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Thursday, May 30, 2024

How to Respond to China’s Tactics in the South China Sea

How to Respond to China’s Tactics in the South China Sea

Beijing is testing the U.S.-Philippines alliance, and a new strategy is needed.

The odds of armed conflict in the South China Sea are high and rising. China’s relentless assertiveness against the Philippines—harassing ships inside Manila’s internationally recognized Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), most notably at Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal—has led to a situation where war in the South China Sea now seems more likely than at any other Indo-Pacific flash point, including the Taiwan Strait and Korean Peninsula.

To be sure, the Philippines’ security alliance with the United States has so far deterred China from more serious attacks on the Philippine military or other government assets. But the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty—which commits Washington to come to Manila’s aid if the latter is under military attack—has utterly failed to deter Beijing from escalating its coercive gray-zone tactics—aggressive actions designed to irreversibly change the status quo without resorting to lethal force. These tactics have included ramming, shadowing, blocking, encircling, firing water cannons, and using military-grade lasers against civilian ships and military vessels. China also relies on its formidable coast guard and so-called fishing militia—comprised of fishermen who are trained and equipped by the military—to patrol, loiter in, and occupy disputed areas, establishing a quasi-permanent presence that the targeted country cannot easily dislodge.

On June 15, moreover, Beijing is reportedly planning to implement a new policy that would authorize the Chinese coast guard to detain foreigners crossing into waters claimed by China. These waters include most of the South China Sea—based on Beijing’s own expansive historical claims rather than international law, which in this case is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (For comparison, imagine if Germany claimed the entire North Sea, or if the United States claimed the entire Caribbean right up to the South American coast.)

In the past, China has attempted to cordon off its claims with floating barriers and, most recently, is accused by Manila of building an artificial island at Sabina Shoal—150 kilometers (about 93 miles) from the Philippines’ Palawan Island, but 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) from the closest point in China. A well-informed source who asked to remain anonymous told me that Manila is already blocked from accessing approximately 30 percent of its recognized EEZ due to Chinese salami-slicing tactics. Absent an effective response, this percentage will only rise in the coming years.

In fact, China has the Philippines in an ever-tightening stranglehold that is increasingly compromising the latter’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at sea. If international law is to be upheld and borders are to remain inviolable, the United States must do more to help the Philippines. Yet neither Manila nor Washington seem to have a viable plan to counter Beijing’s successful gray-zone tactics.

Facing an increasingly desperate situation, in March, the Philippines announced a Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept. Public details are scant, but it seems to be a new defense strategy that transitions away from Manila’s traditionally army-centric model—informed by a long history of invasions and occupations—toward upgrading the navy and coast guard to counter China at sea. Full funding for the new strategy is still pending in parliament. Regardless, the concept seems to ignore the equally important air force, and the entire process will take many years, if not decades, to implement.

In the meantime, Manila is pressing forward with three other efforts.

First, it is deepening its alliance with Washington. Earlier this month, the two countries carried out their largest-ever annual military drills, which included exercising the defense of an island chain in the northern Philippines (just 125 miles south of Taiwan) as well as a practice launch of an anti-ship cruise missile to sink a decommissioned ship. Since coming into office in 2022, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos has raised the number of military bases that the U.S. military can temporarily use from five to nine, in line with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014.

Second, the Philippines has been forging ahead on a number of security drills and agreements with other countries in the region. Last month, for example, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States conducted joint exercises within Manila’s EEZ for the first time. Members of the group—known as the “new Quad” or “Squad”—are also negotiating new bilateral security agreements. Japan and the Philippines are discussing a reciprocal troop access agreement that should be completed by July. The Philippines and Australia have upgraded cooperation in maritime security and elevated their partnership to “strategic” following Marcos’s visit to Canberra in February. The Philippines is also receiving some arms assistance from India, such as a recent delivery of much-needed BrahMos anti-ship cruise missiles.

Finally, Manila recently adopted a strategy of “assertive transparency” toward Chinese encroachments into its EEZ. Philippine ship crews are now recording each incident of Chinese coercion and publicizing it for the world to see. The idea is that Beijing will no longer be able to deny its actions as it has done in the past—and perhaps be shamed into adhering to international law.

For its part, the United States has reiterated its “ironclad” commitment to the Philippines multiple times.

The problem is that the Cold War-era U.S.-Philippines treaty did not foresee the kinds of gray-zone tactics and hybrid threats that have become the modus operandi for revisionist states in recent years, whether in the South China Sea or on NATO’s eastern flank. Washington has not elaborated on what types of Chinese action might trigger U.S. intervention in support of its ally. The Biden administration has consistently noted that triggers include “armed attacks” on Philippine military or coast guard vessels, but it has not said what constitutes such an attack. Thus far, China’s aggressive but nonlethal actions against the Philippines do not appear to qualify.

As much as Manila, Washington, and their partners are now working to counter China, none of their steps has been effective in deterring Beijing’s increasing encroachments. What can the Philippines and the United States do—and is it even possible to restore deterrence in the South China Sea?

One option is to revise the U.S.-Philippines treaty to reflect modern gray-zone threats. Rather than vaguely highlighting an “armed attack” as the prompt for U.S. military intervention, Manila and Washington could broadly note that gray-zone activities could or would count as armed attacks.

During his visit to the Pentagon last month, for example, Marcos specified that “if any Filipino serviceman is killed by at attack from any foreign power, then that is time to invoke the [treaty].” The two countries could further broaden the category of assets covered by the treaty to include the civilian ships that regularly resupply Philippine troops stationed on the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era landing ship that Manila intentionally ran aground at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. China might think twice about violating a revised, more encompassing defense clause.

There are other ways for Washington to clarify its policy in the South China Sea. In July 2020, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States recognized the legality and integrity of the sea’s EEZs in line with U.N. laws and the 2016 international arbitration ruling that rejected China’s expansive claims. To date, however, the United States has not taken an official position on the disputed territories within the South China Sea, perhaps to avoid antagonizing China further.

By contrast, the Obama administration clarified in 2012 that Washington recognized the Senkaku Islands as belonging to Japan, not China, in their East China Sea standoff, and that any attack on the islands would trigger Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, meaning that the United States would be required to respond. Manila would obviously appreciate a similar clarification, which would signal to Beijing that Washington now considers attacks on the Philippines’ recognized EEZ to be direct assaults on its sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are already covered by the treaty.

Another option is for the U.S. military to play a more direct role in the region. Asia security expert Blake Herzinger recently argued that one way of bolstering deterrence and repelling China’s gray-zone tactics is to remove the Sierra Madre and replace it with a combined forward operating base used by both Philippine forces and the U.S. Marine Corps. Other researchers have argued for varying levels of U.S. involvement without establishing a base—such as combined naval or coast guard patrols—with the same aim of enhancing deterrence.

An intriguing technological solution might be to leverage the U.S. military’s ongoing Replicator program, scheduled to become available by August 2025. A product of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, Replicator seeks to quickly produce thousands of air and naval drones to make up for numerical shortfalls against the Chinese military. Although few details are public, the U.S. Defense Department is already introducing Replicator drones in the Indo-Pacific, and it may eventually be capable of swarming targets and possibly conducting a range of gray-zone activities of its own, though its capabilities for now remain classified.

Uncrewed systems such as Replicator could keep tit-for-tat encounters just below the threshold of triggering a broader war, especially because China’s own defense projects could also take the human element out of clashes at sea by using robotic and artificial intelligence-enabled warfare. Put another way, Replicator could help reset the escalation ladder and give China, the United States, and the Philippines greater space to negotiate after incidents.

Washington could also consider creating a linkage between China’s gray-zone actions against a U.S. ally and other areas of the U.S.-China relationship. That would signal to Beijing that its encroachments on the Philippines come with costs. These could include economic sanctions, postponement or termination of diplomatic negotiations, or changes to the U.S. military posturing elsewhere in the region. Imposing costs for aggressive actions would fit neatly into the Biden administration’s so-called integrated deterrence strategy, which seeks to leverage the collective, interagency strength of the United States, its allies, and its partners to respond to aggression.

As for collective action by the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) to challenge Chinese encroachments, the track record of the past nearly 30 years is not encouraging—even though several other members, including Vietnam and Malaysia, are also facing Chinese incursions into their waters. Since 1996, ASEAN has been working on a future code of conduct for the region, which might call for an end to militarization, land reclamation, and seizures of disputed features. However, this would entirely depend on the bloc’s success in negotiating the code with Beijing, which has shown no inclination to compromise on its view that it owns most of the South China Sea. Bilateral negotiations would likely founder for similar reasons.

Finally, Washington and Manila could simply stay the course. This would mean continuing to bolster the alliance through expansion of the existing defense cooperation agreement, more focused annual military exercises, and other engagements, as well as through helping Manila to build its own military capabilities and expose China’s bad behavior to the world. But none of these measures have been successful against gray-zone tactics so far, and any future success is likely to take more time as Beijing continues to eat away at Manila’s EEZ.

The best option might be to stay the course on U.S.-Philippines alliance-building but add new features, such as revising the treaty to reflect gray-zone realities, tie into the Replicator program, and impose costs for China’s behavior via other parts of the U.S.-China relationship. Doing these things now should give the Philippines the breathing room that it needs to modernize and professionalize its military with U.S. assistance, helping to reestablish deterrence and lessen the risk of war in the years to come.


Monday, May 27, 2024

Philippines protests China's unilateral South China Sea fishing ban

Philippines protests China's unilateral South China Sea fishing ban

The Philippines rejected China's unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea, as tensions continued to roil in the disputed waterway.

In a statement on Monday, the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs said China unilaterally informed the Philippines of its imposition of a fishing ban that would last till Sept. 16, and that Manila has lodged a protest.

"Through a diplomatic note," the statement says, "the Philippines protested the ban insofar as it includes the Philippines maritime zones over which the Philippines has sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction."

China's fishing ban will cover "areas of the South China Sea north of the 12 degrees North latitude," according to the department.

"The Philippines stressed that the unilateral imposition of the fishing moratorium raises tensions in the West Philippine and South China seas. It directly contravenes the understanding between President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping to manage differences through diplomacy and dialogue and to de-escalate the situation at sea," the foreign affairs statement says.

Relations between Manila and Beijing have been deteriorating due to disputes in the South China Sea.


Saturday, May 18, 2024

Philippines to buy five patrol boats from Japan amid South China Sea tensions

Philippines to buy five patrol boats from Japan amid South China Sea tensions

The Philippines will purchase five patrol vessels from Japan amid growing tensions in the South China Sea.

The deal will be financed through a Japanese loan worth about 23.9 billion pesos ($415 million) and was signed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and Japanese Ambassador Endo Kazuya, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement on its website Friday.

"This occasion signifies not only the deepening of bilateral relations between the Philippines and Japan, but also underscores our unwavering commitment to enhance our maritime safety capabilities for the benefit of our nation and the broader maritime community,” Manalo said.

The Philippines is beefing up its naval resources as tensions escalate with China over the South China Sea. Japan, together with Australia and the United States affirmed their position in April that a 2016 South China Sea arbitral tribunal award that favored the Philippines over China in their maritime dispute as final and legally binding.

Under the loan program, Japan previously agreed to provide the Southeast Asian country with 10 44-meter-long patrol ships in 2013 and two 97-meter-long vessels in 2016.

Deliveries of the just announced five ships are expected to take place between 2027 and 2028.

Last December, the Philippine Coast Guard said it would build a facility in Subic Bay of Luzon Island for use by the procured large patrol ships.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A code of conduct won’t solve the South China Sea crisis

A code of conduct won’t solve the South China Sea crisis


Negotiations over a “code of conduct” (COC) in the South China Sea between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China waxed and waned for two decades. Last July, in a bid to expedite an agreement, a three-year deadline was agreed to conclude the talks. 

Nothing comes easy in this multifaceted dispute. Even the title of the agreement to hurry along the talks – Guidelines for Accelerating the Early Conclusion of an Effective and Substantive COC – arguably reflects the urgency but also the complexity.

China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN member states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – each have overlapping maritime claims to the South China Sea. The negotiations for the code, however, involved all ten ASEAN members with its consensus model and China. 

Two major points will likely derail the objective of accelerating negotiations for a code to manage the South China Sea disputes peacefully.

The first issue is the state of the talks themselves, where trust between the parties is plainly lacking. ASEAN negotiators privately explain that even agreeing on the geographical area the code should cover – termed the Zone of Applicability – has proven difficult because of the different parts claimed in the South China Sea. Whereas officials on the Chinese side believe some ASEAN states are asking for the sky – i.e., demanding China to give up its sovereignty in the South China Sea. Only then, ASEAN negotiators see China changing the goalposts during the negotiations.

But not all blame is sheeted to China. Some ASEAN members are seen as laggards in the negotiations, not fully committed to the process, not believing they have much at stake in the disputes. One ASEAN negotiator explained that some ASEAN negotiators turn up ill-prepared, often needing to consult their capitals for instructions on almost every discussion point, hampering progress, despite meetings being held five and six times annually. Wry humour has taken hold, with jokes about another agreement between ASEAN and China within the next few years to “Accelerate Further the Already Accelerating Process for the Early Conclusion of an Effective and Substantive COC”.

The second issue concerns the quality of the outcome. There are doubts whether China will be willing to sign a legally binding agreement, given that it has already dismissed the outcome of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in 2016 against its claims in the South China Sea. Should that hurdle be overcome, there are concerns about implementation of the code. Will there be an effective mechanism to monitor and enforce any violation? 

If not, what does the code amount to? And also, given that ASEAN operates with a consensus decision-making process, will the deadline push ASEAN members to water down the substance of the agreement?

Talks on the code of conduct, it must be acknowledged, are only part of the broader ASEAN engagement with China on the South China Sea. ASEAN’s efforts with China stretch back years, to 1990 when Indonesia held the first workshop on the South China Sea involving the different claimants. In the decades since, there have been efforts to engage in joint cooperation on extracting resources and protecting the environment in the disputed waters. 

Yet, 34 years on, militarisation has been the dominant theme. China’s artificial islands bristle with military facilities and long runways. Beijing has adopted a more aggressive approach to asserting its claims, lasing, using water cannons, and ramming against other claimants’ boats. Vietnam has expanded its presence and deployed missiles. The Philippines is seeking to fortify its position.

