South China Sea is ‘on low boil,’ analysts warn

By Viet Anh   August 26, 2018 | 11:35 pm PT
South China Sea is ‘on low boil,’ analysts warn
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey prepares for a replenishment-at-sea in the South China Sea, May 19, 2017. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters
While the situation in the South China Sea is not as tense as it has sometimes been before, China has kept consolidating its position.

At the 51st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM 51) in Singapore earlier this month, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan announced that ASEAN and China have successfully adopted a single draft negotiating text on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (COC).

This adoption, only achieved after years of negotiation between them, is among the significant positive developments in the situation, according to a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry official, who asked to remain unnamed.

Speaking to VnExpress, the official said that compared to previous meetings AMM 51 also saw all ASEAN members finally agree on noting their concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the troubled waters.

These activities have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and could undermine peace, security and stability in the region, ASEAN members noted in their joint communique.

They also agreed to maintain ASEAN's central role in the region.

"This shows the interest of ASEAN members in the situation in the East Sea, and the return of ASEAN as a collective with all 10 countries showing interest in this issue," the official said, using the Vietnam's name for the waterway.

Analysts are however cautious about these seemingly positive developments.

Dr. Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said for instance that underneath the apparently conciliatory gestures such as the recent adoption of a single draft negotiating text on the COC, China has been consolidating its gains to attain more robust physical control over the South China Sea.

"One can only start to be lulled by the recent ‘breakthroughs’ on the CoC at his own peril."

Speaking about ASEAN member states registering greater interest in the South China Sea, he believed this change could have come from the threat of instability caused by recent developments in and around the flashpoint.

China has been continuing its military and coastguard buildups in the area as well as fortification of its artificial islands. It has also been furthering its militarization of the islands with missile deployments on the Spratly (Truong Sa) Islands, landing of strategic bombers in the Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands and carrying out more frequent military exercises, all in the name of "defensive preparations."

Since March this year China has held eight military drills, including live-fire drills, in the South China Sea involving its navy, air force and coast guard including the Liaoning carrier group, H-6K bombers, Su-30 and Su-35 fighters and Z-9 anti-submarine warfare helicopters.

China has also been chasing away other countries' military aircraft flying over the waters, such as on August 10 when it ordered a U.S. Navy P-8A reconnaissance plane to "leave immediately and keep out" while it was flying over four artificial islands China had illegally built in the Spratly Islands.

A separate, more vociferous warning was issued to a Philippine plane flying nearby according to BBC reporters who were on board the P-8A.

In addition to its military activities, China has also been consolidating its control over the South China Sea with civilian activities such as the permanent stationing of the Nan Hai Jiu 115 search-and-rescue ship at Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands.

On the diplomatic front, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while attending AMM 51 this month, openly admitted China's militarization of the South China Sea but claimed it is in "self-defense" in response to security pressure from the U.S. and other non-regional countries.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June He Lei, head of the Chinese delegation, also openly stated that the country had been deploying troops and weapons on islands in the South China Sea, claiming it was "within China’s sovereign right to do so and allowed by international law.”

Lean said there also seems to be unabated interest in the South China Sea among external powers.

Canadian and British ships have been joining the regular U.S. military presence and that of its regional allies, chiefly Australia and Japan, while France is also making its presence felt in the area.

"These developments certainly heighten worries amongst ASEAN member states regarding the threat of instability in the South China Sea. This therefore could have contributed to ASEAN member states registering higher interest in the South China Sea."

He predicted that China's fortification of artificial islands and militarization activities could result in some other ASEAN claimants following suit with their own smaller-scale buildups, while the external powers are unlikely to roll back their military presence.

"Without a clear, commonly-adopted definition of ‘militarization’ – the underlying crux of this whole problem now in the South China Sea – there’s no way we can expect any stakeholder to roll back its activities, whether negotiations still go on for the COC or not.

“This creates a constant point of uncertainty in the South China Sea that everyone needs to contend with."

He equated the situation to a "pot of soup on low boil," not as tense as during the immediate run-up to the Permanent Court of Arbitration's release of the arbitration award in July 2016 but still with many potential risks.

Carl Thayer, a longtime analyst of regional security and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, also warned of rising tension in the South China Sea.

Regarding the negotiations for the COC, China's aim is to exclude outside powers from joint development of oil and gas, military exercises and protection of the marine environment, and this is clear from the text of the negotiation draft text China and ASEAN had adopted, he said.

He also noted that China is using diplomatic cover to step up its militarization of the South China Sea by deploying electronic jammers, surface to air missiles and anti-ship missiles on its artificial islands.

This, in part, is in response to the Trump Administration’s step up of freedom of navigation patrols and naval presence patrols, with the number of ship days in the South China Sea increasing from 700 in 2016 to 900 last year and continuous bomber presence patrols from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Guam, he said.

The temperature is slowly rising in the South China Sea but has not reached boiling point yet as there have not been any unsafe Chinese intercepts of U.S. maritime patrol aircraft nor have there been any naval incidents between the two navies, he said.

Regarding the change in the wording of ASEAN's position in the South China Sea compared to last year, he said it could be explained by the role of the ASEAN Chair, which was the Philippines in 2017 and Singapore in 2018.

Another important factor is that senior ASEAN and Chinese officials had agreed in late June on a Single Draft South China Sea Code of Conduct Negotiating Text, he said.

"This is a positive set and ASEAN member states are now stakeholders in completing negotiations with China on a Code of Conduct. This development may make ASEAN consensus easier to achieve."

Jay Batongbacal, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law and director of the university’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, also warned that China is pushing hard to make South China Sea its exclusively dominated sea area.

As seen in the COC discussions, China is attempting to make smaller Southeast Asian states exclude non-regional commercial interests from maritime economic activities and give China veto power over their military alliances and partnerships, he said.

Southeast Asian states would logically see this as a potential future threat to their independence, and would naturally begin to coalesce around their common interests with regard to China, he said.

"The more China pushes, the more Southeast Asia will begin to see it as a threat; and despite its economic and military dominance, it will never gain true acceptance in the region by imposing itself on others."

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