Wednesday, October 30, 2019

 ASEAN’s China Dilemma

ASEAN’s China Dilemma

China remains both an economic partner and a threat to the stability of the region.

 In a few days, the 35th ASEAN Summit will commence, with the participation of about 3,000 officials and journalists from Southeast Asian countries, China, South Korea, Japan, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and India, among others. The summit serves as a prominent regional and international conference, at which regional leaders discuss various problems and issues while strengthening cooperation with other nations.

Recent developments indicate that rising tensions in the South China Sea are set to dominate talks as top diplomats converge in Bangkok, Thailand starting on October 31. Back in July, a Chinese oil survey vessel entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, triggering a three-month standoff between the two communist states, and leading the United States to accuse Beijing of “bullying behavior.” The Chinese vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, just Vietnamese waters on October 24, but the impacts of its activities will be huge for Vietnam and other claimant states. This is the first time China utilized its recently built artificial islands to serve as logistics hubs, allowing Chinese ships to operate for longer periods far away from its nearest maritime base in Hainan. This will of course not be the last such instance, implying Southeast Asian countries will face even more difficulties in dealing with Beijing’s aggressive stance on the maritime disputes.

The discovery that the infamous nine-dash line appeared in a scene in a DreamWorks’ animated film, which was originally due to appear in cinemas in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Philippines, did not help. It increases distrust from Southeast Asian claimants with Beijing’s approach. On the one hand China talks about cooperation and peaceful discussions; on the other hand they implicitly push for their own agenda in the smallest details.

The situation will make it interesting to observe how ASEAN leaders react during this summit. According to the Bangkok Post, the draft of the chairman’s statement shows that ASEAN leaders will express concern over reclamation activities by claimants, while welcoming progress made in ongoing talks on a Code of Conduct (COC) to manage the territorial disputes. “We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states […] that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” the draft reads. Its vague language might disappoint some but given the fact that the draft mentions the current situation at all, it is already a success. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, on a recent trip to Hanoi, even commented that “Some countries should not expect ASEAN to resolve sovereignty disputes” and “ASEAN is not a court.”

In recent years ASEAN has tried to prove its relevance in regional and international matters. One of the themes of this year’s summit is “Partnership,” in which the member states seek to reinforce the ASEAN-centered regional architecture, increase economic cooperation with all countries “with due consideration to balance and benefits for the people,” and enhance the role of the bloc in addressing important global issues.

In this context, China remains both an economic partner and a threat to the stability of the region, with the South China Sea disputes among Beijing and other claimants yet to be resolved. As a matter of fact, ASEAN foreign ministers now consider China the “most important” dialogue partner of the 10-nation bloc, and ASEAN’s dialogue relations with China “should be the most dynamic and substantive we have in the region.”
However, dialogue is increasingly conducted under the barrel of the gun. China’s naval capabilities have been progressing at breakneck pace, with the recent launch of large-deck amphibious warfare ships, new nuclear and conventional submarines, and “rumors of a steadily larger, more capable aircraft carrier fleet serving as a catalyst for regional competition,” Defense Connect reported. In the last decade, Beijing has outpaced the United States and its allies by building more than 100 warships and increasing the number of highly capable surface combatants and submarines that now make up the People’s Liberation Army Navy. It has also built artificial islands and installed military equipment in the disputed waters. In other words, China recognizes the importance of investments in sea control as the rising superpower seeks to expand its regional ambitions, and ASEAN needs to take this into consideration.
The current U.S.-China trade war might help ASEAN claimants in the short run, as it makes Beijing less likely to use coercive means to resolve territorial disputes. The United States has stepped up its military activity and naval presence in the region in recent years to protect its political, security, and economic interests. Since May 2017, it has conducted six FONOPs in the region. In response to China’s assertive presence in the disputed waters, Japan has also sold military ships and equipment to Vietnam and the Philippines to improve their maritime security capacity. Instead of using direct coercion, China is likely to further advance a maritime Code of Conduct with ASEAN and force other claimants into joint exploration schemes with Beijing. This presents another challenge for ASEAN to take a unified and strong stance against China’s “divide and rule” strategy. The COC negotiation has just finished the first round and will take another two to finish. This will be a lengthy process and ASEAN unity will be rigorously tested throughout.
Regarding trade, at the summit ASEAN leaders are expected to discuss rising trade tensions and ongoing nationalist sentiments, while continuing to negotiate the 16-country free trade pact known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes China but not the United States. Harsh Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College London, observes that it will be tough for the bloc to maintain a balance between the two economic superpowers. “ASEAN is under unusual stress as a result of growing contestation between the U.S. and China. The traditional comfort of having China as an economic partner and the U.S. as security partner is no longer very valid,” Pant told the South China Morning Post. Indeed, ASEAN will need to reassess the relationship with China and its rapidly changing place in the world as the second strongest economy. Balancing the huge economic benefits from trade and at the same time the tremendous maritime threat from its giant neighbor is not easy.
Trinh Le graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master of Publishing and Communications in 2016. He previously worked as a volunteer reporter for Meld Magazine.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

