Talking Point

Dangerous currents

War of words at Singapore forum as South China Sea crisis continues

Hagel meets with Wang in Singapore

Grin and bear it: American Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and the PLA’s Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong

“The China seas north and south are narrow seas. They are seas full of everyday, eloquent facts, such as islands, sand banks, reefs, swift and changeable currents – tangled facts that nevertheless speak to a seaman in clear and definite language.”

Such is the description in Typhoon – Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel – as Captain McWhirr steers his steamship into the fury of a tropical storm.

But the language was shrill rather than clear and definite last weekend, when the South China Sea came up for discussion at a regional security summit in Singapore. And rather than the threat from the weather, today’s dangers are instead decidedly of the man-made variety, as a hundred vessels from China and Vietnam circle a disputed oil rig, and fighter jets from both countries fly overhead.

So there were angry words in Singapore?

Most of the headlines at the Shangri-La Dialogue went to US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, who made a forceful speech promising that Washington “will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged”.

“China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” he rebuked. “We take no position on competing territorial claims, but we oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion or the threat of force to assert these claims.”

Then Hagel listed some of the Chinese activities causing concern: “It has restricted access to the Scarborough Reef; put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal; begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations; and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands.”

Then followed a terse exchange with Major General Yao Yunzhu of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Ignoring attempts from the moderator to bring her questioning to a halt, Yao challenged Hagel about whether Japan had fractured the status quo two years ago when it nationalised the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands (see WiC78 for our first article on this longstanding dispute).

Was Washington’s inclusion of the islands in its defence treaty with the Japanese not the same coercive and intimidating behaviour that it warns others against, Yao demanded?

“I thought I made America’s position clear in my remarks about the position we take on disputed territories,” Hagel retorted. “In fact, I think I repeated our position a number of times.”

Later Hagel met Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, the PLA’s deputy chief of the general staff. Wang said he was surprised at the bluntness of the American’s comments but that he would try to find common ground in their shared military backgrounds.

“I do think it’s much a better way for soldiers to talk with peer soldiers and we are all very candid,” he ventured in what appeared to be a diplomatic riposte.

But the following morning Wang turned more confrontational, dramatically dispensing with his prepared remarks to fire back at the American position.

“Secretary Hagel’s speech is full of American hegemony,” he reproached. “Secondly, it’s full of threats and intimidation; thirdly, it’s full of instigation and incitement, aimed at provoking restless elements in the Asian-Pacific region to stir up trouble.”

Tokyo was caught in the crossfire too?

The day before Hagel’s criticism of the Chinese, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo also warned against efforts to “consolidate changes to the status quo by aggregating one fait accompli after another”.

This contravened the spirit of the rule of law, Abe told the summit audience, although he was careful not to refer to China by name.

That counted for little with a Chinese delegation whose seniority and size had been beefed up, Xinhua commented, so that Abe could “taste China’s iron fist”.

“Let us just wait and see what tricks will be played by this Japanese PM, who is set on messing up Asia,” the People’s Daily had also predicted before the conference.

Once the meeting actually began the Chinese soon felt targeted. “I feel they are echoing each other and sang a duet,” the PLA’s Wang complained. “We can see from the Shangri-La Dialogue this year, it’s Japan and the US who stirred up conflict.”

Xinhua opted to heap its scorn on Abe, insisting that “such rhetoric is fundamentally flawed when it comes from the nationalist leader who has been trying to conjure up the militarist past of Japan in a drive to rearm his country.”

But Major General Zhu Chenghu, dean of the National Defence University, chose instead to aim his derisive tones at the Americans, telling Phoenix TV that their military power was shrinking. Washington’s limited response to events in the Ukraine was further proof of its “erectile dysfunction,” he scoffed.

Zhu had calmed down by the time he gave another interview to the Wall Street Journal, although he was still keen to blame Washington for making “very, very important strategic mistakes” in the region. After alleging hypocrisy – “whatever the Chinese do is illegal, and whatever the Americans do is right” – Zhu finished with a more ominous twist. “If you take China as an enemy, China will absolutely become the enemy of the US,” he warned.

What is China’s claim to the South China Sea?

Primarily it’s historical: principally that the Chinese discovered the islands as early as the second century BC; that its naval missions have made references to the Spratlys and the Paracels throughout Chinese history; that official accounts from the Song and Yuan dynasties demonstrate that the seas were under the Middle Kingdom’s writ for hundreds of years; and that maps from the later Ming and Qing dynasties prove the point beyond challenge.

China’s rivals don’t accept the historical argument. Then again, they don’t always present a united front when seeking to refute China’s claims. For example, they don’t even agree on what to call the disputed waters. The Vietnamese refer to the East Sea, for instance, while it’s the West Philippine Sea for the Filipinos.

There is also disagreement over China’s use of historical arguments in its row with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, says Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Again, the Chinese claim is based on references to events that took place centuries ago. “A typical example is a diplomatic record from 1534 that says, ‘The ship has passed the Diaoyu Islands’,” Posner told Slate magazine earlier this year. “The ship was carrying a Chinese official. But passing an island and calling it Diaoyu does not establish sovereignty. A country does that by showing it has seized a territory through an official act and then exerted control over it or that its government has controlled it as long as anyone can remember.”

Posner’s view is that Tokyo’s claim to the islands is stronger in terms of international law because they were vacant until 1895 when the Japanese seized them.

The sovereignty row is further complicated by rules stemming from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that came into force 20 years ago. Under the terms of the Convention, countries can claim exclusive economic rights up to 200 nautical miles from the edges of their territorial waters. Owners of smaller rocks or reefs are granted smaller expanses of territorial water, but they don’t get exclusive economic rights beyond.

Vietnam and Malaysia made submissions to the UN body seeking confirmation of their own rights under the same rules five years ago. Beijing’s response was swift, reiterating its historical case and filing claims of its own within a ‘nine-dash’ map amended from an outline drawn up by the nationalist Kuomintang Party in 1947. This maritime boundary (now embossed into Chinese passports) incorporates about 90% of the South China Sea and Lieutenant General Wang returned to the historical claim in Singapore last weekend, insisting that the Convention couldn’t be applied retroactively to redefine sovereignty long established through history.

He also rebuked the Americans once more, pointing out that they aren’t even signatories to UNCLOS provisions. “Why didn’t the US sign the Convention?” he asked. “Because it works against the US in many areas. How could a non-signatory party blame China while citing the relevance of the Convention?”

Why the flare up with Vietnam?

The immediate context for the tension in Singapore last weekend is the ongoing clash over a Chinese oil rig exploring for gas off the Vietnamese coast (see WiC237). Hanoi says it is located within its exclusive zone, while Beijing insists that the rig is drilling in its own waters.

One interpretation is that Beijing is testing the resolve of its strongest adversary in Southeast Asia. “If China can break off Vietnam they’ve won the South China Sea,” an unnamed American official told Robert Kaplan in Asia’s Cauldron, a study of maritime tensions in the region published earlier this year. “Malaysia is lying low, Brunei has solved its problem with China, Indonesia has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject, and the Philippines has few cards to play despite the country’s ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements.”

Of course, unlike Japan and the Philippines, Vietnam doesn’t have a defence alliance with Washington. But foreign analysts seem divided over whether Beijing is steering a new course, pointing to a similar dispute seven years ago, when boats from both countries were damaged in clashes at a rig not far from the current one.

Ely Ratner, a former staffer at the US State Department, says there are signs of a new direction in Chinese policy. Unlike the response to Japan’s ‘nationalisation’ of the disputed islands in the East China Sea, or the confrontation with the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, China was the protagonist this time around, Ratner believes. That makes it harder to claim that they have been provoked, he told China File last week.

Other analysts put Beijing’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone last year in the same bracket.

One of the Chinese responses is that energy multinationals have been drilling in disputed waters off Vietnam for some time, so their own exploration efforts are hardly revolutionary.

Yet it’s hard to deny that Beijing is getting more assertive in the region. Partly that’s down to advances in its reach (until recently CNOOC wouldn’t have been capable of drilling for gas at such depths offshore, for instance). But it’s also an expression of China’s rising political and economic power, particularly relative to its smaller neighbours. China isn’t unique in this regard, Kaplan points out in his book, comparing current events with activity in the Caribbean 150 years ago, when the US extended its authority at the expense of the European powers. Posner agrees, saying that Washington’s efforts to justify its foreign policy goals were often as dubious legally as some of China’s today. Besides, international law has never stopped bigger countries from bullying smaller ones, Posner says. “Why should China go along with territorial allocations that result from rules that favoured strong nations a century ago,” he asks.

Or as one China-based analyst told the Wall Street Journal (on condition of anonymity): “You could say now that the Chinese are behaving more like a great power – they’re behaving with a sense of entitlement, a sense of exceptionalism – the way the Americans have done, and the British before them – as if the rules don’t apply to them.”

What happens next?

First, some better news. Neither China or Vietnam wants to see the confrontation spur their general public into more volatile unrest. The Chinese authorities have curtailed media coverage of the rig standoff to avoid riling its citizens. Hanoi has learned its lesson too, clamping down on last month’s rioting after crowds targeted factories that they thought were Chinese.

The fact that the two countries managed to come to agreement in demarcating the Gulf of Tonkin a decade ago also shows that a compromise isn’t impossible.

The two countries last went to war in 1979 (both claimed victory after Chinese forces retreated across the border after a few weeks). But a future conflict could be more expansive. “The 1979 border war was purely a one-dimensional conflict involving land forces only,” noted Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “Any conflict between China and Vietnam today would be largely two dimensional using air and maritime forces,” he said, predicting that the Chinese navy would overwhelm any force that Vietnam puts to sea. “Vietnam has no experience and has not practiced for a conventional engagement at sea.”

Then again, having an oil rig as the flashpoint might give Beijing more room for manoeuvre politically. It can always say that drilling is over and move the rig without losing too much face. But there’s been little sign of either side stepping back at this point. On May 26 a Vietnamese fishing vessel was sunk in a collision, an incident which Hanoi’s foreign ministry spokesman attacked as an “inhuman action”. On Sunday, Chinese coastguards fired water cannon at another Vietnamese vessel before colliding with it. The Vietnamese boat was “severely damaged”, according to China National Radio.

If the confrontation continues Hanoi might follow Manila’s example in filing a case at The Hague. This is the first time that a country has brought a claim against China under UNCLOS, although Beijing is refusing to participate, warning the Philippines that the move will severely damage ties.

Vietnam says it hasn’t taken a final decision on international arbitration. “They [the Chinese] have asked us several times not to bring the case to the international court,” Nguyen Chi Vinh, the deputy defence minister, told Japanese media last week. “Our response was that it’s up to Chinese activities and behaviour; if they continue to push us we have no choice.”

Other countries may launch their own cases if Manila’s is upheld, although enforcing a judgement is a very different matter. In the meantime ASEAN leaders may try to put more pressure on the parties to negotiate. In May attendees at an annual summit expressed “serious concerns over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea” – the first time in 20 years for a statement of this kind at ministerial level. But hopes that ASEAN might bring the disputing parties together look optimistic. The regional body has shown little capacity for coordinated action and few of its members will want to risk Chinese anger. Beijing’s response to the ministerial statement was predictably implacable too, warning that it has nothing to do with ASEAN’s members.

More likely is that the competing countries will try to forge a more united front themselves against the Chinese. Tokyo is donating new coastguard boats to the Filipinos, for instance, while Hanoi and Manila have also been working on integrated action, overlooking for the moment that they disagree about some of the islands themselves.

Recently Vietnam and the Philippines have signed agreements on coastguard cooperation, something that will be celebrated at an unlikely barbecue-and-beach-volleyball party on a tiny cay in the Spratlys this month.

Xinhua isn’t expecting an invite, chastising the “Manila-Hanoi cohort” instead as “built on shaky ground and doomed to fail”.

More American support will be courted too. In April, Manila concluded a new defence agreement with Washington, while in May there were combined military exercises off Palawan. In April the Vietnamese concluded their first search-and-rescue exercise alongside American troops, while analysts think that both Vietnam and Malaysia are likely to welcome more frequent visits from the US navy too.

The problem is that Beijing is increasingly indignant at American activity in the region, especially when it challenges Chinese principles of territorial integrity and stirs some of the historical bitterness resulting from former subjugation by foreign powers.

As far as the Chinese are concerned, this vast expanse of ocean will always be regarded as “blue national soil”, Kaplan writes in Asia’s Cauldron. And quite probably, the seas are even more cherished than that: “How would you feel if I cut off your arms and legs?” Wu Shengli, commanding officer of the Chinese navy, asked an international forum four years ago. “That’s how China feels about the South China Sea.”


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