Category Archives: Current Operations

On-going Naval Ops or Maritime Current Events

A Voyage of Unintended Discovery (Update 8/16)

 

Kai Fung No. 2 breaks through a Japanese coast guard blocking action

Photos: AP

Update 8/16:

The activists, crew, and media are all in custody, as Japan prepares to deport them. This action forestalls the sort of diplomatic crossfire the central government faced from nationalists at home and the Chinese government when it briefly held for trial a Chinese fisherman who rammed a coast guard vessel in 2010, before letting him go. Meanwhile, we have some great photos from the incident.

 

Crew of Kai Fung land and try to raise PRC and Taiwanese flags
The photo says it all

Update 8/15:

Activists on the Kai Fung have reportedly landed on the Diaoyus/Senkakus after their vessel was rammed (likely forcibly bumped) by Japanese Coast Guard ships trying to deter the crew from reaching their destination. Most of the crew is in Japanese custody.

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Fourteen brave souls set sail for what they hoped would be a voyage of protest championed by their nations. Up to now they have been beset by dwindling food supplies, government obstruction, and a threatening tropical storm. In the process, the journey of the Kai Fung No. 2 has provided fresh insight into the process of managing the at-sea skirmishes that blow over into diplomatic confrontations.

 

According to The South China Morning Post, Kai Fung No. 2 got underway Sunday from Hong Kong with eight activists from Hong Kong, Macau, and man from mainland China, while the remaining six are ship’s company and reporters. Their destination was the disputed Senkakus/Diaoyus/Tiaoyus claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwain, under Japanese control, and home to a hearty tribe of goats. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned. On Monday, the SMCP reported:

Activists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China initially planned to undertake the voyage together, but the mainlanders yesterday said they would withdraw.”

The Taiwanese were also prevented from getting underway when their charter company unexpectedly cancelled their trip. The Kai Fung barely slipped past the HK government after its previous 6 attempts were blocked. The captain reportedly waited out a boarding party of four HK marine police officer in the locked captain’s bridge until they retreated as the vessel headed to international waters. Misfortune didn’t stop at sea, however:

The Hong Kong activists’ vessel had a bad start, as much of their food rations fell overboard amid the rough seas. Organizers said they hoped to restock Kai Fung No 2, with 14 people on board, in Taiwan.

These plans were dashed as Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration denied them entry, ostensibly for lack of a permit. In a session of that nation’s National Security Council later that day, the country’s officials decided to allow the vessel entry on humanitarian grounds due to the shrinking supplies and the approach of Tropical Storm Kai Tak. Kai Fung is now expected to call at the northern Taiwanese port of Keelung.

 

Whether the Kai Fung actually makes it to its original destination, the episode shows that China and Taiwan will go to great lengths to control the timing and nature of their confrontations. Both nations have been far from shy in advancing their claims on disputed maritime territories (China sent patrol vessels to the islands in July), but they typically like to deal with other nations in a more controlled manner, through fishing fleets or state vessels, to best calculate the diplomatic impact and repercussions. Admittedly many of the confrontations in the South China Sea can be chalked up to the PRC’s various regional and state agencies vying for influence and favor. But when an at-sea flare-up doesn’t stand to directly bring favor to any state official the central regime can pull back on the reigns with the cooperation of the various arms of government.

 

It’s possible that in the aftermath of last month’s incursion by China and the maneuvering of the Japanese central government to prevent provocations by Tokyo’s nationalist governor, an unspoken (or clandestine) peace has been brokered between the claimants to keep the issue at bay until after elections in Taiwan and the leadership transition in China. Hong Kong said the owner of the Kai Fung now faces fines upon the group’s return. If they make it to the islands they are likely to face Japanese coast guard vessels ready to interdict and turn them back.  From the Japan Times:

The protesters aboard the Hong Kong vessel have said they will tear down Japanese-built structures and plant a Chinese flag to declare sovereignty if they manage to land on the isles.”

