China drill meant to coerce South China Sea claims: experts

By Viet Anh   March 14, 2022 | 04:45 pm PT
China drill meant to coerce South China Sea claims: experts
A Chinese Coast Guard patrol ship (L) is seen near an unidentified vessel in the South China Sea, in a handout photo distributed by the Philippine Coast Guard April 15 and taken according to the source either on April 13 or 14, 2021. Photo by Philippine Coast Guard/Handout via Reuters
China on March 4 announced the establishment of a no-go zone for a military drill in the East Sea, which experts believe could be used to push its claims in the waterway.

Collin Koh Swee Lea, a research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told VnExpress International that the drills certainly form part of the routine set of exercises that are conducted with greater intensity in recent years, especially after Chinese President Xi Jinping exhorted the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to undertake combat readiness in early 2021.

"It also appears to coincide with the announcement on defense spending."

On March 5 China announced a 7.1 percent increase in defense spending in 2022 to US$229 billion, continuing years of robust spending on its increasingly powerful military, AP reported.

Peter Layton, visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, opined the drill is a continuation of China's long-term plan of gradually taking over control of the seas within the nine-dash line, which has been roundly rejected by the international community.

To make any future use of force in the South China Sea – known in Vietnam as the East Sea – appear legal, China has devised numerous laws ostensibly extending its domestic enforcement powers across all and any vessels operating in 80 percent of the sea, which it claims, he said.

"These enforcement powers include boarding, inspecting and if necessary using armed force."

Such unilateral legal maneuvers aim to progressively shift almost all of the South China Sea under Chinese domestic laws and could be used by the country to justify using violence in some future incident, he said.

It could then continue to project its preferred image of that of a peaceful nation, and claim its actions are simply to enforce its laws, he added.

China has announced that the drill, conducted southwest of Hainan Island, will last until March 15.

On March 8 Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing in Beijing: "China's military exercise on its own doorstep is reasonable and lawful. It is beyond reproach."

Layton said this is similar to the tactic China used against Indonesia last year, demanding that the latter should stop exploratory drilling for oil and natural gas inside its own EEZ near the Natuna islands.

"China makes laws unagreed or recognized by no other state and then tries to enforce them onto other independent countries."

Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, former commander in chief of the Japan Self Defense Fleet, said there are two major objectives behind Chin's naval exercise.

One is to check the tactical skills of its military, especially the participating naval units, and improvements in the area, he said.

The second is more willful and political, he said, contending that China is trying to deny Vietnam's EEZ by making its own EEZ claim off the coast of Vietnam.

"China is accumulating as many precedents as possible that would support its groundless claims in territorial and EEZ disputes in the South China Sea."

On March 7 Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said part of the no-go zone for the military drill belongs to Vietnam's EEZ and continental shelf as determined under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and urged China to respect them.

Hoang Viet, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law, Vietnam, thought China would use this drill to push its claims in the South China Sea when the international community is focused on the conflict in Ukraine.

"This was what China did in 2020 when many countries were focused on dealing with Covid: It undertook many activities to assert its claims in the South China Sea."

Put the world on notice

Lea said the military posturing and counter-posturing by various parties in the South China Sea have become a norm.

Though there is absolutely no way China would roll back such activities, Vietnam should continue to protest to show its consistent approach, he said.

It is contingent on Vietnam to push for initiatives among the regional players in the South China Sea that promote confidence and prevent or mitigate untoward incidents potentially arising from such frequent show of military force, he said.

Highlighting the conflict between China's utterances and actions, Cmdr. Jonathan Odom of the Marshall Center for Security Studies, a German-American partnership in Germany, said China has told the U.S. and other countries to stay out of the South China Sea to maintain peace in the region, but Beijing is the one "that is making the situation hotter."

Speaking in his personal capacity, he said Vietnam should continue to call the attention of the international community to such behaviors by China.

"Vietnam needs to put the world on notice about China's inconsistency."

The location of the drill is very concerning as it affects commercial maritime traffic in this area, impacting Vietnam economically, he said.

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