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Background Briefing: South China Sea: China and the Curse of History Carlyle A. Thayer January 14, 2013

[client name deleted] What is your assessment of the following? 1) At China’s national conference on maritime work held January 10, the Director of the State Oceanic Administration, Liu Caigui, stressed the strategy of turning China into a maritime superpower in accordance with the resolution of the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China. China announced that in 2013 it will continue to send its maritime surveillance ships to intercept Vietnamese and Filipino ships in the South China Sea. ANSWER: China’s long-range strategy is clear. China seeks to exercise control over the exploitation of resources in the South China Sea that it claims are its own. China has over-fished near Hainan Island and its fishing fleets are venturing further south. China will use non-military ships to enforce its jurisdiction, especially ships from the China Marine Surveillance force. China will also seek to interrupt oil exploration activities by the Philippines in disputed waters. China will also add pressure on the Philippines and Vietnam to jointly develop oil and gas reserves through so-called joint development. It should be noted that China has virtually annexed Scarborough Shoal by maintaining a permanent presence there. Its ships protect Chinese fishermen. They have erected a barrier across the mouth of the shoal. The Philippines has not been daring enough to remove the barrier or sail into the shoal. In other words, China has succeeded in undermining the Philippines’ sovereignty in this area. China is bolstering its paramilitary fleets to control the resources because both Vietnam and the Philippines have weak coast guards. China has major plans to enlarge its paramilitary fleets in future years. At the same time China is giving priority to its South Sea fleet. It is receiving the newest destroyers and frigates. These ships will back up the paramilitary force if there is an incident. 2) Chinese General Luo Yuan forecast that in 2013, China is likely to be encircled in the South China Sea, so China is forced to strengthen its military buildup in the sea. ANSWER: General Luo Yuan is well-known for his outspoken views and his unique nationalist view of the region. The South China Sea is by definition a semi-enclosed sea bordered by Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. Prior to

2 1988 China was not physically present in the South China Sea. In 1988 it fought a naval engagement with Vietnam and seized some features. China occupied more features in the early 1990s culminating in the occupation of Mischief Reef. By entering the South China Sea in such a manner it is not surprising that China is surrounded by the geography of the littoral states. And further, Chinese assertiveness has promoted some cooperation among the littoral states themselves and with major maritime powers who have a strategic interest in maintaining the status quo and preserving freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce. It is a “curse of history” that China, a continental power, surrounded by so many neighbours, will be encircled forever. And when China enters waters claimed by the littoral states it has no one to blame but itself for being encircled. 3) There have been reports that after announcing new regulations concerning control of maritime waters around Hainan Island, China plans to control the airspace above waters it claims in the nine-dotted (U-shaped) line in the South China Sea. ANSWER: China has now clarified that the new regulations drawn up by Hainan province authorities only cover the 12 nautical mile territorial sea surrounding Hainan. Under international law China has absolute sovereignty over the sea and the airspace above it. China’s assertion that it will take action against foreign vessels engaged in illegal activities is in accord with international law. Vietnam and other littoral states have the right to do so in their territorial sea. At the same time, international law decrees that China and other coastal states permit innocent passage by ships passing through their territorial sea. Even foreign military vessels must be accorded innocent passage if they comply with international law (fly their national flag, submarines must surface, weapon systems must be turned off etc.). There is no indication that China intends to interrupt air traffic outside of the airspace above its territorial sea or extend this to the airspace above the waters marked by its u-shaped line. The one exception is that China has passed domestic law regulating the activities of foreign military vessels in its Exclusive Economic Zone. This is not in accord with international law and led to the EP-3 incident in 2001 and the USNS Impeccable incident in 2009. The first occurred in the airspace above China’s EEZ, the second occurred in China’s EEZ. China does not have the means to control the airspace over the South China Sea. The United States would respond immediately. It is notable that China has not instigated any further major air or sea incidents involving the United States since 2009. 4) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe selected Vietnam, not the US, for his first overseas official visit after taking office. Regional press have raised questions about the correlation of his visit to the US call for its allies in the region to build up a new alliance against China, with Japan acting as a nucleus of the alliance. ANSWER: Shinzo Abe selected the United States as the destination for his first official trip as the new Prime Minister of Japan. Because of scheduling difficulties his visit to the US will take place later. Abe then chose to visit Southeast Asia to reinforce Japan’s interests in the region, including maritime security. Japan would like to coordinate diplomacy with regional states and reassure them that Japan will continue to be a major contributor to regional security. Obviously Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines have a convergence of interests in maritime security, yet each

3 country also has its own separate relationship with China. Vietnam’s relations with China are not as fractious as those between China and the Philippines. Vietnam prefers a more independent approach to modernizing and its developing its armed forces and marine police. The Philippines has neglected its coast guard. Japan is responding by providing ten 40 metre patrol boats as part of its Overseas Development Assistance program. The United States is not trying to form an anti-China alliance in East Asia nor is it trying to urge its allies to do so. The US is trying to engage with China at the same time it is rebalancing its military posture to meet future challenges. This means working more closely with allies and strategic partners to ensure maritime security. This is not the same thing as an alliance directed against China. If China would change its assertive policies it could join regional states in security cooperation. At a time when there is strategic uncertainty about the ability of the United States to meet the objectives of its military rebalancing, it is natural for regional states to encourage the US to remain engaged, and for regional states to cooperate with likeminded regional states. To repeat, this is international security cooperation not an anti-China alliance.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: China and the Curse of History,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, January 2013.