Tag Archives: East China Sea

Keeping an Eye on the South (China Sea): Implications of Recent Incidents for China’s Claims and Strategic Intent


When discussing China’s strategy in the South China Sea it is first necessary to begin by asserting that there is in fact a strategy, which is readily discernible from public documents and pronouncements. There has been some disagreement over the degree of coordination between operational units and the central government,[1] with some analysts questioning if Beijing actually has a strategy in these areas,[2] while others have contended that China does in fact have a strategy that it regards as increasingly successful in achieving its desired objectives. According to Peter Dutton, the Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College, this strategy is centered on the use of “non-militarized coercion” that has provided a means for controlled escalation.[3]

While the execution of this strategy may have at times in the past been poorly implemented due to the vague and developing nature of China’s strategic goals, there has been a concerted effort since and even before Xi Jinping came into power to at least increase coordination and oversight, if not clarify the strategic objectives themselves. This increased coordination and oversight is however primarily intended to better control the potential for escalation, and is part of a wider-evolving Chinese strategy to better protect what it views as its “maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea. These new objectives do little more than consolidate previous strategic guidance, suggesting that existing patterns of expanded Chinese maritime presence and corresponding incidents at sea are more likely to persist than diminish in the years ahead, though they may be managed more closely by Beijing.

Since 2007 Chinese maritime law enforcement (MLE) agencies have been conducting what were termed “rights protection” (weiquan) missions in the South China Sea,[4] which slowly expanded in number and intensity over time, leading to an increase in operational confrontations and incidents at sea between not only China and its neighbors, but also the United States. This shift in tactics was readily evident in the composition of Chinese forces involved in these confrontations: where previously PLA-Navy forces had been primarily involved, according to a report by the U.S. Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), by 2009 the majority involved Chinese MLE agencies.[5]

While it is not known if the “rights protection” missions were at the time approved by key decision making bodies such as the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) or the Central Military Commission (CMC), a number of recent developments suggest that they were at some point subsequently approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government and are likely to form a central focus of Chinese strategy going forward. The work report of the 18th Party Congress at which the Chinese leadership transition occurred, defined China for the first time as a “maritime power,” one that will “firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests.”[6] Work reports from the Party Congress play a central role in determining the character and content of Chinese strategy going forward,[7] and the work report from the most recent would suggest that not only does China increasingly see itself as a maritime power, but that maritime “rights protection” missions will increasingly become a central component of China’s approach in the South China Sea (SCS).

Important institutional changes in line with these objectives had already begun to be implemented even before the Party Congress occurred, with the central leadership creating several leading small groups to oversee and improve coordination of maritime rights protection in the SCS. The Maritime Rights Office, a leading small group now headed by Xi Jinping, was created in 2012 reportedly to “coordinate agencies within China.”[8] The Maritime Rights Office falls under the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG), which is ‘widely believed to be the central policy making group’ in the Chinese Party apparatus. According to Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), the Maritime Rights Office includes “over 10 representatives from various units, including several from the PLA,” and is in charge of implementing guidelines handed down by the PBSC.[9] During the same talk, Ms. Glaser also noted the existence of a second leading small group, created specifically to handle issues in the South China Sea, which is also now headed by Xi Jinping.

That there had already been a discernible push by the central leadership in Beijing to improve coordination and oversight before the incident off the Natunas in March of 2013 calls into question analysis suggesting that a lack of coordination or oversight from Beijing is the central factor explaining Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. But this has never been as sufficient an explanation as some have implied, and it seems increasingly plausible that Beijing’s behavior can better be explained as part of a broader strategy. This strategy is evident in the decision of the central leadership to expand and utilize Chinese MLE agencies to more assertively protect what China considers to be its maritime rights and interests in disputed areas, often through the use of non-militarized coercion.

I Like the Islands Natuna.
                                                                    I Like the Islands Natuna.

This non-militarized coercion includes not only deterrent but also compellent dimensions, as was clearly demonstrated in the recent incidents involving Indonesia. Attempts by China to compel its neighbors into accepting its ‘historic rights’ in the SCS pose a potential threat to the international rules and norms embodied in UNCLOS, and to the extent that China’s “maritime rights and interests” are defined based on historical rather than legal grounds, an implicit challenge to the status quo.