Chinese activists aren’t the only one to test the Japanese government’s ability to keep a lid on confrontation – nationalist lawmakers from Japan may be planning to make a trip to the islands later this month. 

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

A Busy Week in the South China Sea

 

South China Sea Claims. The Economist

It’s been a busy week for the South China Sea. For those of you keeping score at home, these are some of the news stories we’ve been following:

 

1.      Post-ASEAN fall-out: After ASEAN failed last week to release a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years, Cambodia is looking to some in the region like a Chinese proxy playing the role of spoiler. Indonesia managed to salvage a version of the “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, a 6-point declaration to essentially work peacefully to implement existing maritime law and guidelines and avoid military confrontations: making progress by reaffirming the status quo.

 

2.      Beijing announces troop build-up in Paracels: On Monday, China said it would  send troops to guard its newly incorporated city of Sansha. The most likely location is the largest island, Woody Island/Yongxing. Fun fact – according to Chinese reports the city, home to 1,000 across various islands, already has a karaoke parlor up and running. Preparations for hosting the troops may take longer – the announcement and move is more symbolic than practical at this time.

 

3.      The Philippines and Vietnam Protest China’s moves: Manila summoned the Chinese ambassador to complain about the new garrison, while President Benigno Aquino took to the airwaves and decried Chinese provocations in an address to the nation. Meanwhile, Hanoi filed an official diplomatic complaint about the build-up in the Paracels, which it too claims. Both the Philippines and Vietnam however reiterated their desire for a diplomatic solution and stated they would not seek military confrontation.

 

Allies…but in arms?

4.      The International Crisis Group releases report on the SCS: Said the report: “The failure to reduce the risks of conflict, combined with the internal economic and political factors that are pushing claimants toward more assertive behaviour, shows that trends in the South China Sea are moving in the wrong direction.” Interestingly, the report also believes the Philippines made the wrong move in the recent Scarborough Shoal stand-off with China by sending in a naval vessel, thereby giving the Chinese an excuse to escalate, to play up nationalism to their domestic audience. The report also states the U.S. might not be obligated to assist the Philippines in the event of an attack in the South China Sea under the terms of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, as the U.S. has yet to make a formal statement whether the Spratleys and other disputed maritime areas are covered under the treaty’s terms.

 

5.      Taiwan to ship armament to the Spratleys: Taiwan has confirmed it will send a mix of mortars and artillery to Taiping, the largest of islands and host to a 130-strong Taiwanese force, in August. Fun fact – the total land mass of the 100 Spratley “islands” is less than 2 square miles.

 

6.      The Philippines ratifies a long-languishing Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Australia. “Although the agreement is not a defense pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China,” President Benigno Arroyo said after the vote. The pact, however, has more to do with pursuing terrorists in the country’s muslim South – primarily the island of Mindanao.

 

No one of these stories points to a looming conflict, but taken together they provide context for what has been the increasing trend of looking towards military power for lack of a diplomatic progress.

While the Cat’s Away…

This is what I get for going on vacation. As always seems to befall the hosts of The Daily Show and Colbert Report, my absence appeared to correspond with a wealth of new material and events. Luckily my friends and colleagues in our blog roll on the right did a pretty decent job of covering most of the angles.

USNS Rappahannock

The shooting was certainly unfortunate, and was undoubtedly an action not taken lightly. But a student of history, the threat level in the region, and common sense cannot find fault with the actions of the crew in the circumstances. Driving at a naval vessel in close quarters and ignoring its warnings is akin to pointing something that looks like a weapon at a police officer and ignoring his warnings to put it down. As a former anti-terrorism officer I can attest that these types of scenarios were the last thing we wanted to encounter, but the rules were clear and the training thorough. While the outcome in this case is tragic, it is also understandable.