EAS leaders to focus on South China Sea situation in November Summit

EAS leaders to focus on South China Sea situation in November Summit

South China Sea: Chinese violation of territorial sovereignty rising concer ASEAN 
South China Sea: Chinese violation of territorial sovereignty rising concern in ASEAN
South China Sea

South China Sea (SCS) situation in the backdrop of China’s aggression in Vanguard Bank -- the westernmost reef in the resource-rich Spratlys -- within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf will be in spotlight at the next East Asia Summit (EAS) that Bangkok is hosting early November.
It is incumbent upon hosts Thailand and ASEAN as a whole that South China Sea situation is mentioned in the declaration that will be issued at the 35th ASEAN Summit and 14th East Asia Summit that Bangkok is hosting between November 2 and 4.
The situation in SCS has been tense since this July due to China's belligerent approach vis-à-vis Vietnam and other claimants in SCS – Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei appear worried over Beijing’s actions as they might face burnt of Chinese action in future.
There are growing expectations that leaders at the EAS may raise the issue of current situation in EAS and call for restraint, respect to UNCLOS and Freedom of Navigation. It is understood that some leaders at EAS may also raise the impact of Chinese approach on their energy assets in the region. South China Sea will be definitely a key item on the agenda for EAS, according to persons who are familiar with the dynamics of the region.
In this context the leaders of EAS states will also like to raise the importance of rules-based order and its necessity and peaceful resolution of disputes. The Indian PM at the Summit is expected to focus on the importance of rules based order and Freedom of Navigation in the region. Experts said given India’s growing stature India should call China and ASEAN to build Code of Conduct as a effective tool to prevent conflict in the region, ask for recognition of the PCA verdict and call for solidarity with ASEAN and pitch for ASEAN centrality in the entire process.
In the second India-China informal summit near Chennai, India and China discussed the necessity of rules-based international order in the backdrop of BRI and Beijing's approach in the SCS.
         It is for no reason that Vietnam is taking a stronger stand. In July, the Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its heavily armed coastguard escorts began making passes through an oil block operated by Russian energy company Rosneft, Hanoi’s exploration partner in the area.
Chinese ships have violated sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction of Vietnam under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), according to Vietnam. Vanguard Bank, the westernmost reef in the resource-rich Spratlys, sits within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, but Beijing says it falls within the “nine-dash line” it uses to claim sovereignty over more than 80 per cent of the SCS.
  The actions so far have violated Vietnam’s sovereignty under the International Law. The Vanguard Bank standoff represents the latest episode in the ongoing South China Sea (SCS) disputes, and signals Beijing’s unwillingness to adhere to the UNCLOS while continuing to base its claim to sovereign rights in the South China Sea on the so-called “nine-dash line.
   Beijing has been increasing its resource exploration efforts since 2016 in the South China Sea region in a bid to reduce its dependence on foreign suppliers for its crude oil. Beijing claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, which holds an estimated 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil in proved and probable reserves.
As China shows no sign of giving up on its claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea by boosting its military presence in the region, and at least 27 artificial military outposts scattering from the Paracels to the Spatlys, there are fears that Chinese military could yet again increase pressure and presence in the Vanguard Bank zone from October.
While earlier India, USA, European Union, Australia and some regional powers have expressed concern over the situation in South China Sea and unilateral actions in the Vanguard Bank area, global powers including India which has huge stakes in ASEAN region must speak up and utilize upcoming platforms including EAS to voice concern over unilateral actions by China.
The resource-rich South China Sea is one of the region’s most dangerous flashpoints and Beijing – wary of freedom of navigation operations in the waterway by the US and its allies – has insisted that territorial disputes should be resolved between claimants.
The Joint Communique issued by ASEAN Foreign Minister also expressed concern over ‘serious incidents in the area’. The issue was further highlighted at other meetings including East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meetings. The international community has also viewed Chinese action as ‘escalation’.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

