Tag Archives: PRC

(Updated 9/18) Keeping up with the Senkakus: China Establishing a New Reality on the Ground…er, Sea

UPDATE: 9/18:

Japan’s Coast Guard has its hands full: Latest reports indicate up to 11 Chinese maritime surveillance ships have entered the Senkakus/Diaoyus’ Continguous Zone while a pair of fishermen swam ashore one of the islands before departing.

UPDATE: 9/17:

In addition to the anti-Japanese protests and violence which has flared throughout China this weekend, Chinese state media has indicated the possibility of further reaction to the nationalization of the Senkakus/Diaoyus to come later this week.  Chinese state radio said Monday that “1,000” fishing vessels are headed to the waters near the islands, as a fishing ban comes to an end.  Of note, the report quoted a Chinese source who said the vessels’ activities would be monitored by a “marine observation satellite.”  It is unclear whether this is an attempt to say the six vessels still believed in the vicinity of the islands will attempt to avoid a confrontation with the Japanese Coast Guard on station, or whether it just indicates China will be watching the situation very closely.  Meanwhile, Hong Kong reports that the ship Kai Fung 2, which earlier helped keep the islands in the spotlight, will attempt a return voyage this week as well.

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Hi, Hai Jian!

In the past week, while American attention has largely been diverted, China appears to have taken a number of steps to change the reality of the situation in the Senkakus/Diaoyus (hereafter referred to as Senkakus for brevity’s sake) in a coordinated diplomatic, media, legal, and physical push.

 

With the maelstrom of news emanating from the Muslim world, U.S. media coverage of other, possibly more consequential events inevitably slackened.  Fortunately our international and domestic partners have carried the ball a bit with regards to the disputed islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan.  While we noted the reports on Tuesday of two Chinese ships – the Hai Jian 46 and Hai Jian 49 – dispatched to and arriving outside the islands’ Territorial Waters (TW), the number that arrived eventually totaled six, twice as many ever previously sent by China at one time.  A good account of the stand-off, on pause for now, can be found at The Asahi Shimbun.  Although the Chinese vessels have all left the islands’ TW, they remain in the direct vicinity.

 

The Senkakus are the same five islands, under administrative control of Japan (and populated only by goats), at the center of Japanese Coast Guard clashes with Chinese fishermen and most recently protestors from all claimants.  The Atlantic Council of Canada has a good article on the history of the conflict, but the immediate cause of the Chinese flotilla was the purchase of three of the islands by Japan’s national government (another was already government-owned, and the last owned by another private owner).  The decision to go forward with the purchase was forced by Tokyo’s nationalist metropolitan government, which also attempted to buy the islands but would have furthered their use as a provocative cause célèbre – whereas the central government has mostly sought to play down tensions between the two economic partners.

 

However, with the lead-time given by advance warnings of the sale date on Sept. 11th, China had time to prepare a coordinated response.  As our counterparts @Galrahn and @cdrsalamander noted, this response not only involved the vessels themselves (which, significantly or not are from State Oceanic Administration while previous vessels were from the Ministry of Agriculture) but also articles backing the move ready to run in China’s state media.  Further, these actions appear timed to coincide with the PRC’s announcement of baselines demarcating their claims and the start of weather forecasts for the area.

 

Peaceful…but effective?

Although unprecedented for this particular conflict, China appears to be following a course it charted earlier this summer in the South China Sea, where it has so far successfully established a new reality on the ground with the Philippines-claimed and previously administered Scarborough/Pantang Shoal.  The Philippines Coast Guard pulled back its vessels on June 16th due to bad weather and has yet to return, effectively ceding control to the Chinese civilian maritime agencies, who have maintained a presence in the area and attempted to physically impede any non-Chinese vessels.

 

Back in the East China Sea, as the Christian Science Monitor noted, China likely had to take some action to appease nationalist sentiment at home in reaction to Japan’s moves.  But the paper also said that the movement of the vessels back out of the islands’ TW can be taken as a sign of China’s unwillingness to take things too far.  Here’s hoping they’re right – and that fears of further turmoil before the country’s leadership transition will serve as a break.  But with precedence already established in the South China Sea, and the vessels still loitering in the area, many signs point to the potential for future confrontation – and it may begin as early as next week. 

 

On Friday Xinhua said the vessels will start “patrol and law enforcement around the Diaoyu Islandswhile the catalyst for conflict could begin Sunday, when China’s self-imposed three-and-a-half-month fishing ban in waters near the Senkakus ends (although a typhoon to the east of the islands may further complicate the situation (h/t Galrahn)).  A Bureau of Fisheries official stated: “A large number of fishing boats will leave their ports…We will resolutely protect China’s sovereignty and the safety of fishers and step up controls in marine areas that include the Diaoyu Islands.”  Adding to the fun, Taiwan has also sent two Coast Guard vessels to protect any of its own fishermen brave enough to wade into the waters.

 

Not a pretty kitty. MEOW: Mutual Economic Obliteration Worldwide

From the perspective of the U.S., hoping to de-escalate any conflict between two of its most important trading partners and avoid being dragged in to an armed conflict, it’s clear we need better mechanisms with the PRC in case of emergency.  The threat of MEOW (mutual economic obliteration worldwide) is not enough.  It’s vital to separate the sides in the early stages to prevent a confrontation going past a point of no return – so we need to know who to call, and that they’ll have actual authority to call vessels back.  That is of course easier said than done with a country whose future president can drop of the face of the Earth for over a week at a time.  What the U.S. can work on, however, is building “habits of trust and cooperation,” through increasing partnership opportunities with China – a topic I will return to shortly.

 

If the long-term solution has to be through international diplomacy, China, by demarcating its claims to the specific rocks and islands around the Senkakus – a step experts have called the Chinese to take in the South China Sea – might this week actually have made progress of a sort.  But next week might not be as useful.

 

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 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.