So setting a deadline for negotiations on a code of conduct doesn’t necessarily hasten an agreement. Meantime, ASEAN claimants should continue to build up their capabilities and work with other external powers, such as Australia and Japan, to defend their maritime interests. Sometimes, the potential ability to inflict military pain on the other party may be just the instrument for diplomacy to work well. 


China caught building new 'artificial island' in South China Sea strip as tensions explode

China caught building new 'artificial island' in South China Sea strip as tensions explode

China claims sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea and has been at odds with several countries, including the Philippines and Taiwan, for decades.

China has been laying the groundwork to build a new artificial island in the contested South China Sea, according to the Philippines.

Jay Tarriela, the head of Manila's Coast Guard, told the press on Monday that his agency is committed to keeping Beijing from "carrying out a successful reclamation of Sabina Shoal."

The shoal, also known as Xianbin Reef in China, is located in the Spratly Islands and is included in the Philippines's exclusive economic zone.

Sabina Shoal has been playing a crucial role in Manila's resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre warship, which the Philippines ran aground in 1999 to use as an outpost in the area.

Philippines leader President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. confirmed that a Coast Guard vessel had been deployed to the area to "monitor the supposed illegal activities of China, creating an artificial island by destroying coral reefs."

The force also released video it recorded last month allegedly showing large deposits of crushed corals sufficient to affect the elevation of the shoal's sandbars.

Beijing has been pursuing a project of land reclamation for over 14 years, building an estimated seven artificial islands across the Spratly Islands.

Some of the man-made atolls have also been militarised despite President Xi Jinping pledging they wouldn't be to former US president Barack Obama.

Beijing, however, has rejected Manila's claims and accused the government of trying to "vilify" China amid a period of growing tensions between the two nations.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: "The Philippines has repeatedly spread rumours, deliberately vilified China and tried to mislead the international community. None of those attempts will succeed."

Huge civilian Filipino flotilla heads to disputed shoal to ‘assert sovereign rights’

Huge civilian Filipino flotilla heads to disputed shoal to ‘assert sovereign rights’

Philippines coast guard and navy watch as wooden boats head to Scarborough shoal to place buoys and hand food packs to local fishers

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Philippines Probes Alleged Chinese Disinformation Campaign Over South China Sea

Philippines Probes Alleged Chinese Disinformation Campaign Over South China Sea


The Philippines said Monday it was officially investigating allegations that Chinese embassy staff in Manila had engaged in a disinformation campaign related to the South China Sea.

The move followed a call by the Philippine national security adviserurging the government to expel embassy staffers for allegedly recording a phone conversation with a senior Filipino commander about military resupply missions to a disputed shoal.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs will look into any reports of illegal and unlawful activities by diplomatic officials, and undertake necessary action in line with existing laws and regulations,” the department said in a statement Monday.

While foreign diplomats are “accorded necessary liberties” in conducting their duties, they are expected to perform them “with the highest standards of integrity” and professionalism, it said.

Last week, top Philippine defense and security officials demanded an investigation into whether China had violated Manila’s wiretapping laws during the alleged phone call between a Chinese official and the Filipino government military commander, Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, who oversees the defense of Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal, among other contested South China Sea features.

Carlos, the head of the Philippine military’s Western Command (WESCOM), allegedly agreed with an unidentified Chinese official to a “new model” for arranging for notifications of resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal, according to a transcript released by the Chinese embassy to select news outlets.

Last week, Philippine officials announced that Carlos had gone on leave and was temporarily replaced.

Manila maintains the BRP Sierra Madre, an old ship grounded at Ayungin Shoal, to serve as the country’s outpost in the contested region. It is critical because Ayungin lies near Mischief Reef, an artificial island where Beijing built a naval base in the 1990s.

WESCOM oversees Manila’s defense of the Palawan and Kalayaan islands, including the disputed Spratly chain.

On Friday, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry hit back at the call from Eduardo Año, the Philippine national security adviser, that Chinese embassy staffers be expelled.

“The Philippines’ response shows exactly their guilty conscience in the face of facts and evidence and how exasperated and desperate they have become,” spokesman Lin Jian said during a regular press conference.

“We ask the Philippines to ensure that Chinese diplomats can carry out their duty normally, and to stop provocations and infringements,” he said. “The Philippines needs to quit denying the facts and must not make reckless moves that will only backfire on the Philippines itself.”


Philippines to Take Steps to Prevent Chinese Reclamation in South China Sea

Philippines to Take Steps to Prevent Chinese Reclamation in South China Sea

Over the weekend, Manila accused Beijing of attempting to create an “artificial island” at Sabina Shoal, an unoccupied reef 75 nautical miles from Palawan island.


The Philippines said yesterday that it will bolster its presence at shoals and islets in the South China Sea, to prevent China from carrying out land reclamation activities on contested features.

