Chinese civilian aircraft lands at newly-constructed runway on Fiery Cross Reef (Photo: Reuters)
Diplomatic protests continued this week over China’s landing of multiple civilian aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef—a PRC-held artificial island in the Spratly chain. In addition to the alleged violation of territorial rights, Vietnam’s Civil Aviation Authority complained that such flights “threaten the safety of all flights in the region.” In fact, in the first week of January alone, Chinese planes flew unannounced through Vietnam’s Flight Information Region 46 times. On this basis, Vietnam had filed a complaint with the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in addition to its letter of formal diplomatic protest sent directly to the PRC.
As another sign of displeasure over the landings, Vietnam announced that it would step up its maritime reconnaissance missions in the South China Sea with added drone flights over the disputed waters. The Philippines also followed through on its promise to file formal diplomatic protest against the test flights on Wednesday. Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose deemed the landings “provocative actions” and confirmed that the Philippine Foreign Ministry had summoned a PRC embassy official over the matter.
Remonstrations notwithstanding, China remained undeterred. After renewing his nation’s claims of sovereignty over the Spratlys, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei dismissed Vietnam’s accusations as “utterly untrue,” insisting that Beijing had given notice of the flight plan but “received no response.” Additionally, Mr. Hong suggested that the test flights were “state aviation activities” and thus “not bound by the Convention on International Civil Aviation.” Further fueling the controversy, Major General Xu Guangyu (Ret.) separately opined that the PLA will soon conduct test flights to the new runway on Fiery Cross Reef as part of its plan to use the airfield to patrol the South China Sea.
In other news…
In addition to the simmering tensions over its test flights in the South China Sea, the PRC also faced continued fallout from Japan over its recent incursions near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. On Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga confirmed that the Abe Administration was prepared to mobilize the Maritime Self-Defense Force (Japan’s Navy) for “maritime policing operation[s]” against foreign warships that enter Japanese territorial waters, except in the case of “innocent passage.” Japan’s Defense Minister, General Nakatini, originally announced the new policy in a similar statement earlier on Tuesday.
Although Japan informed the PRC of this new policy back in November, the public disclosure can be seen as a response to the first-ever armed Chinese Coast Guard patrols near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which occurred over the past few weeks. The use of naval forces would not automatically trigger a state of war, but Reuters suggests such a move would dramatically raise the risk of an armed conflict. For its part, China responded calmly but resolutely. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei proclaimed that “China’s resolve in upholding territorial sovereignty is unswerving,” but he also made clear that “an escalation of tension in the East China Sea is the last thing we want to see.” At a press briefing the following day, Mr. Hong more firmly warned Japan “not to take any provocative actions and ratchet up tension.”
In another potentially provocative move, the Japanese Defense Ministry has decided that P-3C surveillance aircraft returning home from an anti-piracy operation in Somalia will stop at several bases along the South China Sea. A recent Stratfor report explains that, although “Japan is not officially conducting reconnaissance patrols” and the flights are “the naval aviation equivalent of port calls,” China is understandably nervous about the transit stops. The Diplomat’s Prashanth Parameswaran further highlights the significance of this move.
In a 10-4 decision, the Philippine Supreme Court signed off on the U.S.-PH Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (ECDA)—a ten-year pact that will allow the American military to once again station troops and weapons at bases in the Philippines. Opponents had argued that the deal was unconstitutional as a treaty lacking congressional approval, but the Court instead found that it was an executive agreement legally signed by President Benigno Aquino III. As the WSJ explains, the majority’s rationale ensures that the ECDA will remain in force after Mr. Aquino leaves office in June. Under the ECDA, the Philippines will also receive tens of millions of dollars for modernizing its Navy.
Leaders from both countries lauded the decision, and many drew a link between the accord and recent friction in the South China Sea. For example, Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain directly implicated the PRC in his press release on the ruling: “As Manila finds itself the target of Chinese coercion in the West Philippine Sea and is looking to Washington for leadership, this agreement will give us new tools to deepen our alliance with the Philippines.” China likewise interpreted the decision through the lens of maritime tensions. The PRC’s official Xinhua blasted the EDCA for its potential to “push the situation to the brink of war” and dismissed the agreement as “groundless” because China “has never coerced any country on the South China Sea issue.”
Later in the week, the Philippines pressed the U.S. to hold joint naval patrols during “two-plus-two talks” between both the foreign and defense ministers from both countries in Washington. President Aquino also urged ASEAN members to pressure China to agree to a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea, the elements of which are due next month.
The PRC’s semi-official Global Times reports that the China Coast Guard (CCG) has completed the CCG 3901. With a 12,000-ton displacement, the new ship is purportedly the largest coast guard vessel in the world and has thus been dubbed “The Beast” or “The Monster” by the media. The CCG 3901 is “ready to start protecting China’s maritime rights” in the South China Sea according to Chinese officials, and it will pack quite a punch with its 76mm rapid fire guns, two auxiliary guns and two anti-aircraft machine guns. Perhaps more threatening is the ship’s size. As The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady explains, “Unlike actual surface naval combat, in hostile encounters between coast guards the size of the ship plays a large role, particularly in the South China Sea.” The Japan Times sees this relatively heavy armament as another sign of the increasingly blurred lines between China’s coast guard and the PLA Navy.
BBC Magazine presents an in-depth look at how Vietnamese fishermen are impacted by China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information
With a ruling in the Republic of the Philippines v. PRC maritime case expected in the coming months, AMTI has created a comprehensive guide to the arbitration, including an overview of the issues that gave rise to case, an analysis of the consequences of various potential rulings, and a collection of expert opinions. Relatedly, Alex Calvo examines China’s legal position in the case—which PRC has offered through various communications despite its refusal to take part in the proceedings—in a four-part series for the Center of International Maritime Security.
Over at The Diplomat, Ryan Martinson explains what he sees as the real but overlooked significance of China’s armed presence near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. And Andrew Erickson offers his prescription for “America’s Security Role in the South China Sea” in the most recent Naval War College Review.
In an apparent attempt to prove the benevolent designs behind its installations in the South China Sea, the PLA posted a series of pictures of female soldiers—“the most beautiful Sunflowers”—during their posting on the Paracel Islands. This strategy follows on from a similar series of photographs from Fiery Cross Reef that range from gardens and livestock to other female soldiers posing suggestively alongside the sea.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional body responsible for monitoring and investigating national security and trade issues related to the U.S.-PRC bilateral relationship, will hold its next hearing on Thursday, January 21, at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The hearing will cover Developments in China's Military Force Projection and Expeditionary Capabilities and is open to the public.
Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please feel free to email us with breaking news or relevant documents.