Water Wars

Water Wars: Military Muscle Moves In

By Jimmy Chalk, Sarah Grant
Friday, February 24, 2017, 8:29 AM

Chinese, US Militaries Take Positions as ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meet

Caption: ASEAN Foreign Ministers (Photo: Myanmar Ministry of Information)

This week, as ASEAN foreign ministers met in the Philippines, satellite photographs revealed that newly installed surface-to-air missile sites on artificial islands have approached completion, and an American carrier strike group arrived in the South China Sea.

After a trio of Chinese warships concluded a week-long series of drills in the South China Sea, the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group arrived amid expectations that it plans to conduct the first U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the region since late 2016, and the first since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang bristled at the FONOP prospect, stating, “we oppose relevant countries threatening and undermining the sovereignty and security of coastal states under the pretext of such freedom.” The next day, however, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang expressed a more moderate position: "China hopes the U.S. earnestly respects the sovereignty and security concerns of countries in the region, and earnestly respects the efforts of countries in the region to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Despite China’s nod to “peace and stability,” and its bold claims of progress in its relationship with ASEAN, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative published photographs revealing that surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites on Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef are nearing completion. Experts say the buildings identified in the photographs are designed to house SAM systems like those already present in the Paracels, a group of islands claimed by China and Vietnam.

The installation of the SAM sites was a central topic of conversation at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat this week in the Philippines. Speaking as the co-Chair of the forum, Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said that the group "noticed, very unsettlingly, that China has installed weapons systems in these facilities that they have established” and has “been unanimous in their expression of concern as to what they see as a militarisation of the region.” Yasay also expressed hope that “a more concrete and clearer picture" of the United States' approach to the region under President Donald Trump would develop in the coming months. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang dismissed Yasay's remarks, saying, "such comments were only his opinion and does not represent the view of ASEAN as a whole."

This development, along with the conclusion of Chinese naval drills in the South China Sea and the arrival of the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group to the region, has brought a renewed focus to the project of developing a legally binding code of conduct for managing disputes in the South China Sea. Commenting on ASEAN’s role in reducing regional tensions, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that "[w]e can't control the agenda of the superpowers. But we do need to make sure, to the best extent possible, that we maintain an oasis of peace and stability in this part of the world." The parties reaffirmed their commitment to completing a multilateral agreement, of which demilitarization would be a key component, by June. The bilateral dispute between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal persists, but was largely left in the background at the retreat. “The arbitral tribunal ruling in July 12, 2016 is something that we will have to pursue with China through bilateral engagements and we have not abandoned that,” Yasay said. But, “[s]ince the decision of our dispute in the South China Sea is not the sum total of our relationship with China, we set it aside.” Representatives of China and ASEAN will gather in Bali, Indonesia, next week to discuss the implementation of the 2012 Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea.

In Other News…

United States

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this month appeared to moderate hawkish comments he made on the South China Sea at his confirmation hearing, where he suggested that the U.S. should deny China access to the islands it claims in the South China Sea. But this week, similar statements made by Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s new pick for National Security Advisor, came to light. In a speech in 2016, he called China’s build-up in the South China Sea “militarily analogous to what Russia’s done in Ukraine.”


Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) personnel participated in this year’s multinational Cobra Gold exercises held in Thailand, the first time Japan's forces have drilled outside of Japan. Around 130 JSDF troops simulated an operation to escort and airlift Japanese and US citizens back to Japan in response to political instability arising after a natural disaster. The JSDF's presence in Thailand reflects significant changes to Japan's national security laws which went into effect last March. They permit Japanese forces to, under limited circumstances, carry arms overseas and contribute to collective self-defense activities in support of allies.

Japan also reportedly intends to accelerate its naval ship development starting in the 2018 fiscal year, building two 3,000-ton class frigates a year instead of one 5,000-ton frigate as previously planned. A total of eight new vessels are expected, and are likely to be used to patrol contested waters in the East China Sea.


On Thursday, China's commerce minister decided at the last minute to postpone an official trip to the Philippines to sign about 40 joint projects worth billions of dollars. China's commerce ministry had no immediate comment on whether the decision was connected to Philippine Foreign Minister Yasay’s comments regarding Chinese military activity in the South China Sea.

Gunmen affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf militant group attacked a Vietnamese merchant vessel in Philippine waters in the Sulu Sea on Sunday, killing one sailor and abducting seven members of its multinational crew. The seventeen remaining crew members were later rescued by Philippine coast guard and military personnel. Abu Sayyaf continues to pose a significant threat to commercial traffic in waters between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, prompting the Philippine government earlier this month to request additional maritime policing and domain awareness support from the United States and China. Counter-piracy was also a central topic of recent discussions between the Philippines and Japan. Tokyo has agreed to start leasing TC-90 maritime surveillance aircraft to the Philippines in late March.


The Indonesian Ministry of Defense has entered into a contract with unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developer UMS Skeldar to purchase and train military personnel to operate the V-200 multi-role, high-endurance UAV. The platform can perform both Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and search-and-rescue functions throughout the Indonesian archipelago. This contract is part of a much larger national program to indigenously develop as well as import a variety of UAV platforms for military use.


Former Chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Houston said on Tuesday that Australia should refrain from engaging in FONOPs in the South China Sea, referencing the US announcement that the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group would begin regular patrols in the region. He also warned against a blockade of China’s artificial islands, instead recommending a diplomatic approach to halt further militarization.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

Lawfare’s own Chris Mirasola does a deep dive on a Reuters report regarding proposed changes to China’s Maritime Safety Law and compliance with UNCLOS—is China consolidating a domestic legal basis for its build-up in the South China Sea?

While Alexander L. Vuving recently plotted a strategy for “How America Can Take Control in the South China Sea” in Foreign Policy based in part on James Kraska’s Lawfare piece, Mark J. Valencia of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China calls Vuving’s proposal “A Recipe for Disaster in the South China Sea.” But Vuving and Kraska aren’t alone in pushing a tougher approach to China: Brahma Chellaney encourages Trump to back up his tough rhetoric on China.

In a remarkable speech to Australia’s National Press Club, Prof. Rory Medcalf of Australian National University’s National Security College struck a cautious tone regarding “The Future of the US Alliance,” highlighting division among Australia’s political leaders over the direction of the alliance, wondering what going it alone in the Pacific region might look like, and ultimately concluding that “Going solo is not an option.”

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 email Chris Mirasola with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections