Tensions have been mounting in the South China Sea recently, drawing concern from the international community. On June 13, Vietnam carried out live ammunition military exercises in the area. The US and the Philippines have also announced they will hold joint exercises at the end of this month. Indeed, only a few days ago the US Navy’s USS George Washington aircraft carrier set sail from its base at Yokosuka Harbor in Japan on its way to the South China Sea, and the USS Chung-Hoon guided missile destroyer left Pearl Harbor, bound for the Sulu Sea, which the US considers to be international waters, where it will participate in joint exercises with the Philippine Navy.
China’s largest and most capable patrol boat, the Haixun-31, departed from Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, on June 15 on its way to Singapore, a route that will take it through the South China Sea as a statement of China’s intent to defend its maritime sovereignty. According to a report published in the Chinese newspaper Global Times (環球時報) on June 18, China’s armed forces will conduct two successive military exercises in the South China Sea, and the drills will include amphibious transport dock and escort drills.
The South China Sea situation has intensified very quickly, with powers in the region keen to show off their maritime muscle in an effort to protect their rights in the area.
There is a reason for the quick intensifying of these tensions. At stake is sovereignty, navigation routes, resources development and maritime rights in economically significant waters, and none of the nations concerned have the slightest intention of backing down. In the interest of maintaining stable relations, however, these countries signed the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. This has kept peace in the region for many years now. So why have tensions re-emerged?
The answer lies in China’s military rise, and especially in the naval tensions that arose in Northeast Asia last year, as a result of military exercises in the Yellow Sea and the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), over which China faced off against the US and Japan. This left less powerful countries in the region concerned that sooner or later China was going to turn its attention to the South China Sea. That is why these nations have been so quick to assert their territorial claims in the area, and keen to make clear their refusal to cede any ground on the issue.
Starting from about 2009, voices within China were suggesting that the US was much weakened by the financial crisis. These voices have been saying that, with China’s new position in the world order, it should be making more of a stand on foreign affairs, especially with what it considers to be its core interests, and drawing up new policy baselines. It has been testing the waters, so to speak, with how far it can go with the US and other regional powers, establishing new ground rules and re-asserting the core interests of a rising great power.
These calls from China’s military have seen a gradual hardening of China’s discourse on foreign relations. The US was informed in March last year that the South China Sea issue touched on China’s sovereignty and core territorial interests. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) openly objected to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement in the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 23 last year that the US has a national interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Soon after this, on Sept. 7, the Chinese trawler Minjin 5179 rammed Japanese patrol boats in the waters surrounding the Diaoyutai Islands, an incident that resulted in the boat’s Chinese captain being detained by the Japanese. Beijing reacted by instructing Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya (王光亞) to register the Chinese government’s protests in the strongest terms on Sept. 19. Two days later, on Sept. 21, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) openly warned Japan that if it continued on its course China would take further action, saying that this would lead to serious consequences for which the Japanese themselves would be entirely responsible.
Last year saw a hardening of China’s stance on territorial disputes in the Northeast Asian maritime regions, something that was not lost on the Philippines or Vietnam, who had witnessed how China had dealt with even a regional great power like Japan. After China declared that the South China Sea was also linked to its core interests, their concerns arose about how China would handle disputes with the less powerful nations in Southeast Asia.
These considerations obliged Vietnam to take decisive action, allocating US$2.6 billion to its national defense budget for this year, an increase of about 70 percent from the previous year. As part of this initiative, the government announced that it would purchase six Kilo-class submarines from Russia to reinforce its navy. In a show of its resolve in the South China Sea dispute, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung cautioned other countries during an inspection of reefs claimed by Vietnam on June 9 that there were no easy answers to the regional territorial disputes. Four days later, his country was conducting military exercises in the area. The Philippines, meanwhile, is using joint exercises with the US to remind Beijing that the Philippines and the US are joint signatories to a strategic alliance, sending China the message that it should avoid any rash moves.
Basically, the mounting tensions are an extension of what happened in the Northeast Asian region last year, the roots of the problem being the rise of China and its armed forces and the hardening of China’s stance on its handling of territorial claims to surrounding islands. This has caused concern in the Philippines and Vietnam, which have opted to pre-emptively clarify their own resolve on the issue, enlisting outside support, particularly from the US.
With the rapid escalation of investment in China’s military, and particularly now that the navy is preparing to test its first aircraft carrier, which could well be stationed in Hainan Island, all of the countries in the region are wary of what the future holds. Given this, tensions in the South China Sea are unlikely to dissipate in the foreseeable future.
Tsai Ming-yen is a professor at National Chung Hsing University’s Graduate Institute of International Politics.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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