Water Wars

Water Wars: Unease in the South China Sea—New Normal or Quiet Before the Storm?

By Chris Mirasola
Friday, September 23, 2016, 9:24 AM

Satellite Imagery of Construction on Taiping Island Raises Eyebrows

Emplacements on Taiping Island.

Satellite image of construction on Taiping Island (Photo: Google Maps)

Updated satellite imagery from Google Earth revealed four new concrete structures on Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island (Itu Aba). Taiping Island is the largest maritime feature in the South China Sea and was essential to the Hague tribunal finding jurisdiction in the China-Philippines arbitration. The tribunal’s determination that Taiping Island is not entitled to a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone led Taipei to condemn the ruling and reassert broad, and contested, rights in the region.

The structures are three to four stories tall, surrounded by a circular structure still under construction, and located on the west side of the island. Construction was not seen on maps published in January 2015. Taiwan’s Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan, responding to reporters, said that, “it is inconvenient for us to reveal any military facilities we are installing on Taiping island, and what their purposes are.” Coast Guard Director General Lee Chung-wei told the Legislative Yuan that Google had been contacted to blur the image.

Gregory Poling from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, who visited Taiping Island in January 2016, clarified that AMTI’s “imagery shows [that] the four towers were built sometime after August 2015 and complete[d] by January 2016.” This matches reports from Taiwanese legislator Johnny Chiang Chi-chen, who saw the structures during a trip to the island this summer. Greg Poling also noted that the structures are oriented towards Subi Reef and the South China Sea’s major north-south sea-lane.

There is less consensus on the purpose of these structures. Some Taiwanese media outlets assert that the structures may be anti-aircraft gun blockhouse towers. Other military experts hypothesize that they are likely to be devoted to detection and surveillance given that “the salty waters and vapours [sic] would rust the cannons.”

In other news...

The Philippines

The Philippine government continued to send conflicting messages around its South China Sea policy and relationship with Washington. First, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that the Philippines is not prepared to have bilateral discussions with China regarding the South China Sea. Alluding to the United States, he emphasized that pursuing stronger ties with China did not mean that Manila would abandon other important diplomatic ties. During the same trip, however, he also said that the Philippines would not be lectured on human rights and that “we cannot forever be the little brown brothers of America.”

Along similar lines, Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella welcomed warmer relations with Beijing and asserted that he was “not aware that there are preconditions to the conversation” on the South China Sea. Philippine defense officials also met with representatives from the Russian Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation, a government agency, to discuss opportunities for defense acquisition. Diplomatic sources also reported that President Duterte will make the first international visits of his presidency next month, first to China and then to Japan. President Duterte told reporters that, during his meeting with President Xi Jinping, he would “present the problem [of the South China Sea] to him. And I would say to him, ‘this piece of paper, the arbitral award, we don’t go out of the four corners of this paper. Let’s talk.’” Sources expect the trip to Japan to focus on maritime security assistance.

Notwithstanding these overtures to China, President Duterte told soldiers that the Philippines “will not raise hell now because of the [arbitral] judgment but there will come a time that we will have to do some reckoning about this.” He also warned China that if it is the one “who enter[s] here, it will be bloody . . . It will be the bones of our soldiers and even my own.” The President also seemed to walk back from his criticism of the United States, saying that, “we need them in [the South] China Sea.”


Defense Minister Tomomi Inada’s statement last week supporting U.S. freedom of navigation operations and pledging to increase engagement in the South China Sea continued to make waves. Minister Inada specifically mentioned, “joint training cruises with the U.S. Navy, bilateral and multi-lateral exercises with regional navies, as well as providing capacity building assistance to coastal nations” as examples of what might be included in this deeper engagement.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, her statements did not go over well in China. The Global Times warned of countermeasures if Tokyo pursues joint patrols and urged Chinese officials to respond by declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone, conducting low altitude flybys of Japanese ships, and increasing patrols near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Lu Kang also condemned the prospect of joint patrols, calling “Japan’s refusal to acknowledge reality the most pathetic.” Some U.S. based scholars, however, question the degree to which Minister Inada’s statements reflect a new policy direction for Japan.