The claim comes after the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) revealed that it had deployed a ship to unoccupied Sabina Shoal “to monitor the supposed illegal activities of China, creating ‘an artificial island'” on the submerged reefs, according to a statement from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s office.

PCG spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela told a media forum on Saturday that there had been “small-scale reclamation” of Sabina Shoal, and that China was “the most probable actor.” He said that the coast guard had discovered piles of dead and crushed coral that had been dumped on the sandbars of the shoal, which Manila refers to as Escoda Shoal. “It has been observed that crushed corals were dumped and it is highly likely that the maritime features were altered,” Tarriela said in a separate post on X (formerly Twitter).

Addressing another forum in Manila yesterday, Tarriela said that the agency was committed to sustaining a presence in the area to make sure it was able to prevent China “from carrying out a successful reclamation in Sabina Shoal.” In the mid-2010s, China successfully carried out large-scale land reclamation on the features that it occupies in the Spratly Islands, turning some into artificial islands equipped with airstrips, radar installations, and government buildings.

Manila has a strong incentive to prevent China from turning Sabina Shoal into a similar island fortress. The shoal sits well to the east of China’s seven other Spratly Island features, just 75 nautical miles from the coast of Palawan, the Philippines’ westernmost island. The shoal is also the rendezvous point for vessels carrying out resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal, a Philippine-occupied submerged reef around 36 nautical miles to the west that has become a significant flashpoint of China-Philippines tensions.

Over the past 18 months, the China Coast Guard (CCG) has made increasingly forceful attempts to block Philippine attempts to resupply its forces at Second Thomas Shoal, which are stationed aboard a grounded warship. During recent stand-offs it has rammed and fired high-pressure water cannons at PCG vessels and Philippine Navy-commissioned supply boats, causing some considerable damage. This has since spun out into a diplomatic spat in which the two sides have traded frequent accusations of double-dealing and bad faith, to which there appears to be currently no resolution.

Sure enough, China’s Foreign Ministry yesterday denied the claim that it had begun reclamation at Sabina Shoal, dismissing the accusation as “groundless and pure rumor.”

“Recently, the Philippine side has repeatedly spread rumors, deliberately smeared China and attempted to mislead the international community, which is futile,” a spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a press briefing in Beijing, urging the country to “return to the right track of properly settling maritime disputes through negotiation and consultation.”

With tensions increasing, the Philippines also said yesterday that it will extend its vigilance to all of the 11 features that it occupies in the Spratly Islands, as well as the numerous other unoccupied features, such as Sabina Shoal, lying inside its EEZ. Also yesterday, Jonathan Malaya, spokesperson of the National Security Council (NSC), said that NSC chief Eduardo Año had ordered a tighter guard at locations within Manila’s EEZ, Reuters reported.

“No one will guard (these locations) except us,” Malaya said in a television interview. “It is our responsibility under international law to guard (them) and ensure that the environment there would not be damaged and that there won’t be reclamation activities.”

These comments on the same day that the Philippines announced that it would launch an official investigation of allegations that Chinese embassy staff in Manila had engaged in a disinformation campaign related to the South China Sea disputes.

The investigation will center on a recording released by the embassy last week, purportedly documenting a conversation between an unnamed Chinese diplomat and Philippine Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, chief of the Palawan-based Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, referring to the management of tensions at Second Thomas Shoal. The recording was released to support China’s claim that the Philippines had broached an informal agreement designed to lower temperatures at the shoal.

Late last week, NSA chief Año urged the government to expel the Chinese embassy staffers for allegedly recording a phone conversation, in possible breach of Philippine law. The Department of Foreign Affairs subsequently said it would “look into any reports of illegal and unlawful activities by diplomatic officials, and undertake necessary action in line with existing laws and regulations.”

Saturday, April 13, 2024

China coastguard blocks Philippines vessels as maritime tension grows

China coastguard blocks Philippines vessels as maritime tension grows

         A vessel from China’s coastguard has blocked two Philippine government ships for hours a short distance from the south-east Asian country’s coast, in a further escalation of tension between the two nations in the disputed South China Sea.

The operation on Saturday night took place just 35 nautical miles from the Philippines’ coastline, and comes as Beijing pushes back against Washington’s high-profile moves this week to bolster Manila, its ally, against China.

The Chinese coastguard ship met a Philippine maritime research vessel and an escort ship from the Philippine coastguard, according to satellite imagery and ship tracking data collected by SeaLight, an open-source research initiative that tracks Chinese maritime activity in the area.

The tracking data showed that the vessels met on the boundary of the nine-dash line, with which Beijing marks its extensive but vague claim over most of the South China Sea.

The two Philippine vessels stopped for more than eight hours after the Chinese coastguard ship blocked their way, and only resumed their journey north-west early on Sunday.

“This really is unprecedented: they intercepted them just as they crossed that nine-dash line claim,” said Ray Powell, SeaLight director.

