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South China Sea Spat Threatens Region’s Future

An aerial view shows the Pagasa (Hope) Island, which belongs to the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines in this file photo taken on July 20, 2011. (Reuters Photo)

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, rich in oil and natural gas reserves, require a quick and peaceful resolution to boost energy production and meet growing regional demand, a US official said.

“You have this conundrum of a region that needs energy and yet has a lot of territorial disputes or gray areas that inhibit the ability to produce some of it,” Robert Hormats, US undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, said today at a briefing in Hanoi. “These are long-term investments, so you really need to start now if you’re going to have the energy five years or 10 years out.”

Vietnam and the Philippines have rejected China’s map of the South China Sea as a basis for joint oil and gas development, leading to clashes in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the waters, including blocks off Vietnam that Exxon Mobil Corp. and Russia’s Gazprom OAO are exploring.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said March 15 that Cnooc’s moves to develop the oil- and gas-rich northern areas of the South China Sea violates its sovereignty. China’s biggest offshore oil explorer opened bids to foreign companies last year for 19 blocks near the disputed Paracel Islands, according to its Web site.

The South China Sea may hold 213 billion barrels of oil, equivalent to 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s reserves, according to Chinese studies cited in 2008 by the US Energy Information Agency.

Bloomberg

South China Sea Spat Threatens Region’s Future | The Jakarta Globe.

Is War in the South China Sea Inevitable?

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If China is not actually preparing for conflict in the South China Sea over disputed archipelagos and islets and their rich offshore resources, from fish to hydrocarbons, then consider the comments made on 6 December by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the Central Military Commission, as reported by Xinhua. Hu said that China’s navy should “make extended preparations for warfare,” adding that the navy should “accelerate its transformation and modernization in a sturdy way, and make extended preparations for military combat in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security. Our work must closely encircle the main theme of national defense and military building.”

Is Beijing’s big nautical stick about to be deployed against other Southeast Asian nations contesting China’s South Sea sovereignty claims?

At issue are the Spratly islands’ 750 islands, islets, atolls and cays, which China, along with the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, are claimed by all. While there are no native Spratly islanders, about 45 archipelago’s islands are now occupied by Vietnamese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Malaysian and Filipino forces, hardly a recipe for concord.

Whatever China’s intentions, what is beyond doubt is the exponential growth of the Chinese navy, which can now field 66 submarines, an undersea arsenal the Chinese government is intending to increase to 78 by 2020 as planned, putting it roughly equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s submarine forces in numbers, if not in quality. Furthermore, China’s defense budget is growing nearly 10 percent annually and China’s first aircraft carrier, a renovated Soviet vessel, has begun its second set of sea trials from its Yellow Sea port in Dalian in northeastern China. The 990-foot-long former Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier, originally called the Varyag and now apparently renamed the Shi Lang, was completely overhauled and is currently based in China’s northeast Dalian port. It is perhaps not coincidental that “Shi Lang” was a famous 17th century Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan.

China is applying some not so subtle gunboat diplomacy to advertise its new maritime capabilities. Last month a delegation composed of 42 military attaches from 37 countries including the United States, Canada, Britain and Germany make a two-day-long goodwill visit to the North China Sea Fleet of the Navy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, visiting a ship-borne aircraft regiment of the aviation force under the North China Sea Fleet.

Their Chinese hosts demonstrated a number of capabilities, including platform-based flying and overland rescue. Lest the attaches be in any doubt about the Chinese Navy’s new capabilities, they also visited the Shenyang guided-missile destroyer.

But at least one contestant in the South China Sea is rising to the challenge. Later this month the Philippine Navy will deploy its biggest and most modern warship, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, to the South China Sea, which Manila labels the West Philippine Sea.

Regional diplomats are still trying to defuse the situation. Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa said that the Bali Concord III, signed last month, could serve as a guide for East Asian countries in dealing with the dynamic situation in the South China Sea, commenting, “We are aware of the dynamic situation in the South China Sea. However, we must remember that now we have the Bali Concord III that was signed by the heads of state/government during the East Asia Summit last November 19.”

Washington’s take on the squabble? Pentagon spokesman George Little said, “They (China) have a right to develop military capabilities and to plan, just as we do.”

Translation for Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Bandar Seri Begawan – you’re on your own. It’s worth remembering that the People’s Republic of China fought two brief but savage border wars with both India (1962) and Vietnam (1979.)

For those with a sense of history, today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred prior to a declaration of war. For those with a greater sense of history, Dalian is close to the Chinese port of Lushunkou. Previously known as Port Arthur, it was the major base of the Russian Navy Pacific Fleet and attacked on 8 February 1904 by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Without a formal declaration of war.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

Source – Oilprice.com

The Coalition Against Chinese Hegemony

To resist Beijing’s maritime claims, Asean members will have to compromise and form a common front.

