the Johnson Reef. The Qingdao Newspaper said that the artificial island base was blue-printed by the Planning Institute of Chinese Naval Design. China Press also pretend that once J-11 fighter jets are arranged here, the entire East Sea is within its combat. 
Chau Vien rock image taken on July 19, 2014 by  the China Observations network 

According to the Taiwan News Agency, 6 Sept.,  former Deputy Defense Minister Lin Chung Bin called the 6 "islandized" reefs in Spratlys "a dangerous move" by turning them into trump carts and significantly enhancing ability to control the entire East Sea chess-board. He said that the type of fighters in Chinese military personnel present as J-11 or J-16 are of combat radius of about 1500 km. Once they are placed at this newly built base will help the combat scope of China's military  covering  the entire Southeast Asia. On the other hand, China can fully installed radar and eavesdropping equipment in these locations that Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines are within the radar sights of China. 
a sky view image taken recently of the Johnson Reef  (Source: Internet)

The Singapore Morning Paper said that on completion of the reclamation works, Chinese Army will build it like the Woody Island base with long-range search radar, signal stations and eavesdropping radar and radio. By then, all the countries around the East Sea extending to the Straits of Malacca and Singapore are all put within their eavesdropping range radio signals and warfare. At that time the entire South China Sea will turn into a "lake of China". 

The newspaper also said that with the Johnson Reef  tuned into an artificial islands, the Chinese Navy will push its frontline bases in the East Sea southwards by 850 km, and if  the American fleets from northern Indian Ocean entering the Straits of Malacca they will be falling within the monitoring of long-range reconnaissance aircraft and radio stations  of the PLA. 

The paper also commented that Johnson Reef  of 5 km long, 0.4 km wide is relatively large enough for the Chinese to built up a 2 km long runway for heavy combat aircraft like  Su-30, J-11, J-10. This will put entire Straits of Malacca  in their combat radius, and Vietnam will lose its depth combat in this region. At the same time, northeast side of this island is good enough for building military harbors and docks capable to accommodate large frigates

Besides, think a bit to see that with the Chinese military presence there,  the Itu Aba island now  illegally  occupied by Taiwan  only 72 km away can be easily attacked and taken over by the Chinese when they need. That will certainly enhance considerably Beijing's military posture in the region. 

In stead of playing the role of a super power China chooses to play as a bullying big boy

According to the Former Deputy Minister of National Defense of Taiwan Lin Chung Bin, during a recent meeting of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping has launched a new concept: Protect high points in maritime strategic necessity, China's interests overseas  become reasonable extension . In line with this strategy of 10 "high point" in the East Sea, China (main land) has been turning the 6  reefs in the Spratlys into floating islands. 
The  Taiwan News Agency on 2 Sept. cited the editorials of the People's Daily newspaper calling  the ninth meeting of the Politburo on 29 August  the "learning phase of collective thematic focused on the military". During this session, Xi Jinping said that cultural and operational information is synthesized primarily military movements in the future, the Chinese military should focus on building real strength battle, just like new enlisted maximum external conditions. 

The People's Daily newspaper also said that the national interest of China is constantly challenged by the United States, and even both Japan and the Philippines are invasive and therefore increasing the urgency of military reform. Xi  considered it an important development and emphasized  military creativity as well as to deal with the menace in the future. 

Also in this session, Xi Jinping introduced the new concept of "four changes" aimed at setting 4 ideological direction of the war of information and setting  ideas, views, synthetic strategies security countries. Xi also emphasized the concept of "real war" in the military establishment on the basis of ideology, "the entire army as one chess --board, the entire nation as one chess-board." 

Not arguing the validity of the new concept of leader Xi Jinping one can feel the aggressiveness  right in the above-mentioned terms that send out unhealthy signals to China's neighboring states and the world as well. 

In another noticeable event, while recently visiting Australia on 7 Sept. Foreign Minister Wang Yi  offered a new proposal called "4 respects"  urging the world to perform four respects: (1) respect history; (2) respect  international law; (3) respect direct bilateral negotiations between the parties involved; and (4) respect efforts to maintain peace and stability in the East Sea of China and ASEAN. 
Wang Yi's "4 respects" sound so hypocritical that nobody could believe him. Comparing this "4 respects" with reality one could see that it is very China who has been violating them systematically for many years now. If China truly wants the "4 respects" then there would be no problem with the East Sea. And there are contradictions right in the statements of  Mr. Wang Yi and his leader Xi Jinping's doctrine of "strategic high points"  and "overseas interest extension".  
Once again, these make people see the Chinese as real masters of the behavior of "speaking one way and doing another way". 
Let's recall that after the Vietnam War, the United States, for subjective and objective reasons, had withdrawn its forces almost entirely out of  Southeast Asia and partially from Western Pacific region. However, in stead of replacing the vaccum by peaceful means, China deliberately used force by   using "American threat" to prevent regional countries, particularly Vietnam, to improve relations with the United States. This way of  behaviour is so ridiculous, but quite effective for China's conspiracy to monopolize the East Sea. 
Without fearing  any individual regional country as well as collective ASEAN, except the United States, Beijing has been using the disguised notion of "bilateral negotiations" and "joint development" between related regional countries  in order to rule out the American role in settling the East Sea dispute . At the same time China has actively played the policy of  "divide and rule" to weaken ASEAN . Most ASEAN member countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam as two main elements also felt into this tricky trap. Vietnam in particular finds itself difficult to maintain balance between its territorial interests and political ideology, thus being repeatedly used as a card by China. 

