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Sea of Troubles

2011-07-01
FORUM Staff
Chinese fishing boats, center, band together with ropes to thwart an attempt by a South Korean Coast Guard ship to stop their alleged illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea off the coast of South Korea in December 2010. South Korean Coast Guard officials say they caught 332 Chinese boats in 2009. [Agence France-Presse]

Chinese fishing boats, center, band together with ropes to thwart an attempt by a South Korean Coast Guard ship to stop their alleged illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea off the coast of South Korea in December 2010. South Korean Coast Guard officials say they caught 332 Chinese boats in 2009. [Agence France-Presse]

Trains filled with Chinese military tanks made their way to a port in Yantai in China’s Shandong Province in July 2010 just as the United States and South Korean Navies prepared to conduct a joint military exercise in and around parts of the same Yellow Sea.

Coincidental timing? Spectators think not. Some call China’s move retaliation for the U.S.-South Korean exercise. The Chinese say they were merely carrying out a military supply drill.

The disputed waters of the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea include dozens of small islands and reefs, most located within the Paracel and Spratly Island chains. The South China Sea area is believed to be rich in natural resources such as oil and gas. Because of economic growth, oil consumption among Asian countries in the region could more than double by 2020, according to estimates by GlobalSecurity.org. Countries have gradually been more assertive in stating their claims over disputed territories within this region.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have paid close attention to the Chinese strategy in asserting its claims and have begun their own redeployment of maritime resources, as well as seeking a resolution to the disputes. ASEAN countries — the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Burma — met in October 2010 with the Chinese to discuss improving cooperation among the disputed territories. Also in attendance at the meeting (the fifth East Asia Summit held in Vietnam) were representatives from Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

The countries are in the process of drafting a binding code of conduct intended to “promote trust and confidence-building through cooperative activities ... pending the peaceful settlement of the territorial and jurisdictional issues.”

[Sources: U.S. Department of Defense, “Military and Security  Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010,” at http://www.defense.gov/pubspdfs/2010_CMPR_final.pdf (October 22, 2010); Martin Stuart-Fox, A Short History of China and Southeast Asia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin,2003, Map by R.B. Cribb, “Territorial claims in the South China Sea” p. 217 (November 12, 2010).]

[Sources: U.S. Department of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010,” at http://www.defense.gov/pubspdfs/2010_CMPR_final.pdf (October 22, 2010); Martin Stuart-Fox, A Short History of China and Southeast Asia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin,2003, Map by R.B. Cribb, “Territorial claims in the South China Sea” p. 217 (November 12, 2010).]

Disputes in the “near seas”

Covering about 3.5 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles), the South China Sea stretches from Singapore to the Straits of Taiwan. China and Vietna hold the largest claims to the waters.

China’s ongoing maritime disputes with its Southeast Asian neighbors are often referred to as the “near seas construct.” The term “near seas” encompasses all East Asian waters, extending to the First Island Chain and including the Bohai Gulf, Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea. The People’s Liberation Army Navy of China adopted a “near sea defense” concept in the mid-1980s to extend its defensive depth from “coastal defense” to the First Island Chain. In 2009, China’s official media outlet, Xinhua, noted that “to defend China’s territory and sovereignty, and secure its maritime rights and interests, the navy decided to set its defense range as the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. This range covered the maritime territory that should be governed by China, according to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as the islands in the South China Sea, which have been its territory since ancient times.”

An escalation of conflict in the South China Sea due to unresolved disputes would create unfavorable implications throughout the region. Middle Eastern oil shipped to Japan would be at risk; economies in Northeast Asia might see a downturn; and trade between China and Southeast Asia would be faced with roadblocks, according to a September 2010 BBC News report.

Chinese military leaders call the Yellow Sea a gateway to China’s capital region and a “vital passage” to its heartland. A prominent Chinese daily newspaper recently wrote, “China has clearly declared a red line regarding its stance and interests in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea.”

“In history, foreign invaders repeatedly took the Yellow Sea as an entrance to enter the heartland of Beijing and Tianjin,” Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, deputy secretary general for the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences, said in a July 2010 New York Times newspaper article. “The drill area selected by the United States and South Korea is only 500 ilometers away from Beijing. China will be aware of the security pressure from military exercises conducted by any country in an area that is so close to China’s heartland.”

It’s China’s recent increases in maritime movements that have pushed ASEAN members to move on building up their own maritime fronts, Hitoshi Tanaka, a former diplomat turned senior fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange in Tokyo, told Bloomberg Businessweek in October 2010. “We need to use pressure to encourage China to behave constructively within the international community,” Tanaka said.

ASEAN members increased military spending up to U.S. $27.5 billion in 2009, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Vietnam upgraded its military with fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles and warships, according to the October 2010 Bloomberg Businessweek report, as well as Russian-built submarines. Indonesia has plans to purchase 180 Russian Sukhoi fighter jets and an undisclosed number of F-16 warplanes, according to the same report.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, left; South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, center; and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao participated in a trilateral meeting at the 13th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in October 2010. Southeast Asian nations have been trying to hammer out a code of conduct with China.  [The Associated Press]

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, left; South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, center; and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao participated in a trilateral meeting at the 13th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in October 2010. Southeast Asian nations have been trying to hammer out a code of conduct with China. [The Associated Press]

“For countries in Southeast Asia, which have had centuries of experiencing the ups and downs of dealings with their giant neighbor, the image of a furry and cuddly animal is not one that comes to mind when looking at China,” Dewi Fortuna Anwar, research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, wrote in an August 2010 opinion article for The Jakarta Post newspaper. “Southeast Asians were, and continue to be, fully aware of both the inherent promises and dangers that China represents, whose traditional symbol is after all a dragon. during the Cold War, China was regarded as an unmitigated threat. Today, however, ASEAN believes that the best course of dealing with China, with its vast economic potential and growing military might, is to engage and integrate it fully into the regional order.”

Seeking regional stability

In 2003, China agreed to a regional code of conduct with ASEAN called the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, or TAC, which renounces threats and the use of force when attempting to settle a dispute. A similar agreement between China and ASEAN also emerged in 2002 called the declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or DOC. The DOC’s purpose was to maintain peace and help countries in conflict over territories to focus on economic development despite their disputes.

“ASEAN clearly hopes that China will adhere to [the] TAC and is undoubtedly disappointed, if not alarmed, with the recent display of military force in [the] South China Sea,” Anwar wrote in The Jakarta Post, adding that recent events in the South China Sea may “spur ASEAN states to pursue various steps to beef up their security, including by enhancing military cooperating with the U.S.”

A Vietnamese guard station floats offshore near Truong Sa or Spratly Islands in April 2010 in what remains a disputed area in the South China Sea. [Rueters]

A Vietnamese guard station floats offshore near Truong Sa or Spratly Islands in April 2010 in what remains a disputed area in the South China Sea. [Rueters]

During the fifth East Asia Summit in October 2010, ASEAN leaders and China moved a step closer to creating regional stability. China and ASEAN countries signed a “Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity.” In essence, the plan represents a commitment from China to eventually sign the legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The code calls for countries to respect the freedom of international air and maritime navigation, and it calls for a prohibition on the use of threats of force, among other things.

Previous attempts by ASEAN to get China to sign and adhere to a code of conduct when dealing with issues surrounding the South China Sea haven’t fully materialized, the BBC News reported, because certain “confidence-building measures” were never implemented to make it a reality. Officials involved in the latest round of talks say an agreement on a legally binding code must be reached and signed to solidify a single ASEAN market economy by 2015.

 

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