Neither the Philippines nor China has commented on the incident.

Powell said the Chinese move was probably a reaction to last week’s first ever US-Japan-Philippines summit in Washington, when Joe Biden, Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida voiced concerns about China’s “dangerous and aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea”.

In recent weeks, the US has stepped up warnings to China over its coercive activity in the South China Sea and particularly around Second Thomas Shoal, a reef called Ren’ai Jiao by China and claimed by both Beijing and Manila. The Philippines keeps control over the reef with a rusting former warship grounded there in 1999.

Washington has reiterated several times that the US-Philippines mutual defence treaty “extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft — including those of its coast guard — anywhere in the South China Sea”.

On Friday, the US and the Philippines national security advisers joined talks between their defence and foreign secretaries for the first time, in the latest sign of expanding security co-operation.

Beijing has reacted furiously. It summoned diplomats from the US and Japan and accused both countries of engaging in bloc politics and interfering in its internal affairs.

On Thursday China’s foreign ministry accused Marcos of having reneged on a bilateral understanding on the Second Thomas Shoal issue. The Philippines has abandoned the current administration’s understanding with China on the Ren’ai Jiao issue,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said.

The Philippine ships blocked on Saturday had earlier left the port for a hydrographic survey of an area some 80 nautical miles north of Scarborough Shoal, another small piece of land disputed between Beijing and Manila. China wrested control of the shoal from the Philippines in 2012.

Both shoals sit inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, giving Manila the sole right to survey and exploit resources under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. A 2016 arbitration tribunal ruling said China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea, including over the two shoals and surrounding waters, were in violation of Unclos.

In March, Chinese coast guard ships fired water cannons at a Philippines vessel headed towards the Second Thomas Shoal in two separate incidents, injuring Filipino soldiers and damaging Manila’s vessels. Marcos in response said the Philippines would implement countermeasures against China, though he did not provide any details.


Monday, April 8, 2024

Biden to warn Beijing against meddling in South China Sea

Biden to warn Beijing against meddling in South China Sea

President Joe Biden will warn China about its increasingly aggressive activity in the South China Sea this week during summits with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Two senior US officials said Biden would express serious concern about the situation around the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands where the Chinese coastguard has used water cannons to prevent the Philippines from resupplying marines on the Sierra Madre, a rusting ship that has been lodged on the reef for 25 years.

Biden will stress that the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Sierra Madre, said the officials, adding that he expressed “deep concern” when he spoke to President Xi Jinping on Monday.

“China is underestimating the potential for escalation. We’ve tried to make that clear in a series of conversations . . . that our mutual defence treaty covers Philippine sailors and ships and by extension . . . the Sierra Madre,” one official told the Financial Times.

“China needs to examine its tactics or risk some serious blowback.”

Admiral John Aquilino, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, recently issued a similar warning to a delegation of retired Chinese military officers and Cui Tiankai, China’s former ambassador to the US, according to people familiar with the situation. Indopacom did not comment. The Biden administration has also enlisted other retired US officials to deliver similar private messages to Beijing.

The officials said the US was wary of establishing a “red line” with Beijing. “If you give the Chinese a red line, they will go just short of that and do everything but,” said one official.

The second official said China may think its actions fall below the threshold of the US commitments under the mutual defence treaty.

“The reality of their rules of engagement and the way that responsibility evolves may mean that ultimately they don’t have perfect control over that fact,” the official said. “We would not want to create an artificially clean distinction when they themselves are not fully able to control their own actions.”

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said the “greatest risk of a direct US-China military confrontation today is at Second Thomas Shoal”.

“If Beijing directly attacks Philippine ships or armed forces, Washington would be compelled to respond,” she said. “A major political crisis between the US and China would ensue, and, at worst, a wider military conflict.”

Jose Manuel Romualdez, Philippine ambassador to the US, said the two allies hoped that the treaty would never have to be invoked, but warned, “we will not hesitate to do so” if warranted.

The Second Thomas Shoal is one of many contested features in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines grounded the Sierra Madre on the reef in 1999 as part of its effort to reinforce its claims to the feature. The Philippine military has stationed marines on the ship who need to be periodically resupplied.

China says Manila is bringing construction materials to the shoal to reinforce the rusty second world war-era ship, which is at risk of disintegrating. It also accuses Manila of reneging on a promise years ago to remove the ship — a claim the Philippines has rejected.

Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA China analyst, said Beijing was trying to test what the US response would be if China attempted to remove the Philippine marines from the Sierra Madre and destroy the vessel. He said it probably wanted to build a military outpost on the reef as it has done elsewhere in the South China Sea.

 “A base closer to the Philippines would both secure China’s claim in the area and provide a forward operating location for combat operations against US forces operating from Philippine territory in a Taiwan Strait conflict,” said Wilder.

Jeff Smith, an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, said the US should adopt a tougher stance. “The US should participate in joint resupply missions with Filipino forces and explore options to replace the deteriorating Filipino ship,” he said.