How to cope with the aftermath? 

Perhaps ASEAN and the world, including the United States have until now realized the real intention of China using the strategic location of the Johnson Reef. But it turns out rather late now to deal with. The hesitant attitude of a divided collective ASEAN in recent years, and most recently they agreed not to discuss the American proposal to "freeze" the East Sea status just because of an unreasonable reason that ASEAN has already had DOC and  are discussing COC with the China(!). 

Remember over the past decade, ASEAN and the world have been passively  running after to  deal with tricky measures set up by Beijing itself but has never put out any collective action that can help preventing the situation getting worse and worse.  Only one instrument reached between ASEAN and China is  the DOC more than ten years ago.  But this includes merely cliché absolutely without any deterrent effect whereas serving as a good excuse for China to buy time for its territory encroaching. Series of Chinese aggressive acts, sometimes with the Philippines, sometimes with Vietnam, are mainly for the purpose of maritime encroachment, not for fishing or natural resources purposes as they pretend. After invasion and occupation of the entire Paracel in 1974, China invaded 6 rocks at the Paracel in 1988, then some positions near the eastern Philippines, including Mischief which Beijing called "Chung Sa". The most blatant action took place in 2011 when Beijing unilaterally proclaimed the so-called "Sansha City" and sice then sending  tens of thousands of ships  across the East Sea as  a kind of civilian war of aggression. This act of war happens constantly even deep inside waters of Vietnam, the Philippines and other litoral states while China unilaterally ban boats from other countries. 
The Haiyang 981 oil rigs event  in May showed China's  extravaganza, despite laws and international public opinion. But looking closely at the whole intrigue of China, one may see it only the old tactic "talk East, do West" of the ancient Chinese.  

International roles are needed for settlement of the East Sea disputes 

ASEAN has so far proved far from a matching rival of China and  not an appropriate mechanism to deal with the East Sea dispute in a fair, equitable with China. If anything, it needs more participation from outside of the region, particularly the role of international institutions including international courts and UN. 
However, it is regrettable that so far the world has proved powerless against China as the second super power allowing itself to violate many international laws, including the Law of the Sea, the rules of marine ecological environment, the right to livelihood of fishermen, the use of force, etc... 

As for the East Sea dispute,  China has come up from having no position in the East Sea to having a "city" and military bases across the East Sea. This outcome seems surprising and difficult to deal with not only for Vietnam, the Philippines and ASEAN but also for the world when the Chinese fox has already put not only its feet but also its whole body into the the blanket of East Sea. Whether someone has enough power and capacity to force or request Beijing to back off or maintain the status quo in the East Sea? Probably not. Perhaps hopes may come from some factors outside the region. Beside the United States with its "axis rotation", other  medium power states  having direct interests in the East Sea like Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, ect ... will come up to cooperate with ASEAN in specific practical measures  to protect freedom of navigation in the East Sea . This is the most modest goals may be. 
The "cow tongue" dotted lines printed on pages of China's new Passport (Source: Internet)

Perhaps, when a super power refusing to play by the rules,  collective pressure of the international community can take more effect. Let's hope the world waking up to deal with the sleeping lion that has now wakened up and posing serious thread in monopolising the entire East Sea. Would the world accept one day people or boats and aircraft when came in and out of this sea will have to wait for Chinese visa? Ofcourse not!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hanoi playing risky game between US, China

By Zhou Fangyin Source:Global Times Published: 2014-9-2 19:38:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
In mid-August, Martin Dempsey became the first US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Vietnam since 1971. This four-day visit by the US top military officer bore symbolic significance for the growing defense and security cooperation between Hanoi and Washington.

Many analysts deem this visit as a major step forward for both countries to reinforce their military ties.

After Dempsey's visit, another diplomatic move by Vietnam captured headlines. Le Hong Anh, a special envoy of the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee, and also a politburo member, paid a visit to Beijing on Friday, an ice-breaking one since the oil rig crisis in May.

It is interesting to compare the two trips. Dempsey's visit has sent a signal that Vietnam and the US are looking forward to closer cooperation on security, including the possibility of Washington easing its sanctions on arms exports to Vietnam. This might boost Hanoi's confidence in tackling Beijing.

But Le's visit has sent a different signal that Hanoi still wants to value a stable and positively interactive relationship with Beijing, despite the fact that both sides have been at daggers drawn in the past few months.

The two signals may contradict each other. A stronger Vietnam-US military relationship will raise Beijing's suspicion about Hanoi's honesty in mending its ways.

Meanwhile, the special envoy's visit to China will also make Washington realize that Hanoi will not pick sides and seek an alliance with the US, even if Washington tries to draw Hanoi over to its side by offering military assistance.

