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Background Brief China’s Charm Offensive Not Aimed At Cooling Hotspots Carlyle A. Thayer October 25, 2013

In October Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang launched a new charm offensive during their visits to Southeast Asia to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting and the 16 th summit between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). One of their main objectives was to promote maritime cooperation and joint development in disputed waters. China’s new charm offensive was aimed specifically at Brunei and Vietnam as well as other ASEAN non-claimant states such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Significantly the new charm offensive did not address how to reduce tensions at the two hot spots where Chinese paramilitary vessels continue to confront the Philippines and Japan over disputed outcrops of barren rocks and reefs. In April last year Chinese Marine Surveillance ships intervened at Scarborough Shoal to prevent the apprehension of eight Chinese fishing boats that were illegally poaching within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. Scarborough Shoal, known in Filipino as Panatag Shoal and in Chinese as Huangyan Island, is a chain of reefs and rocks forming a rough triangle 55 kilometers in circumference. Most of the reef is submerged at high tide; a few of the rocks rise above the surface up to three meters in height. Scarborough Shoal is located approximately 200 km from Luzon Island and more than 850 km from China’s Hainan Island. The reef encloses a shallow lagoon approximately 130 square kilometers in area. The lagoon is a good fishing ground and provides shelter from inclement weather. Last year Chinese authorities placed a barrier across the entry into the lagoon. China also reneged on a deal brokered by the United States that was supposed to lead to the mutual withdrawal of all naval and coast guard vessels. Chinese Coast Guard ships returned to Scarborough Shoal and continue to remain on station in what appears to be a virtual annexation of Philippines’ territory. In May this year China opened a second front when both civilian paramilitary ships and a People’s Liberation Army Navy frigate suddenly appeared at Second Thomas Shoal in an effort to intimidate the Philippines from carrying out maintenance construction. The Philippines lodged an official protest.

2 Second Thomas Shoal, called Ayungin Shoal by the Philippines and Ren’ai Reef by China, is the strategic gateway to Reed Bank and its rich deposits of oil and natural gas. The shoal is a low tide coral reef 15 km long and 5 km wide located 195 km west of Palawan Island. In 1999 the Philippines deliberately beached the BRP Sierra Madre, a landing ship tank (LST), on the reef in an assertion of sovereignty. The LST, currently occupied by armed marines, has begun to rust and disintegrate. President Benigno Aquino ordered construction to shore up the LST. Analysts assume that the sudden deployment of Chinese ships was made to prevent any alteration in the status quo. Chinese officials regularly claim “indisputable sovereignty” over both Scarborough and Second Thomas Shoals. They also call for an end of the Philippines’ “illegal occupation” of the latter. China asserts the right to conduct routine naval patrols. In June the Philippines expressed concern that the Chinese ships on station at Second Thomas Shoal were interfering with efforts to resupply the marines. There were fears that Chinese attempts to block resupply could lead to an armed incident. Since then the situation has evolved into a standoff. Two Chinese Coast Guard cutters remain on permanent station and they regularly harass Filipino fishermen. The second maritime hot spot concerns the Japanese Senkaku. The Senkakus consist of five small islands and three rocky outcroppings comprising a land area of eight square kilometers. They are located approximately 445 km southwest of Okinawa. Current tensions date to September last year when the Japanese government thwarted a plan by the right-wing mayor of Tokyo to purchase and develop several of the uninhabited islands. The central government took possession instead. This was viewed as an act of nationalization by the Chinese government that claims sovereignty over what it calls the Diaoyu islands. Mass anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted on the mainland. China dispatched a number of paramilitary ships to surround the Senkakus while fishery patrol boats made brief forays into the island’s territorial waters. Taiwan joined the fray and deployed its Coast Guard to escort Taiwanese fishing craft to the area. In one celebrated incident the opposing Coast Guards sprayed each other with their water cannons. In 2013 China continued its campaign of harassment by slowly stepping up its provocative actions. On 19 January a Chinese frigate activated its Fire Control Radar and locked on to a Japanese helicopter. In a separate incident three weeks later another Chinese warship activated its missile guidance system and locked its Fire Control Radar on to a Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force ship. Chinese naval warships regularly conduct military exercises in waters around the Senkakus. China has conducted over flights of the islands utilizing civilian marine surveillance aircraft. China has also repeatedly dispatched J-10 fighters and H-6 longrange bombers to fly near the Senkakus. On 9 September a Chinese drone was observed by the Japanese for the first time.

3 Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force has responded to Chinese provocations by scrambling F-15 fighters to monitor its airspace. The number of “scrambles” increased from fifteen in June to 69 in mid-September this year. China’s continuing stand-offs with the Philippines and Japan serve multiple purposes. The involvement of Chinese paramilitary vessels, now grouped into a national Coast Guard, and People’s Liberation Army Navy ships, bolsters their role in domestic politics. China’s actions also are aimed at altering the status quo in China’s favor in order to advance its sovereignty claims. Any back down by the Philippines or Japan would undermine the credibility of their alliance with the United States and send a clear message to other states not to stand up to China over territorial disputes. China’s continuing stand-off over Scarborough and Second Thomas Shoals and the Senkakus suggests that its new charm offensive is aimed at winning over regional states and isolating the Philippines and Japan.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, October 25, 2013. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.