“The US cannot repeat the same mistakes it made in 2012, when China set a terrible precedent by using military coercion to seize control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.”

Underscoring the rising concern about the Second Thomas Shoal, the US, Japan, Philippines and Australia announced that they would hold their first-ever joint military exercises in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

In a joint statement, the defence ministers from the four countries made clear they supported the result of a 2016 arbitration case at The Hague which rejected Chinese claims of historic rights to most of the South China Sea within a demarcation called the “nine-dash line”.

The Chinese embassy in Washington said Xi stressed in his call with Biden that Beijing had sovereignty over the Spratlys, including Second Thomas Shoal. It said the “root cause” of the dispute was that Manila had “repeatedly gone back on its words and tried to build permanent outposts on the uninhabited reef”.

            “The US is not a party to the South China Sea issue, yet it keeps meddling in the issue, sowing discord concerning maritime issues between China and the Philippines and falsely accusing China, causing instability in the region,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in the US. 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

The 1974 event and the sovereignty over the Paracel Islands

The 1974 event and the sovereignty over the Paracel Islands


In 1974, Taking advantage of an inevitable defeat of the South Vietnamese Government, China used force to grab the western part of the Paracel. From the angle of international laws, some conclusions can be made

First, China’s use of force to grab the islands and archipelagoes in the South China Sea was a serious violation of Article 2, Provision 4 of the UN Charter, which prohibits the use of force in international relations, especially banning the use of force to infringe upon the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries. The contents of this provision in the UN Charter are fundamental principles of international laws which require all member states of the United Nations including China to adhere to.

This principle was developed and specified in Resolution 2625 of the UN General Assembly dated October 24, 1970 which stipulates: “Every State has the duty to refrain from the threat or use of force to violate the existing international boundaries of another State or (the threat or use of force) as a means of solving international disputes, including territorial disputes and problems concerning frontiers of States.”

Secondly, the fact that China used force to grab the eastern part of the Paracel Islands in 1956 and then the western part in 1974 was, in it true natur, an invasion of Vietnam’s territory.

Thirdly, according to international laws, the occupation of the Paracel islands by means of force did not create evidence for China’s claim of its sovereignty over the islands and rocks they had seized by force. UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 on 24th October 1970 clearly stipulates: “The territory of a State shall not be the object of military occupation resulting from the use of force in contravention of acquisition by another State resulting from the threat or use of force. No territory acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognized as legal.”

China’s invasion of the Paracel did not consolidate the legislation for Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. Such act was condemned by international communities, and China’s legal profile once employed to prove Beijing’s sovereignty of the South China Sea would undoubtedly be rejected by international courts.

In conclusion, in accordance with international laws, China’s use of force to occupy the Paracel in 1956 and 1974 seriously violated the provision of UN Charter “Inhibition of the use of force in international relations” and is described as  an “act of invasion”. Even if China continues its occupation of the Paracel for another 100 years, it will have no sovereignty over the islands. As a proverb goes: “What belongs to Cesar must be returned to Cesar”, the Paracel that belongs to Vietnam will sooner or later be returned to Vietnam. It is a historical and unchangeable fact.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

A comparative study of Chinese and Vietnamese claims on Spratly and Paracel islands

A comparative study of Chinese and Vietnamese claims on Spratly and Paracel islands


The Chinese history books mention that China discovered the islands in the SCS as early as the Second Century B.C. and their exploitation and development followed and finally the islands were put under the Chinese administrative jurisdiction. However, there is no authentic evidence of the Chinese sovereignty on the islands. Most of these are tiny rocks, and many of them are frequently under water. Till recently, humans had not settled there, though fishermen of the neighbouring states have been using them as temporary encampment.

A 10th Century Arab traveller and a geographer al-Masudi had made reference to the Cham Sea (SCS) and trade between Champ (Vietnam) and Luzon (part of Philippines). There was no mention of the Chinese sovereignty in the Cham Sea.

China also claims that Emperor Cheng Zu of the Ming dynasty had sent Admiral Cheng Ho seven times between 1405 and 1433 to Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Africa that covered the SCS, and the Cheng Ho officers gave details of the features in the SCS, hence they belonged to China. These voyages of Cheng Ho were for the specific purpose of spreading knowledge about emperor’s majesty and virtue and not for any administrative function. Cheng Ho only passed through these features but did not occupy them.

In 1909, the last Emperor Xuantong, sent Zhang Renjun, Governor of Guangdong and Guanxi, Li Zhun, Admiral of the Guangdong Fleet, accompanied by 170 naval officers and men on an inspection tour of the Paracel islands in three warships and they inspected fifteen islands and set up stone tablets engraved with the names of the islands. This can be regarded as the first attempt to demonstrate the Chinese sovereignty over Paracel. All previous voyages may have mentioned these islands, yet there was no effort to establish control over the islands.