This kind of "middle way" has disappointed both China and the US to some extent. It seems that Vietnam is trying to employ this self-contradictory approach to align its own national interests.

On the one hand, Hanoi needs Washington's backup, but cannot be truly dependent on Washington.

The mayhem in Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine and Washington's feeble countermeasures have shown the high risks that any country has to take if it places all its bets on the US in the face of crisis.

Washington is taking a much prudent attitude toward its security promises to other nations.

Considering the simmering South China Sea disputes, there are very few benefits Washington can earn from giving Vietnam security promises. On the contrary, it has to bear great risks and costs if it has to fulfill them.

What's more, a historical grudge still haunts Vietnam and the US, and it won't be easy to turn over a new leaf.

As a result, even if the military and national security cooperation between Vietnam and the US can improve, the momentum will still be checked.

On the other hand, Vietnam knows that it cannot challenge China in the South China Sea at the cost of leading the bilateral relationship into a deadlock.

Hanoi can choose its friends but not its neighbors. Small and medium-sized nations won't engage in full-scale confrontations with their neighboring major powers, unless they have no alternative.

Hanoi resorting to provocations when dealing with China is an unwise strategy. Vietnam should employ more flexible approaches when its relationship with China turns sour, because elasticity is badly needed for both sides to achieve compromise at certain times.

The ideal scenario for Hanoi is that it can have wider access to Washington's support in terms of politics, national security and diplomacy amid escalating tensions with China. And meanwhile, it can be more capable of taking advantage of this support, though much limited, to make a fuss in the South China Sea.

This ideal scenario can only be acquired on the condition that Hanoi is able to maintain the stability and balance of a triangular relationship with Washington and Beijing.

However, it is not just Vietnam that makes the call. Vietnam is taking risks by gaining advantage from both the US and China. China, has been exercising restraint. But the situation may go out of control if Vietnam keeps being provocative.

Having things both ways between China and the US is a dangerous game for Vietnam. Hanoi should stop swaying and hold a fixed position on the South China Sea issue. Hanoi needs greater strategic wisdom, rather than just some contingent, opportunist moves.

The author is a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

China expands runway, harbour at Woody Island

James Hardy, London - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly

29 August 2014
Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows land reclamation, harbour modifications and other ongoing construction at Yongxing Dao, also known as Woody Island: part of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. (CNES 2014, Distribution Airbus DS/Spot Image/IHS)
China continues to expand Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
Satellite imagery shows that since October 2013 China has undertaken substantial land reclamation, harbour redevelopment and other infrastructure construction on the island, which is known as Yongxing Dao by China and Phu Lam Island by Vietnam.
China has occupied Woody Island since 1956 and, since then, has established a military garrison, coastal defensive positions, the runway, four large aircraft hangars, communications facilities, and a municipal headquarters. Vietnam claims the Paracels, as does Taiwan.
Previous satellite imagery analysis by IHS Jane's shows that between 2005 and 2011 authorities constructed a new harbour on the west side of the island; since October 2013 a breakwater immediately south of that harbour has been removed and more dredging work has been carried out.
The land reclamation is occurring at two areas in particular: at either end of the island's 2,400 m-long runway, and to fill in the gap between Woody Island and the causeway to Shi Dao (Rocky Island): a small outcrop that is believed to house a secure communications facility.
The dredgers are depositing sand onto an area on the southwest end of the runway; spoil is also being deposited on the runway's northeast end. If all of this new land is used for the runway, then the strip will increase from 2,400 m to 2,700-2,800 m. This increases the safety envelope for PLA Air Force bombers like the H-6 and strategic transport aircraft such as the Ilyushin Il-76.
IHS Maritime has used AISLive data to identify one of the dredgers being used as Xin Hai Tun , a cutter suction dredger built by Guangzhou Wenchong Shipyard and operated by SDC Orient Dredging and Engineering. Other dredgers operating in the area appear to be barges fitted with clamshell dredgers. Alongside are a number of container ships, including one called Xing He Yuan 1 , which is owned by Taizhou Xinghe Shipping Co Ltd. The company's website highlights its expertise in dyke and pier construction.


Along with the Spratly Islands, the Paracels are at the heart of the continuing South China Sea (SCS) dispute. Whereas the Spratlys' location in the southern part of the SCS has previously limited Chinese activities there, the Paracels' proximity to Hainan island has meant Beijing has been able to expand its jurisdiction and administration of them. Woody Island has been a particular focus and, in July 2012, was designated the capital of Sansha Prefecture, which is part of Hainan province.
The moves to extend the runway and rebuild the harbour on the west side of the island will enhance Woody Island's utility as a military base from which to project power in the SCS. The Paracels' strategic location close to the centre of the SCS also means China can use them as a base for constabulary operations, whether that is enforcing fishing regulations unilaterally imposed by Beijing or to potentially interdict shipping traversing the region, where Beijing move to do this as part of a wider sea control strategy.
In the short to medium term, it is unlikely that China would move to do so, as the sea lanes in this part of the SCS serve its ports - such as Hong Kong and Shanghai - and as such freedom of passage is in China's interest.
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