While a more militarized approach by China in the East China Sea has become increasingly evident with the recent creation of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) there,[10] the non-military and military instruments of power have always been closely intertwined in Beijing’s evolving strategy. Military power has long been more visible in the ECS disputes, with serious incidents occurring involving naval vessels there.[11] At the same time however, China has been systematically and proactively asserting maritime jurisdiction through an enlarged and more aggressive MLE presence around the Senkakus, in an effort to ‘establish a new reality on the sea,’ as Scott Cheney-Peters of CIMSEC put it.[12

In addition to the Maritime Rights Office, Xi also became head of the “Office to respond to the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Crisis” when it was created in September 2012, as part of the wider effort to increase coordination and institutional oversight.[13] According to reports there is solid evidence, including ‘from electronic intercepts’, indicating that “the movements of Chinese boats and ships were micromanaged by the new taskforce chaired by Xi.”[14] If accurate, these reports would provide conclusive evidence that Chinese actions in disputed areas of the East and South China Seas are in fact being directed and closely managed from Beijing as part of a wider strategy.

What might be viewed as two separate programs, military and civilian, are actually designed to be complementary parts of the same effort to protect China’s claims in areas like the South China Sea, with the MLE agencies playing the lead while reinforced in the background by the presence of much more capable naval warfighting platforms. Ties between the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and the PLAN are close and longstanding,[15] and can be expected to strengthen in the future with the creation of the new China Coast Guard under SOA. The fact that military assets have taken a more prominent role in the disputes over the Senkakus suggests that the military and non-military means of coercion are part of a continuum of Chinese strategic options to exert leverage over other claimants to the disputes, to be used in accordance with the various operational responses of those claimant countries.

This could provide important lessons for claimants in Southeast Asia, where non-military forms of coercion are likely deemed sufficient by China to achieve its desired goals at present. Should this later prove to no longer be the case, perhaps after countries like Vietnam build up their own MLE forces (which they are in process of doing), Southeast Asia might also come to expect more militarized forms of coercion to begin stretching further south into the SCS. It is not lost on ASEAN that when declaring its ADIZ over the ECS China reserved the right to create additional ADIZ’s in the future, possibly in the South China Sea.[16] The fact that this announcement occurred almost simultaneously with the first deployment of China’s new aircraft carrier to the SCS was viewed with concern in the Philippines, where Foreign Secretary Del Rosario stated that there was a “threat that China will control the airspace (in the South China Sea).”[17]

While China may truly see its actions in a reactive or defensive light, others are unlikely to share this perception and may very well interpret more offensive intentions based on China’s own definition of the status quo, as well as its attempt to enforce it through coercive means. So long as China refuses to take into account the credible concerns of its neighbours and persists in carrying out its current strategy in the South China Sea, the disputes are likely to remain China’s “Achilles heel” in Southeast Asia,[18] and could constrain its larger diplomatic initiatives in the region. Along with the disputes will also remain the danger that misperception or miscalculation could render escalation less controllable in future incidents, a distinct possibility that seems destined to become more pronounced if the various means of coercion continue to evolve in an increasingly militarized direction.

Scott Bentley is an American PhD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

This post appeared in its original form at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist.  