While now China has published maps showing the areas in the nine-dashed-lines as part of China and project the maps of Song and Ming dynasty having included these islands, an authentic map of China of 18 th Century given by Merkel former Chancellor of Germany to Xi Jinping in 2014 during the latter’s visit to Germany [a 1735 map of China made by French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville and printed by a German publishing house] revealed that China the was limited to the heartland only. This map shows “China Proper” — that is, the Chinese heartland mostly populated by ethnic Han people, without Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, or Manchuria. Even the islands of Taiwan and Hainan were shown with a different colour border, indicating that then they were not the parts of China. The Paracel and Spratly too were not included in China. Crucially, a map of Kwangtung (Guangdong) Province and a description of the Quiongzhou Prefecture published in 1731 by China do not mention the Paracel and the Spratly islands as parts of China.

A Vietnam map drawn by French bishop Taberd in 1838
with accurate co-ordinates of Vietnam's Paracel islands

The Vietnamese White Paper (1974) mentions that the evidence of Vietnamese sovereignty over the Paracel Islands can be found in the notes of Do Ba in a series of maps of Vietnam prepared in the 17th Century. The Nguyen rulers had commissioned a small naval fleet named Huang Sa Brigade for Paracel to carry out mapping, hydrographic surveys, erecting markers, fishing, planting trees and recover cargo from grounded merchant ships. Another unit known as the North Sea Brigade was formed for similar tasks in Spratly islands. This practice continued till the 19th Century. Between 17th and 19th Centuries several contemporary writings indicate that these were parts of Vietnam. In 1836 Emperor Ming Mang after the unification of Vietnam sent the Royal Navy to carry out surveillance of the SCS and a temple was erected in Paracel to formally possess the marine area, which were of ‘great strategic importance to Vietnam’. Records suggest that these islands were annually surveyed and occupied. The de facto sovereignty over the Spratly chain of Vietnam is supported by European sources. Portuguese and Dutch maps drawn by navigators in the early 17th century identify the islands as Vietnamese.

A Vietnam map drawn by Dutch experts in 1594, which clearly points out that
Paracel Islands belongs to Vietnam

In 1884, when France consolidated its occupation of Vietnam, it signed the Treaty of Protectorate with the then Vietnamese rulers, under which France took the responsibility of looking after the Vietnamese foreign relations including the safeguarding the kingdom. Consequently, the French troops established their dominance up to Paracel and Spratly islands. Reports suggest that both the groups of islands were equipped with a radio station and a lighthouse.

Vietnam’s sovereignty stele on Paracel Islands in 1930

Vietnam’s lighthouse on Paracel Islands before 1945

Vietnamese soldiers salute the flag on Paracel Islands

In 1930s, Japan showed interests in acquiring the Paracel and Spratly islands but France established its control over them in 1933 amid the protests from Japan and China. The French region in the Indo-China was interrupted by Japan during the World War II but France regained control in 1947. In 1949, France and Vietnam signed an agreement, which provided for the transfer of administrative powers to the Vietnamese government.

However, developments in Vietnam leading to its division, and conflicting interpretation of the Potsdam declaration were used by China to occupy some portions of Paracel islands. Vietnam took up the matter at the San Francisco Conference and claimed both the groups of islands, which was not challenged. Later when the Geneva Conference divided the Vietnam into two parts, the two group of islands became the part of Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). In 1974, China brought Paracel island under its control after ousting the garrison of the South Vietnam. In 1988, PRC and Vietnam forces again fought at Jonson Reef in which the Vietnamese forces suffered a major blow. Though the land border issue was resolved in 1999, the Paracel and Spratly remain unresolved.

The matter has been examined scholars with legal and historical background and have supported the claims of Vietnam. The view of Captain Raul “Pete” Pedrozo, USN, Judge Advocate Corps (ret.), an authority on the issue, deserves attention. He concluded that “Vietnam clearly has a superior claim to the South China Sea islands.” On China, he stated that “the first demonstration of Chinese sovereignty over the Paracel island did not occur until 1909, two centuries after Vietnam had legally and effectively established its titles to the islands.”

However, PRC has launched a high-voltage propaganda campaign fabricating historical facts to justify its claims over these islands. China perceives history as an instrument of statecraft, which plays a crucial role in determining the fate of nation states and that historical facts can be manipulated to justify its ‘imaginary claims.’ Xi, who has sold the idea of rejuvenation to his population, is likely to intensify its propaganda and if the situation favourable, he can use force in accordance with his ‘policy of wining local wars’ or can change geographical features to China’s advantage. It is imperative for Vietnam to launch an effective publicity campaign to project facts and counter Chinese propaganda so that the International Community clearly understands the issue and adopt the right approach. A strong rebuttal would also ensure that Beijing does not become a victim of its own propaganda and perceive that the world has accepted its version pushing it to use force against Vietnam.