China Continues to Push the Envelop in the South China and East China Seas

China Continues to Push the Envelop in the South China and East China Seas

By Tim Daiss

Since New Year’s Eve, developments in the South China Sea (SCS) have unfolded that will dictate how this geopolitical tinder box plays out for the coming year. Not that the region didn’t have enough drama in 2012. Last year witnessed a two-month standoff between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal near the disputed Spratley Islands. Philippine ships finally withdrew while Chinese ships remained; prompting criticism that Manila was outmaneuvered by Beijing.

Northwest of the Spratleys, decades long tensions between Vietnam and China persisted over the contested Paracel Islands that both countries claim. Vietnam effectively lost administrative control of the islands in a brief but intense naval gun battle in 1974 but still claims the islands.

Both China and Vietnam have oil and gas exploration and production activities near the Paracels, while Vietnam and India are jointly exploring for hydrocarbons there. Meanwhile, to reinforce its claims China is working diligently to build infrastructure on a new city on one of the Paracels, sparking vehement protests from Hanoi and growing suspicion from both the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the international community.

And, if things were already heated enough, on December 31 news broke that China transferred two destroyers to the China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) fleet, a cunning move.

One destroyer will patrol SCS waters and the other the East China Sea, also stoking tensions between Japan and China over the disputed (Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan) DSI island chain that Japan nationalized in September.

Also, a new frigate, the Liuzhou, considered one of China’s most advanced combat type vessels, has just been assigned to the South Sea fleet.

What exactly is Beijing up to? It doesn’t take much analysis to answer that question. Beijing seems hell-bent in its quest to control both the SCS and the East China Sea, and it’s potential vast hydrocarbon deposits, regardless of international unease, US concerns and growing alarm throughout Asia.

Sheep in wolf’s clothing

Chayut Setboonsarng, an analyst at the CIMB ASEAN Research Institute, thinks that it might all just be a ploy.

“The most China can do with Manila is bully them,” Setboonsarng told Energy Tribune commenting on how this development would effect the Philippines.

“They [China] have consistently done [this] throughout last year from cutting wires and getting into standoffs. Anything more than bullying and brinkmanship will undo the PRC’s careful calculation of a peaceful rise and ties with other ASEAN countries that are increasingly uneasy,” he said.

Carlyle Thayer, an expert in Southeast Asian politics and a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, sees a more sinister motive.

“The transfer of decommissioned yet refurbished People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) destroyers blurs the line between military and civilian ships. The essential point is that CMS ships are paramilitary vessels,” Thayer told Energy Tribune.

Thayer said that the transfer of destroyers shows that China’s accusation against the Philippines of employing its largest warship last year at Scarborough Shoal (a former US Coast Guard cutter that was stripped of its most lethal weaponry after being sold the Philippines) was an act of propaganda, if not pure hypocrisy.

“The CMS now and in the future towers over the coast guard forces of Vietnam and the Philippines. China uses it paramilitary vessels to advance its sovereignty claims,” Thayer said. “For example, China will maintain a permanent deployment at and around Scarborough Shoal. It has, to all intents and purposes annexed Philippine territory.”

Setboonsarng said that internally China’s new leadership can’t show weakness in the early stages.

“The PLAN is also signaling to the new leadership that the defense budget should not be tampered with. The situation will not be resolved for now, management is more important than the cure,” he said.

As far as how this new development factors into the East China Sea equation, Setboonsarng said that with Japan, “it’s a few islands and a whole lot more history.”

Thayer said the addition of destroyers to the CMS for deployment in the East Sea is “part of a strategy to over-whelm the Japanese Coast Guard by the sheer number of ships they must confront.”

“The deployment of former destroyers is also part of Chinese ‘mind games’ directed against Japan. They offer deterrence in the guise of being civilian ships, but quite literally they are an example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he said.

Other recent events affecting the SCS include the January 1 installment of Le Lung Ming, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister, as ASEAN’s new secretary-general. While it seems logical that an ASEAN head from Vietnam might take a more hawkish stance against China, Setboonsarng and Thayer think otherwise.

“All secretarial staff, including the secretary-general are expected to address ASEAN interests over national interests,” Setboonsarng said. He added however that Minh has stated that his first order of business is to form a consensus [for dealing with China].

Thayer said the new secretary-general must act within a system of consensus decision-making.

However, Beijing back-peddled recently as well. On New Year’s Day (the day Hainan province’s new regulations authorizing the stopping and boarding of foreign vessels in what they consider its provincial waters was to take effect) China’s Foreign Minister said the new rules would be limited to waters extending only 12-nautical miles from its coast. However there is still ambiguity since China considers disputed areas in the SCS as part of it coast.

Setboonsarng said that ambiguity will probably give China flexibility later if they go ahead with their plan and it is part of China’s “policy of brinkmanship.”

“It has been my assessment from the beginning that Hainan province authorities acted on their own volition and that the blowback from the international community caused the central government to intervene,” Thayer said.

“The Chinese will continue to push the envelope and do what it does in the SCS,” Setboonsarng said. “But destabilizing the region is not in China’s interests.”

Point well taken. But try convincing politicians in Manila, Hanoi and Tokyo of that argument.

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