Thayer Consultancy

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Background Briefing: South China Sea: China’s Navy Steps Up Patrols Carlyle A. Thayer April 2, 2013

[client  name  deleted]   Q1.   What   is   your   assessment   of   the   alleged   firing   by   a   Chinese   navy   ship   on   a   Vietnamese   fishing   ship?   Considering   that   a   naval   ship   was   involved   and   it   fired   (flares   or   otherwise),   does   this   signal   a   shift   in   China’s   stance   or   posture?   Xinhua   seems  to  identify  the  ship  as  a  naval  vessel.  See:   ANSWER:   Since   the   standing   up   of   the   military   garrison   with   the   elevation   of   Sansha   City  to  prefecture  status,  the  People’s  Liberation  Army  Navy  (PLAN)  has  been  given   increased   responsibilities   in   the   waters   around   the   Paracel   Islands.   This   incident   appears  to  be  an  isolated  one  in  which  the  PLAN  vessel  exhausted  other  means  to   warn   off   the   Vietnamese   fishermen   (flag   signals,   whistles   etc.)   before   firing   flares.   Chinese   captains   operate   with   a   certain   degree   of   impunity   against   foreign   fishermen.  It  is  not  possible  to  make  a  conclusive  judgment  on  the  basis  of  present   information   about   whether   the   flares   were   deliberately   fired   to   cause   damage   or   whether  there  was  a  miscalculation  and  the  flares  hit  the  Vietnamese  fishing  boat.   Q2.   Vietnam’s   foreign   ministry   responded   by   describing   it   as   an   “extremely   grave   incident.”   Is   this   an   unusual   response?   Does   this   signal   an   unusually   strong   response   from  Vietnam?   ANSWER:  Comments  by  the  Vietnamese  Foreign  Ministry  do  not  appear  to  be  overly   harsh.   These   comments   are   designed   for   two   audiences,   the   Chinese   government   and  domestic  public  opinion.  The  incident  was  grave  from  the  Vietnamese  point  of   view   because   it   appears   out   of   step   with   a   relative   relaxation   in   Chinese   harassment   of  Vietnamese  fishing  vessels  over  the  past  year.  It  was  also  grave  in  the  sense  that   the  flares  reportedly  set  the  fishing  boat  on  fire  and  this  could  have  led  to  loss  of  life.   Q3.   A   small   Chinese   fleet   recently   held   an   oath-­‐taking   ceremony   at   what   Xinhua   describes   as   “southernmost   Chinese   territory.”   The   location   was   at   Zemgmu   Reef   (3.58  degrees  north  latitude  and  112.17  degrees  east  longitude)   and   it   appearts   it   was  around  110  km  from  the  Malaysian  coast.  What  is  your  assessment  of  this?   ANSWER:   James   Shoal   marks   the   extreme   southern   point   of   China’s   claim   to   the   South   China   Sea   depicted   in   its   nine-­‐dash   line   u-­‐shaped   map.   This   incident   was   mainly   symbolic   but   also   carried   with   it   a   demonstration   of   Chinese   capabilities   to  

