Water Wars

Water Wars: September Sea Squabbles

By Sarah Grant
Friday, September 15, 2017, 4:00 PM

Water Wars: September Sea Squabbles

Relations between China and Vietnam continue to sour, the Pentagon schedules regular South China Sea FONOPs, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration notches a win.

Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) F-15 fighter jets (bottom) conduct an air exercise with U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers above the East China Sea on September 9.

Photo credit: U.S. Pacific Air Forces

Chinese military drills around the Gulf of Tonkin and the Paracel Islands have exacerbated tensions between China and Vietnam, still simmering over oil exploration projects in contested waters. Last month, the Maritime Safety Administration in Hainan, China announced that military drills, including live-fire exercises, would take place in the contested waters from August 29 until September 4. On August 31, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang conveyed Vietnam’s concerns about the drills, calling on China “to stop and not to repeat activities that complicate the situation in the East Sea.” Hang released a second statement on September 5 condemning the exercises, saying, “Vietnam once again asserts that [we] will resolutely protect our sovereignty and our legitimate rights and interests in the East Sea through peaceful measures that are suitable with international laws.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang dismissed Vietnam’s concerns, responding in a press briefing on September 6 that “the [Paracel] Islands are an indisputable part of China's inherent territory. The relevant military exercise by the Chinese armed forces near the [Paracel] Islands falls within China's sovereignty, and we hope various parties can regard it in a calm and rational way.”

In Other News...

United States

On September 1, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Pacific Command has set a schedule of South China Sea freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) for the coming months, with the purpose of more consistently challenging Chinese maritime claims. Three FONOPs already occurred during the Trump administration, in May, July and August.

Two Guam-based U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers and two Japanese F-15 fighter jets conducted an air exercise over the East China Sea on September 9. Saturday’s exercise follows a larger joint show-of-force near the Korean peninsula on August 31, two days after North Korea launched a ballistic missile over northern Japan. U.S. Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman Lt. Col. Lori Hodge said the exercise was intended “to foster increased interoperability between Japan and the U.S.


September 11 marked the fifth anniversary of Japan’s nationalization of three uninhabited islands in the Senkaku Islands. Japan’s purchase of the islands from private owners in 2012 led to a deterioration of relations between Japan and China, which also claims what it calls the Diaoyu Islands. Chinese government ships and aircraft have regularly patrolled the surrounding waters and airspace since 2012, though activity has declined in recent months. On September 8, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a news conference that Tokyo remains “seriously concerned” about Beijing’s intentions and “will respond in a calm and resolute manner” to any future intrusions on Japan’s claimed sovereignty over the islands.

Japan convened a Coast Guard Global Summit on September 14, hosting Coast Guard officers from 34 countries and Hong Kong in Tokyo to discuss interregional cooperation on maritime security, marine environmental protection, and capacity building. Admiral Satoshi Nakajima, commandant of the Japan Coast Guard, told reporters after the meeting that the participants did not specifically discuss territorial issues in the East or South China Seas.


Beijing continues to push back against Indonesia’s public renaming of part of its EEZ in the South China Sea as the “North Natuna Sea.” Indonesia’s Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said in July that “[t]he North Natuna Sea is within our territory, not in the South China Sea ... We have the right [to rename the waters], because the North Natuna Sea is ours.”

But in a letter delivered to the Indonesian embassy in Beijing on August 25, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated that sovereignty over the waters remains contested and Indonesia’s decision to deviate from the “internationally-accepted name” has no practical effect other than exacerbating tensions.


On September 2, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague announced that Australia and Timor-Leste had reached an agreement “on the central elements of a maritime boundary delimitation between them in the Timor Sea.” The disputed territory contains oil and gas deposits worth an estimated $40 billion. The countries have agreed to establish a special regime to develop the energy resources. The parties hailed the agreement, which ends a long-standing dispute, as a “significant milestone in relations between them and in a historic friendship between the peoples of Timor-Leste and Australia.”

Analysis and Commentary

Up first, in The Diplomat, Tuan Pham wrote a two-part series contesting the idea that the U.S. has irreversibly ceded its influence in the South China Sea and describing ways the U.S. can regain the strategic initiative and impose meaningful checks on China’s regional ambitions and strategies. He argues that recent history shows the fluidity of the geopolitical environment in the South China Sea and that strategic shifts in China’s favor need only be temporary But, the U.S. must more deliberately and doggedly reach out to the region and be clear about its security and economic interests. Strategic decline, he says, “is a deliberate choice, not an imposed reality.”

Also in The Diplomat, Joseph Bosco applauded U.S. Pacific Command’s “cool-headed new approach” to FONOPs in the South China Sea, saying the routinization of these patrols is long overdue. But the Navy should go further, he says, and apply the same approach to transits through the Taiwan Strait in order to convey unambiguously to Beijing the U.S.’s enduring commitment to defending Taiwan.

For War on the Rocks, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Derek Grossman, and Logan Ma of the RAND Corporation analyzed the recent uptick in Chinese strategic bomber flights around Taiwan. The patrols, they say, are the “latest manifestation of top leaders’ longstanding efforts to enhance the PLAAF’s airpower capabilities,” the “ultimate goal [of which] is to deter U.S. intervention in a regional conflict.” They assess that Beijing will continue to use regular bomber flights for strategic signaling purposes and argue that the U.S. should focus not on deterring them, but rather on mitigating the negative effects of these flights, particularly the risk of unsafe air-to-air encounters.

In The National Interest, Koh Swee Lean Collin of the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies asked whether it is the “preordained destiny of smaller and weaker states like the Philippines and Malaysia, to capitulate to China’s gray-zone tactics.” He concludes the answer is no, highlighting how Indonesia and Vietnam have pushed back against China militarily while simultaneously deepening economic ties. The key, he says, is in “purposefully shift[ing] the onus of escalation to the party contemplating gray-zone tactics through increasing the likelihood of conflict.”

In the South China Morning Post, Sourabh Gupta of the Institute for China–America Studies considered the lessons the resolution of the Doklam border dispute between China and India might hold for maritime rivals in East Asia as they develop a code of conduct and consultation mechanisms for the South and East China Seas. Gupta says the successful application of China-India boundary management protocols suggests that effective crisis management requires mutual confidence and trust, patience and perseverance, and adaptability rather than rigidity.

Finally, speaking at the Griffith Asia Institute on September 6, Peter Varghese, Chancellor of the University of Queensland in Australia, contemplated the future of Australian foreign policy in Asia and how Australia can maximize its strategic interests amidst the battle between the U.S. and China for regional supremacy. Varghese states that the long-term “security of the region cannot rely on the maintenance of U.S. strategic predominance” because while the U.S. “will likely remain the world’s strongest power for decades to come,” it may nevertheless cease to be “the most influential power in the Indo Pacific.” Given the reality of China’s rise, “[i]t is very much in Australia’s interests to have a close relationship with China in as many areas and at as many levels as possible.” Australia, he says, does “not have to make a binary choice between the U.S. and China, at least not unless one insists that we must…[but does] need a sophisticated strategy for dealing honestly with the strategic uncertainties which lie ahead.”

Water Wars is our biweekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please email Sarah Grant with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections.