A Looming War at Sea

Joint Spratley Exercises

Filipino and American troops on joint exercises in the Philippines;
photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Defense

A Looming War at Sea
| published August 11, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

As if the United States and its closest allies did not have enough international tension to contend with around the world—including violence between Israel and Hamas, fighting between Ukrainian forces loyal to Kiev and militant forces with a paternal kinship with Moscow, and intense violence between ISIS and those ethnic and religious groups in its path in a rapidly-fragmenting—now there are worries about rising tensions in the South China Sea.

It’s an old beef, as they say.

Dating back to unresolved issues at the end of World War II—and to lines drawn by the Chinese in 1947 on maps and atlases—the nasty disagreements center upon competing claims to sea lanes and territorial waters, islands and reefs. China has begun to exert its long-maintained claim to the areas in question. But according to the Philippines and Vietnam, China is in violation of their sovereign lands, and the two smaller countries say that most international authorities recognize the islands as belonging to the former countries, not to China.

Despite protests and frequent complaints in international venues, China has built oil rigs, installed drilling platforms, constructed lighthouses, installed radar and high tech geo-positioning equipment, and even placed military hardware in areas which belong to the Philippines or to Vietnam. One area in dispute: the Paracel Islands, long considered Vietnamese territory but claimed since 1947 by China. Another source of friction is several of the Spratly Islands, widely-recognized by the United Nations as Philippine outposts, but now in a state of de facto annexation by China, where construction of radar stations and lighthouses is already taking place.

And for some of the Spratly Islands, it can get even more complicated. Other countries also have an ax to grind about who can claim which island as their own. Some of the Spratly’s are also contested by Malaysia, Taiwan (the Republic of China) and Brunei.

At issue is what is known as The Nine Dashed Line, or, in some international circles, The Nine Dotted Line. It’s one of those annoyingly complicated disputes—like the bitter contest between India and Pakistan over parts of the “Northern Areas,” the rugged, mountainous region south of Hindu Kush and north of Kashmir, only in this case without the heavy artillery and without the nuke-tipped rockets.

Here’s the short version. At the height of Imperial Japan’s reach, all the areas in question were controlled by Japanese military forces. After Japan’s surrender, and based on agreements and treaties signed in Cairo and at Potsdam, the Republic of China (as it was then called) re-claimed its authority over the Paracels, the Pratas, and some of the Spratlys. The Kuomintang government published maps and atlases which showed these areas as part of China. Later, after revolution reshaped China into the People’s Republic of China, the top brass in Beijing co-opted the same claims to the same islands. The new communist authorities in Beijing simply ignored Taiwan (then the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek) and steamrolled over its claims to any of the islands. Thus a dashed line hand-drawn by Zhou Enlai in 1947 still affects the world to this day.

But China’s claim of a wide net of authority over the Paracels and the Spratlys has been a source of tension, off and on, for years.

The Philippines, a close U.S. ally, has long complained of China’s bullying in the area, but its worries have grown more acute now that China has begun to develop and build on the islands. A few of the islands contain tourist and resort activity, but many are undeveloped or lightly developed, and all have important strategic value to the countries involved in the dispute. China’s construction of radar stations, geo-positioning hardware, radio and communications towers, lighthouses, and naval watchtowers is of deep concern to the governments of both Vietnam and the Philippines.

There have been protests and even riots in Vietnam over what the Southeast Asian country sees as deliberate encroachment on its island territories. The Philippines have taken a more proactive—if not anemic—approach, resorting to deliberately grounding old, mothballed, and retired battleships on some of the reefs in the Spratly’s. On board these rusting hulks reside detachments of Filipino Marines and Navy specialists whose sole job is to survey the waters for the presence of Chinese military or construction vessels. The marines take turns scanning the horizon, reporting all ship activity back to commanders in Manila. Chinese military ships—bristling with high-tech surveillance gear and beefed-up with heavy weaponry—often circle such Filipino outposts. The Philippine marines are heavily armed and specially-trained, but most military analysts in the U.S. and the U.K. concede that the Filipino forces—dedicated and motivated though they are—would be no match for Chinese naval forces should there be an actual confrontation on one of those islands or reefs.

The Filipino marines eat mostly their own catch of fish and seafood, and make do with supplies--including fruits and vegetables--brought in periodically by small boat or via airlift. Beginning in 2012, according to the Filipinos, Chinese naval ships began making the task of bringing in supplies much more difficult by blocking passage of delivery boats. For the Chinese military, it has become a war of attrition and time. Some Chinese policy analysts say that China clearly hopes that the Philippines will grow tired of defending the tiny islands.

The problem of the Spratly’s is another in a series of mostly unexpected and unwanted international flashpoints for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. With much of the Middle East in crisis, and with humanitarian disasters unfolding in Gaza, Iraq and the Ukraine, the possibility of a shooting war—even limited in scale—between competing forces in the South China Sea is a worrisome scenario. U.S. relations with China have alternated between modestly-effective to below-effective for decades, especially on the issue of military matters. China quietly backs North Korea in a dangerous stalemate which dates to 1956, and U.S. relations with China have never fully recovered after the events in Tiananmen Square.

Military tensions have also been raised between China and its neighbor to the south, Vietnam. When a large oil rig was set up near Vietnam late last year, construction and drilling vessels were accompanied by a massive contingent of Chinese navy and air force personnel—destroyers, gunboats, and even heavily-armed aircraft. When Vietnamese forces attempted to intercede, they were harassed by aircraft, and the smaller boats bombarded by water cannons. Both sides in that brief conflict blamed the other for the incident.

For China and the other countries involved in the dispute, the core issue may be economic. Many of these tiny islands sit adjacent to—or in the path of—critically important shipping lanes. And in a world increasingly interconnected through trade and commerce, there will be winners and losers when it comes to the traffic on those seas. But the military consequences are not to be overlooked either. China has for over a decade been engaged in flexing its muscle in Asia, most especially on the high seas. Chinese leaders see a clear strategic advantage in controlling airspace and naval lanes along its enormous coastline and south into the South China Sea. Furthermore, in a global economy hungry for more sources of energy, China is seeking to exert its maximum sphere of influence in areas rich in oil under the seabed—and the South China Sea is ideal for drilling.

At a recent meeting of the Asean Regional Forum in Myanmar, where representatives of scores of Asian nations met to discuss Pacific Rim business, a proposal by the Philippines (backed by the U.S. and European Union, as well as Australia) to de-escalate the crisis and draw up a territorial agreement which can be later endorsed by the United Nations was rejected out-of-pocket by the Chinese. China said it would not engage in any discussion of its claims to the Paracel Islands or the Spratly Islands. And though China has been vague on what it intends to build on some of the islands and reefs, most intelligence experts say that the Chinese goal is to construct a sophisticated net of tracking technology and detection equipment across the South China Sea.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the forum, and encouraged all parties in the territorial dispute to try to come to a working agreement.

“…We’re encouraging claimant states,” said Kerry, “to consider voluntarily agreeing to refrain from taking certain actions.” Translation: countries with an ax to grind over the disputed islands need to reduce the fevers and the tempers, lest a war begin.

The Philippines is a close ally of the United States, as well as Britain. In essence, the U.S. would quickly side with the Philippines if violence erupts. But most foreign policy experts and some U.S. military analysts question just how much the U.S. could do to intervene in such a conflict. Nevertheless, joint exercises with U.S. forces alongside Filipino forces have been taking place in a variety of South China Sea locations, and in the Philippines. A few of the recent exercises have been conducted in secret on remote beaches along Palawan and on smaller islands. Other military exercises have taken place in plain view of civilian populations, a way to signal Chinese officials that there is in fact a plan in place in case there is a confrontation or a shooting war.

In Vietnam, the problem has become a domestic tempest. After news reports in May that the Chinese had completed construction of oil wells, oil rigs, and permanent concrete docks in waters near the Paracels, riots broke out in several cities in Vietnam, with violence directed at Chinese residents. Five people died in the rioting, and over 100 more were injured. The rioting had begun as mass peaceful demonstrations in Hanoi, but the tone and harshness of the language quickly escalated over the course of several days, leading to looting and burning of shops and homes owned by Chinese business people, and rioting in industrial areas where Chinese manufacturing facilities are concentrated. Though some of the protests were also based on economic grievances, the presence of Chinese military and commercial facilities on islands claimed by Vietnam—as well as in territorial waters—has fueled anti-Chinese sentiments in several cities. The violence in late May became so bad that the Chinese government urged some business people to leave Vietnam, and evacuated those with jobs connected to the Chinese government.

China does not recognize Vietnam’s claims to the Paracel Islands, and has—since 1948—called the small island group the Xisha Islands. Chinese maps show both the Paracels and the Spratlys as being in Chinese waters. The government in Hanoi has requested that China sit down for talks in an impartial venue to discuss the dispute, but China has so far not budged on the issue.

There have been no riots in the Philippines, but the Philippine government has complained officially to the United Nations (and other international bodies) that Chinese militarily ships and construction vessels have repeatedly violated its territorial waters, even as close as Palawan.

China and Vietnam fought a brief war over the Paracel Islands in 1974, and there were additional skirmishes in the islands during the Sino-Vietnamese War, which was fought primarily along the border between China and northern Vietnam in 1979.

Related Thursday Review articles:

One Crisis at a Time; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 17, 2014.

No Conflict is Local, No War Regional; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 19, 2014.