Setting the stage:
The South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean of about 1.4M sq miles. It is surrounded by the Philippine to the East, Vietnam to the West, China and Taiwan to the North. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei lie to the South of the disputed sea. The area’s importance because one-third of the world’s shipping sailing through its waters and that it is believed to hold huge oil and gas deposit. There are hundreds of islands in the middle of the sea that are claimed by multiple countries such as China, Taiwan, the Philippine, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Until three years ago, the situation in the South China Sea had been pretty stable for 30 years. The last time there were conflict in the area was in 70s & 80s when China and Vietnam engaged in multiple naval skirmishes in two separate groups of islands the Paracels and the Spratlys, where Vietnam lost both battles. The Paracels battle in 1974 between South Vietnamese navy and Chinese navy was of personal interest to me. My father’s Naval Academy classmate Lt. Commander Ngụy Văn Thà was killed when his battle ship the Nhật Tảo was sunk by the Chinese naval and air forces.
The tensions between Vietnam and China peaked May 2014 when Beijing moved an oil rig into waters in the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, sparking fierce anti-China protests across Vietnam. China moved the platform out of the disputed area within 2 months. The standoff is regarded by analysts as the most serious development in the territorial disputes between the two countries ever since the skirmish mentioned above in 1988 in which more than 70 Vietnamese soldiers were killed.
The Philippines doesn’t have a strong naval force so it took a different approach to the dispute. In 2013, the Philippines filed a case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, asserting its rights to exploit the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone that extends from the archipelago into the South China Sea. The Philippines brought their claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both states are parties. China scoffed, claimed that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction, and boycotted the proceedings. Recently, the tribunal issued a ruling that it does have jurisdiction over the dispute. The tribunal’s negative ruling will put China in a tough position because of the tremendous amount of international pressure on China to comply will be great. Already the U.S. and other countries like Germany, the UK have actively encouraged China to settle its maritime claims in international courts.
A major development recently is alarming the US as well as many of the countries in the region. China is creating artificial islands in the disputed region.
In the New York Time on October 27, 2015 “The speed and scale of China’s island-building spree have alarmed other countries with interests in the region. China announced in June that the creation of islands — moving sediment from the seafloor to a reef — would soon be completed. Since then, China has focused its efforts on construction. So far it has constructed port facilities, military buildings and an airstrip on the islands, with recent imagery showing evidence of two more airstrips under construction. The installations bolster China’s foothold in the Spratly Islands, a disputed scattering of reefs and islands in the South China Sea more than 500 miles from the Chinese mainland…”.
In 2015, escalating events are building up the pressure in the region:
In May, a US surveillance aircraft flew of the contested water with a CNN camera team on board. The flight was challenged by the Chinese navy 8 times to leave the airspace over artificial islands.
In July, a top U.S. Navy admiral joined a 7 hours surveillance flight over the disputed South China Sea, drawing a stern rebuke from China.
In October, USS Lassen (US Navy’s destroyer) sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi reef where China has claimed territory. The Lassen moved through the area without incident.
In November, two US B52 bombers flew overnight from Guam before returning back to the island. Chinese air traffic controllers warned the bombers over their flight path, but they continued their mission undeterred.
In November the US is giving two ships to Philippine navy for coast guard operations. At the same time the US will provide $18 million to Vietnam to help procure coast guard patrol vessels, a first step in what Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hopes is a growing military relationship between those two countries. Carter’s comments came shortly after he became the first US Secretary of Defense to board a Vietnamese military vessel, a Coast Guard ship in the port of Hai Phong.
In June, Japan signed an agreement to give the Philippines one surveillance aircraft and 10 coast guard patrol boat in 2016. This will enable the Philippines to step up patrol of the contested area. Japan also agreed to give Vietnam 6 used coast guard ships for use within the South China Sea.
Vietnam has also strengthened ties with Japan. Vietnam hosted Japanese defense minister Gen Nakatani, who met with Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong as well as Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh. According to media reports, Vietnam agreed during Nakatani’s visit to welcome a Japanese warship to visit the deep-sea port of Cam Ranh Bay next year, and the two navies are expected to hold their first ever joint exercise in the near future. In addition, Vietnam has become the largest recipient of Japanese official development assistance (ODA) and a key regional partner in Japan’s quest to boost its security footprint in Southeast Asia.
Over the next few years, the strong and collaborative responses from the countries in the region with the leadership from the US will help to rein in China’s expansive policies. In particular if the Philippines is successful with its legal challenge at the Hague, the global pressure will accelerate the compromises. At the end of the day, the region need to learn to live with a stronger China as it is learning on how to project it power in the region.
For Vietnam, despite Hanoi’s versatility in forging new strategic partnerships, China is still Vietnam’s largest trading partner, a point not lost on Vietnam’s leaders, many of whom remain wary of close relations with the United States and continue to urge restraint toward China. The recent progress with TTP trade agreement will push Vietnam into the US sphere of influence and reduce its economic reliance on China and deepen partnership with the United States.