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By PHILIP BOWRING

Manila

Ownership of the islands, seabed resources and navigation rights in the South China Sea is now very much on the international agenda. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is more united on this issue than it has been for about a decade, and the U.S. is turning more attention diplomatically and militarily to the Pacific. Nevertheless, sustaining the coalition of interests disputing China’s claimed hegemony over the sea will not be easy.

In fact, the wonder is that the Chinese leadership managed to get itself into this predicament by so clumsily arousing neighboring countries’ fears. Having suffered constant Chinese provocations over the preceding few years, Hanoi used its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2010 to first bring the issue of Chinese aggression to the table. Vietnam and the Philippines encouraged the U.S. to make clear its own interest in freedom of navigation and settlement of territorial disputes according to international principles.

At that point Beijing could have backed off and allowed the subject to fade from view. Instead, the People’s Liberation Army tried to punish Vietnam and the Philippines by harassing their exploration ships. Under the confident new administration of President Benigno Aquino, Manila responded with unprecedented vigor, carrying on exploration and offering new blocks for drilling.

Even this has not given China’s nationalists second thoughts. Recently the Global Times newspaper, owned by the People’s Daily, warned those who dispute Chinese claims to be “mentally prepared for the sound of cannons,” a threat that was noted around the world.

There is a sense that China’s provocations have been driven by the military, probably against the advice of its diplomats. If wiser heads among Beijing’s civilian leadership can reassert control, they will re-adopt Deng Xiaoping‘s maxim about keeping a low profile. If so, China will tone down its rhetoric and offer economic benefits on a larger scale to increase its neighbors’ dependence. It will likely quietly offer bilateral exploration deals which would divide the Asean claimants who are just starting to work together.

China has tried this before and nearly succeeded with Manila. Although the Philippines has relatively little reliance on China trade, its need for investment and pervasive corruption are vulnerabilities. The preoccupation of its armed forces—who are anyway poorly equipped—with insurgencies at home limits its ability to police the seas and protect exploration.

However, democracy can be a powerful force when it comes to protecting national interests. The Philippine public’s determination to stand up to bullying can be stronger than that of elites with business deals with China or autocracies reliant on good relations.

Vietnam’s nationalistic instincts are sure enough but Vietnam is still a relatively small and weak nation quite dependent on trade with China and likely to become more so. Good ties with India, Japan and Russia and emerging ones with the U.S. are an offset but China’s threats have already deterred some exploration on the continental shelf.

China’s efforts to divide the littoral states by pressing for bilateral negotiations have so far not met with success. But they could do so if Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei do not resolve their own differences. Significantly, China has refrained from overt threats against Malaysia even though oil and gas wells off Borneo are within its claimed territory. Malaysia in return has urged caution and cooperation with China. If Vietnam and the wider Malay world do not hang together they will surely be hung separately.

The difficulty lies in sacrificing some overlapping claims to form a united front. Vietnam claims all the Spratlys, the Philippines most but not all of them, Malaysia just a few, and Brunei only a couple of banks. Many of the islets, rocks and reefs lie outside their 200-mile exclusive economic zones and none qualifies for its own EEZ as none is capable of independently supporting permanent habitation.

Vietnam’s claim is as successor to its French colonial rulers as well as Vietnamese imperial assertions and the legacy of the Cham trading kingdom which flourished in central Vietnam until about 1500. The U.S. never claimed the Spratlys but an independent Philippines did so on the basis of proximity and as part of the Philippine archipelago. Malaysia and Brunei make claims based on rights to the continental shelf off Borneo.

Compromise among these four countries, who together own two-thirds of the coastline, is essential to prevent China from establishing hegemony over Southeast Asia. If the Asean nations cannot agree among themselves they could ask the International Court of Justice for a ruling, as did Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia in previous island disputes. The court could also be asked to adjudicate the EEZ boundaries. China would object, but that would only underline its unwillingness to agree to arbitration based on the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention.

In the end, only leadership from Indonesia, the largest Malay state and the cornerstone of Asean, can resolve this conflict. It can do more to refute China’s history-based claims, which ignore centuries of Malay trading across the sea a thousand years before the Chinese. And Jakarta can be the honest broker in finding a compromise to share resources that lie outside the EEZs of the claimants.

Vietnam, the Philippines and the other smaller states are never going to be able to remove China from the Spratly Islands that it now occupies, let alone the Paracels that it seized from Vietnam in 1974. But if they can maintain a common front with backing from Indonesia, they should be able to defend their interests in the South China Sea and their future sovereignty.

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