Trouble at Sea

Other tragedies struck the maritime community. In the mid-Atlantic, a fire broke out aboard the MSC Flaminia that set off an explosion killing two crew members and injuring more. In an echo of a ferry disaster in September that claimed 200 lives, another ferry sank en route to the Zanzibar archipelago off Tanzania’s coast. The latest count is at least 31 dead.

The Great Wall at Sea

There has been some positive maritime news. A Taiwanese vessel and its international crew (including 13 PRC nationals) have been “freed” (it’s unclear if any ransom was paid) and the crew taken to Tanzania by a Chinese naval vessel on a counter-piracy patrol. The fishing vessel, Shiuh Fu No. 1, has reportedly run aground.

A less fortunate Chinese frigate ran aground on Half Moon Shoal in the Philippine’s EEZ (not to be confused with its territorial waters, which would be a much bigger story) before refloating Sunday.

Speaking of China, the mainland managed to check off another country on its “maritime disputes with neighbors” punch card. Following similar disputes this year with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and even North Korea, China is embroiled in fishing-fueled spat with Russia after 2 of its fishing vessels and 36 crewmembers were detained by Russia’s coast guard. One of the ships was taken in dramatic fashion, as the vessel was fired on and rammed by the Russians after its crewmembers resisted arrest for fishing in Russia’s EEZ. Whether China applies the same intense diplomatic pressure it did following Japan’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat captain in 2010 remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Philippine’s government is apparently confused whether a flotilla of another 30 Chinese fishing boats under government escort is in fact in its territory, or not.

ROKN the Boat

Not as effective a guardian as a KDX III

From the Korean peninsula came news on Thursday that construction on a divisive Republic of Korean (ROK) naval base could proceed on Jeju Island. According to Stars and Stripes:

The South’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the controversial construction of a naval base on Jeju Island, south of the Korean peninsula, is lawful and may continue.

 

When finished in 2015, the base will be able to accommodate as many as 20 navy ships and submarines, not to mention the occasional cruise ship.

The island’s southern coast village of Gangejeong is an attractive location for a naval base. It will more easily allow the Republic of Korean Navy (ROKN) to project forces south to protect the shipping lanes on which the nation relies, and respond to ongoing territorial and natural resource disputes with China over a nearby contested reef.  Further, it will provide an appealing stopover for the visiting American naval vessels that regularly call at ports on the peninsula.

The island, once home to the ancient Kingdom of Tamna, also bears echoes of Okinawa. The people of Jeju consider themselves a separate people from mainland Koreans as Okinawans do of mainland Japanese. Many too fear shouldering a disproportionate share of the military burden, impacts to the island’s environment, and getting caught in the middle of clashing American and Chinese forces. Such qualms have led to boisterous protests and the just-resolved court case.

1–Yeonpyeong Island
2–Baengnyeong Island
A-Northern Limit Line
B-DPRK-claimed border

Meanwhile to the north, the ROK announced last week the construction of a much smaller new facility in the region just south of the contested maritime border with North Korea. This facility will be built on the island of Baengnyeong, one of five islands west of the peninsula in the area (though further north) that saw the sinking of the ROKN warship Cheonan and the shelling of the island of Yeonpyang:

One official with the South Korea Ministry of National Defense said the Baengnyeong facility will enable “a more stable management over the Northern Limit Line” that divides the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea.

 

The Baengnyeong Island facility reportedly will have accommodations for up to 100 troops and a dock for small warships by the time it is completed in 2014. Ministry of National Defense officials took issue Thursday with those calling it a “naval base.”

 

“To the public, it might be seen as a base,” one said. “But, it’s more of a mooring facility,” with accommodations for a military company.

 

Asked if the ministry fears making Baengnyeong Island a potential target for a North Korean attack, another ministry official said, “We have no fear putting it there at all. We’re just building a dock to improve our soldiers’ living conditions.”

Whether North Korea follows through with a sabre-rattling response to Baeongnyeong facility remains to be seen, but the DPRK has reportedly completed a base for troop-carrying hovercraft 31 miles north of Baengnyeong at Koampo.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
 
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.