Welcome to the first edition of Water Wars, our new weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Each Friday, we’ll provide an overview of what you need to know to stay current on the rapidly-evolving security situation in the Asian Pacific. If you are aware of relevant news, developments, or documents, please email Zack Bluestone.
Mr. Xi Comes to America
China’s President Xi Jinping has thus far succeeded in his aim of minimizing discussion of South and East China Sea issues during his first trip to the United States as PRC Premier, although that may well change during his joint press conference with President Obama today at noon. C-SPAN will carry the leaders’ remarks live.
The weeks leading up to Mr. Xi’s visit have been marked by what some American commentators view as “conciliatory policies” on the part of President Obama. Most notably, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Maritime Security Strategy in the Asia-Pacific Region, USPACOM Commander Admiral Harry Harris revealed that the President recently blocked the Navy from conducting freedom of navigation (FON) tours in the South China Sea. At the same hearing, Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear admitted that, in addition to the President’s short-term restriction on all FON operations, the U.S. has not conducted any FON exercises within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands since 2012. SASC Chairman John McCain expressed frustration at this policy, particularly after China provocatively sent PLA naval vessels within 12 nautical miles of the Aleutian Islands during President Obama’s recent visit to Alaska. Mr. Shear responded that FON exercises are “one tool in a larger tool box.” He added, perhaps worryingly, that “we’re in the process of putting together that tool box.”
Not everyone in the Obama Administration has struck a friendly tone, however. Last week, Defense Secretary Ash Carter criticized the PRC for falling “out of step” with international rules based on its aggressive land reclamation projects in the South China Sea. During his remarks at an Air Force conference, the DOD Chief added: “There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world. . . . After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty. . . .” Sounding a similar tone, the U.S. Marine Corps recently announced a series of moves that will eventually place 15 percent of the force to the Asian Pacific. Additionally, the Philippines and the United States are holding amphibious landing exercises near the disputed waters of the South China Sea from September 21 to October 9—another potential barb for China during President Xi’s visit.
If the United States took a mixed approach in the last few weeks, the PRC seemed have acted more provocatively. Just one month after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged that his country had completed its island reclamation project, CSIS released photographs showing preparations for airfields on Mischief and Subi Reefs, which are part of the Spratly Island chain. According to reports, the potential runway on Mischief Reef is only 21 nautical miles from the BRP Sierra Madre, which the Philippines intentionally grounded in 1999 to stake its claim to the Second Thomas Shoal. Reuters explains that the new construction would create a triangle of airfields that could help fill a gap in China’s anti-submarine defenses by extending the reach of Y-9 surveillance planes and Ka-28 helicopters.
Consistent with these moves, Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai sent a message to his American and Japanese counterparts at London’s Defence & Security Equipment International conference: as the name implies, he said, the South China Sea “belongs to China.” Finally, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook announced that a Chinese fighter jet performed an unsafe maneuver during an air intercept of an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane. The incident occurred just east of the Shandong peninsula in the Yellow Sea. Although the planes were not in danger of colliding, the U.S. Government is considering issuing a demarche over the incident, as it did after a similar episode last year.
In other news…
On September 18, Admiral John Richardson relieved Admiral Jonathan Greenert as the new Chief of Naval Operations (CNO)—the Navy’s most senior officer and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The CNO plays a profound role in both the South and East China Seas—as is evidenced by Chinese Admiral Wu Shengli’s invitation to CNO Richardson, one month before he began the job, to visit China.
In early September, at a military parade in Beijing, President Xi unexpectedly revealed plans to cut PLA troop numbers by 300,000, reducing the current 2.3-million-strong military by 13 percent. Reuters reports that “[b]itterness is growing within China’s armed forces” over Mr. Xi’s decision. But it also cites experts who explain that the shift in strategy is specifically designed to allow the PLA to shift resources to its navy and air force as Beijing looks to assert its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.
As the Times recaps, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won final passage of legislation that will bypass Japan’s pacifist constitution and allow for an overseas combat role for its military (subject to expected challenges in the courts). This measure was, in no small part, motivated by Japan’s perception of increasing Chinese aggression in the East and South China Seas. Reuters provides an overview of the key provisions of the new security bill.
As further evidence of a deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations, Japan lodged a formal protest with China over allegations of continued gas extraction in the East China Sea. The two Pacific nations agreed in 2008 to a ban on individual drilling as part of a plan to jointly develop undersea resources. According to a report in India’s Economic Times, Japan believes that seven of China’s sixteen rigs in the disputed waters are currently running.
The Philippine’s military modernization effort has hit several critical snags as President Benigno Aquino III’s final term nears its end, with potentially serious ramifications in the Spratly Islands dispute and broader U.S. foreign policy in the region.
The Center for International Law, a Manila-based nonprofit, has filed an appeal for UN intervention against China on behalf of sixteen Filipino fisherfolk who are claiming “massive and gross human rights violations” related to traditional fishing grounds in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
The WSJ details the recent diplomatic exploits of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s Communist Party Chief. His efforts at strengthening military and economic cooperation with the United States and Japan are beginning to pay dividends, with Japan granting Vietnam six patrol vessels for use by the Vietnamese Marine Police.
The Indonesian Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, has called on China to alter its infamous nine-dash line. Although this is hardly a new request from the island nation, Indonesia has raised the stakes with its announcement of a new base on the Natuna Islands in the country’s north. Ms. Pudjiastuti also claims that she has ordered the sinking of more than one hundred illegal fishing boats since coming to office last year.
Also of Interest
Over at The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi explains the legal significance of the 12-nautical-mile line and the effect of FON operations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Andrew Chubb has a related piece that advocates for U.S. FON patrols around China’s artificial islands and explains the ramifications under UNCLOS in his recent East Asia Forum post.
Foreign Policy’s James Holmes warns of the dangers of not responding to what he calls China’s “bluewater assertiveness”—including the foray into the Aleutians, a September 2015 port call in Egypt, a May visit to the Black Sea, and related diplomatic endeavors—and compares the PLA’s recent moves to the Great White Fleet.
In National Interest, Mira Rapp-Hopper and Patrick Cronin argue that the Obama Administration needs to get more granular on its critique of China’s island reclamation. Given that land reclamation, on its own, “is neither illegal nor inherently destabilizing,” they argue that the Unites States must instead focus on defining “militarization” and “coercion,” thereby moving policymakers “closer to being able to point to specific Chinese behavior and actions they find objectionable.”
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released an interesting report entitled “Perception and Misperception in American and Chinese Views of the Other,” which investigates how domestic perceptions directly and indirectly shape the U.S.-Chinese bilateral relationship with potentially serious ramifications for policymakers.