This Is How You Defeat China's Island-Building in the South China Sea

This Is How You Defeat China's Island-Building in the South China Sea

A satellite image of Fiery Cross Reef in Spratly island chain in the South China Sea, annotated by the source to show areas where China has conducted construction work above ground during 2017. New satellite imagery shows China has built infrastructure covering 72 acres in the Spratly and Paracel islands during 2017 to equip its larger outposts to be air and naval bases.(CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe via AP)
A maritime counterinsurgency strategy would seek to win the battle of legal regimes in the decisive domain, namely, in the adherence and behavior of civilian mariners. And like counterinsurgency efforts on land, it would require the use of U.S. and allied power across a spectrum of military and non-military realms. Under maritime counterinsurgency, protective escort operations at sea would be coupled with simultaneous lines of effort to politically harden Southeast Asian governments and economies against malign Chinese influence, along with the development and deployment of high-end warfighting forces to deter large-scale kinetic Chinese aggression against U.S. allies along the first island chain.

The key objective of maritime counterinsurgency is to render Chinese forces in the South China Sea irrelevant in circumstances short of war, just as China has made U.S. forces irrelevant over the past several years. Provided that the United States and its allies can successfully balance between maintaining deterrence at the high end of the conflict spectrum while executing maritime counterinsurgency at the low end, China’s expensive new instruments of coercion would be outmaneuvered and reduced to impotence if civilians under U.S. and allied protection were made to feel confident enough to pay no heed to Chinese admonitions and their menacing threats of harm.

The challenge in Washington and allied capitals, is to mobilize the vibrant community of knowledge in this space to determine how maritime counterinsurgency can best be made operationally viable and cost-sustainable over the long term. If history is any guide, this will be a campaign that must be continued for however long it takes the Chinese leadership to recognize the inability of its maritime insurgency to overturn the rule of prevailing international law by sub-kinetic coercion, as well as the very real benefits to China of accepting and abiding by the existing system based on the Freedom of the Sea. Once the outstanding operational questions are successfully answered by the strategic communities in the United States and its partners, maritime counterinsurgency has the potential to win a decisive and much-needed victory for U.S. and allied arms and the rules-based liberal international order they defend.

Hunter Stires is a fellow with the John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research at the U.S. Naval War College and is a freelance contributor to the National InterestHe is the 1st Prize Winner of the U.S. Naval Institute’s 2018 General Prize Essay Contest, with his winning entry published as “The South China Sea Needs a ‘COIN’ Toss” in the May 2019 issue of Proceedings. Mr. Stires is recently the author of “’They Were Playing Chicken:’ The U.S. Asiatic Fleet’s Gray-Zone Deterrence Campaign against Japan, 1937-40,” featured in the Summer 2019 issue of the Naval War College Review.