As US-Philippine relations hit choppy waters, Jakarta and Washington seem to have entered a period of goodwill. The Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries announced that Indonesia will conduct joint patrols with the United States at the outer boundary of its territorial waters to combat illegal fishing and human trafficking. Illegal fishing is a particular concern for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who this week claimed that the Ministry’s practice of seizing and sinking foreign vessels illegally fishing in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone is on track to return fish stocks to normal levels within two to three years. Finally, five senior Indonesian naval officers visited the United States to explore the possibility of tapping into the United States’ Foreign Military Financing program to fund upgrades at naval bases in the South China Sea.


Joint exercises with Russia continued this week. China Military Online provides a helpful schematic of the ships involved and types of exercises conducted this year as well as a map of past joint exercises. The Global Times reports that Beijing Enterprises Water Group, Ltd. will install a desalination plant on Woody Island capable of treating up to 1,000 tons of water per day. Finally, the Global Times published an overview of new vessels in the PLA Navy’s East China Sea Fleet and changes to the fleet’s command structure.

United States

The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces heard testimony from Dr. Andrew Erickson, Ms. Bonnie Glaser, and Dr. James Kraska on China’s maritime militia, policy responses to recent Chinese action in the South China Sea, and the role of international law in these disputes.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

A deep current of unease pervaded analysis from western writers this week as a consensus emerged that the United States and its partners have lost momentum after this summer’s arbitral tribunal ruling.

We begin with commentary on joint Russian-Chinese exercises in the South China Sea. Abhijit Singh at the National Interest explains how this year’s exercise differs, in important ways, from past Sino-Russian joint activities. William Ide at Voice of America cautions, however, that we should not loose sight of persistent disagreements in the China-Russia relationship. Notwithstanding these differences, Dave Majumdar at the National Interest highlights concerns expressed by senior uniformed officers about the United States’ ability to confront China or Russia in a high-end conflict.

Picking up on this concern, three articles explore how advances in China’s military capacity are eroding the United States’ position in the region. Kyle Mizokami at Popular Mechanics shows how advancements in technology have allowed China to project power further from the mainland. Thomas Shugart at War on the Rocks picks up on a similar theme, arguing that China’s artificial islands are central to its increased military capacity in the South China Sea. Christopher Cavas at Defense News picks up on Andrew Erickson’s work on China’s maritime militia, noting how these more clandestine forces are answerable to the People’s Liberation Army chain of command and advance Chinese maritime interests.

Concerns about China’s rise are amplified by uncertainty regarding the role of other regional actors, particularly the Philippines. Joshua Kurlantzick at Asia Unbound unpacks Duterte’s diplomatic strategy and Christopher Woody at Business Insider explores how it will be challenged in the coming months. Malcolm Davis at The Strategist is particularly critical, arguing that Duterte is out of his depth in an uncertain international environment. Indonesia’s foreign policy gives other writers equal cause for concern. Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto at East Asia Forum contends that Indonesia’s weak leadership within ASEAN allows the organization to flounder in its relationship with China. Johannes Nugroho at Today Online makes a similar point, advocating that Jakarta take a more active role in forging consensus within ASEAN. Gregory Poling at World Politics Review highlights another reason for United States concern: Vietnam’s recent outreach to China during Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visit to Beijing.

At the same time, three less-discussed issues continue to lurk in the background. A recent podcast from AMTI explores the worsening fisheries collapse in the South China Sea. Lyle Morris at The RAND Blog outlines how dangerous law enforcement exercises continue to plague the region. And finally, Francois-Xavier Bonnet at AMTI urges that we take a closer look at competition happening beneath the waves and the possibility of submarine warfare in and around the Spratly Islands.

These developments have led some to question whether we are witnessing a fundamental shift in China and America’s relationship in the region. Alexander Macleod at Business Insider asserts that China has indeed started to edge out the United States in regional politics. Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times agrees, concluding that President Obama’s Asia pivot has largely failed. Bonnie Glaser and Alexandra Viers at CSIS strike a slightly different note, arguing that the Sino-American relationship will be characterized by simultaneous friction and cooperation. Wang Jisi at China-US Focus similarly admits that distrust and competition pervades much of the US-China relationship and argues for strategies on both sides of the Pacific to deal with this “new normal.”

Scholars are expressing a similar unease regarding Australia’s position in the region. Joanne Wallis at East Asia Forum explores how Australia’s influence in Pacific has declined and Allan Behm at The Strategist argues that a transformational foreign policy is needed to reverse this trend.

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 Chris Mirasola with breaking news or relevant documents.