2 deploy  a  highly  capable  force  capable  of  seizing  any  island  feature  within  China  nine-­‐ dash   line   map.   What   few   analysts   have   mentioned   is   that   China   would   have   to   sustain  such  a  force  indefinitely  once  it  was  ashore  and  deal  with  the  international   backlash  by  such  actions.     Q4.   Could   this   be   seen   as   provocation   by   other   countries,   especially   Malaysia   and   Brunei?   And   since   Malaysia   and   Brunei   have   been   among   the   most   passive   of   the   South  China  Sea  claimants,  why  would  China  risk  involving  them?   ANSWER:   China’s   symbolic   exercise   of   its   “historic   rights”   may   prove   counterproductive   because   it   may   raise   security   concerns   in   Malaysia   and   Brunei.   They   have   been   unusually   circumspect   in   their   public   comments   on   territorial   disputes  in  the  South  China  Sea.  Brunei,  as  ASEAN  Chair,  may  be  more  willing  to  push   ASEAN’s  attempt  to  reach  a  Code  of  Conduct  with  China.   It  should  be  noted  that  China’s  naval  flotilla  did  not  violate  international  law.  China’s   actions   were   no   more   provocative   than   calibrated   assertions   by   the   U.S.   Navy   of   freedom   on   navigation   in   Malaysian   waters.   Malaysia,   and   sixty   other   littoral   countries  around  the  world,  requires  prior  notification  when  foreign  military  vessels   enter   it   waters.   The   US   argues   this   is   contrary   to   international   law   and   routinely   conducts  calibrated  challenges  to  reinforce  its  view  of  freedom  of  navigation.   Q5.   China’s   ministry   of   National   Defence   recently   said   the   military   would   beef   up   cooperation  with  maritime  law  enforcement  forces.  What  do  you  think  this  means?   Are  we  likely  to  see  more  navy  ships  being  sent  into  disputed  waters  not  currently   controlled  by  China?   ANSWER:   China   is   in   the   process   of   unifying   at   least   five   maritime   enforcement   agencies  into  one  Coast  Guard.  At  the  same  time,  China  is  promoting  interoperability   between   its   military   and   civilian   maritime   enforcement   agencies.   Last   year   joint   exercises   were   held   in   scenarios   involving   China’s   response   to   incident   involving   foreign  vessels  that  damaged  civilian  paramilitary  ships.  Last  year  China  transferred   some   decommissioned   navy   vessels   to   its   civilian   enforcement   agencies.   China   is   trying  to  maximize  its  ability  to  conduct  “rights  protection”  patrols  in  waters  that  it   claims.   Up   to   know   PLAN   vessels   have   remained   “over   the   horizon”   ready   to   intervene  if  civilian  enforcement  vessels  needed  assistance.  Now  China  is  integrating   both  military  and  civilian  fleets  in  response  to  the  naval  and  coast  guard  build  up  by   the   Philippines   and   Vietnam.   China   is   seeking   to   deter   these   countries.   Recall   that   the   Scarborough   Shoal   incident   in   April   last   year   was   precipitated   when   the   Philippines  dispatches  a  navy  frigate  (a  former  US  Coast  Guard  cutter)  to  investigate   the  activities  of  Chinese  fishing  boats.     In   late   January,   Vietnam   formed   a   new   fishery   bureau   to   coordinate   patrols   in   the   South   China   Sea   to   prevent   foreign   fishing   vessels   from   operating   in   Vietnmaese   waters.  These  include  civilian  vessels  and  boats  including  the  Marine  Police  and  the   Border   Force.   This   week   Vietnam   announced   that   its   Marine   Police   would   provide   protection  for  Vietnamese  fishermen.   Q6.   A   Chinese   naval   fleet   (the   same   one   that   held   the   oath-­‐taking   exercise)   also   patrolled   Meiji   Reef   recently   (I   believe   that’s   Mischief   Reef   right?).   Taken   together   with   the   actions   described   above,   are   we   seeing   a   stepping   up   of   pressure   from  

3 China  in  the  South  China  Sea?  Or  increased  aggressiveness?   ANSWER:   Last   year   China   announced   that   it   would   conduct   up   to   thirty   naval   exercises  in  the  South  China  Sea  this  year.  The  naval  squadron  that  sailed  to  James   Shoal  conducted  landing  exercises  at  Chigua  Reef,  Yongshu  Reef  and  Huayang  Reef  in   the   Spratly   islands   prior   to   arrival   at   James   Shoal.   The   Chinese   military   is   clearly   responding   with   alacrity   to   calls   by   China’s   party   leaders   to   become   a   maritime   power   and   to   conduct   more   practical   combat   related   exercises.   We   are   definitely   seeing   a   step   up   in   Chinese   pressure   against   littoral   states   and   a   challenge   to   US   rebalancing.  It  is  unlikely  that  PLAN  ships  will  be  directed  to  instigate  incidents,  this   will  be  left  to  the  China  Marine  Surveillance  fleet  and  ships  belonging  to  the  Fisher   Law  Enforcement  Command.     Suggested   citation:   Carlyle   A.   Thayer,   “South   China   Sea:   China’s   Navy   Steps   Up   Patrols,”  Thayer  Consultancy  Background  Brief,  April  2,  2013.   Thayer  Consultancy  Background  Briefs  are  archived  at