1. ICG Report. “Stirring Up the South China Sea (I),” Asia Report No. 223, 23 April 2012. Available online at http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/north-east-asia/china/223-stirring-up-the-south-china-sea-i.aspx
2. Lyle Goldstein. “Chinese Naval Strategy in the South China Sea: An Abundance of Noise and Smoke, but Little Fire,” Contemporary Southeast Asia Vol. 33, No. 3 (2011), p. 320-347
3. http://csis.org/files/attachments/130606_Dutton_ConferencePaper.pdf
4. NIDS China Security Report 2011. Tokyo: National Institute of Defense Studies, p. 7. http://www.nids.go.jp/english/publication/chinareport/pdf/china_report_EN_web_2011_A01.pdf,
5. George P. Vance. “The Role of China’s Civil Maritime Forces in the South China Sea,” Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) Maritime Asia Project, Workshop Two: Naval Developments in Asia, August 2012, p. 103
6. Heath, Timothy. “The 18th Party Congress Work Report: Policy Blueprint for the Xi Administration,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 23; November 30, 2012 http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=40182&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=25&cHash=de4e16aa5513509eb1c0212ac6e401e4
7. Heath, Timothy. “What Does China Want: Discerning the PRC’s National Strategy,” Asian Security, 8:1, 54-72. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14799855.2011.652024#preview
8. Jane Perlez. “Dispute Flares Over Energy in South China Sea,” NY Times. December 4, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/world/asia/china-vietnam-and-india-fight-over-energy-exploration-in-south-china-sea.html?ref=world
9. Bonnie Glaser. Remarks at Brookings Institution, December 17, 2012. Panel 1 on “United States, China, and Maritime Asia.” Remarks (15:00-18:00) available at- http://www.brookings.edu/events/2012/12/17-china-maritime
10. http://thediplomat.com/2013/11/china-imposes-restrictions-on-air-space-over-senkaku-islands/
11. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/world/asia/japan-china-islands-dispute.html?hp&_r=0
12. https://cimsec.org/keeping-up-with-the-senkakus-china-establishing-a-new-reality-on-the-ground-er-sea/
13. http://lowyinstitute.org/publications/chinas-foreign-policy-dilemma
14. http://www.smh.com.au/world/all-the-toys-but-can-china-fight-20130426-2ikmm.html
15. http://news.usni.org/2013/11/25/clash-naval-power-asia-pacific
16. http://www.scribd.com/doc/188285766/Thayer-China-s-Air-Defence-Identification-Zone
17. http://globalnation.inquirer.net/92583/philippines-fears-china-wants-west-ph-sea-air-control
18. http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/chinas-achilles-heel-in-southeast-asia/

The East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)

hyn竖图模板The big news of the day is China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts of the East China Sea, notably furthering the potential for conflict with Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus. Per guidelines released Saturday, the policy requires non-commercial aircraft in the space to pre-arrange flights with China’s government – effectively creating a pretense for action against Japanese military aircraft should they fail to comply with rules set for a space they likewise consider their own. Taiwan, which also maintains claims to islands it calls the Tiaoyutai, has voiced regret over the move.

Additionally, the zone may (unintentionally or intentionally) heighten tensions with South Korea as it extends close to South Korea’s Jeju island and appears to include the disputed submerged rock “Socotra Island” claimed by both South Korea as Ieodo and China as Suyan.

While the announcement by China’s Ministry of Defense was contained to the East China Sea, according to the Washington Post, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, Yang Yujun, said that China would will create additional zones “at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”


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. 

h/ts to @zacharykeck, @wayale, @dmhartnett, @washburnt for sources.

A Three-Way In The East China Sea?

Or are there only two ways of looking at this map?

The conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea illustrates a number of issues in the Asia-Pacific region.  The People’s Republic of China’s expansive maritime claims is the granddaddy, but there are a number of contributing elements – from the challenges of deep-sea resource exploration to the region’s political relationships.  The week before Christmas the Center for National Policy hosted a discussion at their headquarters about a recent Scholars Delegation that took “next generation policy experts and decision makers” to Taipei to meet with officials from the Republic of China, known to most of us as Taiwan.  The delegation met with officials who were generally aligned with the current ruling party in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (or KMT).  The panel discussion in Washington illuminated the fact that the political relationships in Asia aren’t a simple challenge defined by “alliances” and treaties.  Instead, there are cultural and ethnic seams that cut through these relationships based in centuries of history, and encompassing domestic and international politics alike.

The President of Taiwan has put forward a peace proposal for the conflict in the East China Sea, setting aside the question of sovereignty and instead focusing on how to share the economic benefits of resource exploitation in and around the islands.   Many analysts have indicated that the plan is more of an effort to kick the can than anything else.  CIMSEC friend Dr. James Holmes instead has written that “It amounts to hoping that rational calculations of economic self-interest will overrule equally elemental imperatives such as fear of future aggression or the thirst for honor and prestige.”  The proposal raises a question:  Why is the leadership of Taiwan trying to avoid the question sovereignty?  The discussion at CNP helped shed some light on the answer, and it is likely because of those cultural and ethnic seams and centuries of history.

In their comments during the panel discussion, both Dr. Jacqueline Deal and Michael Breen noted that the KMT embodies a strategic paradox that is driving a confused policy for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.  The KMT, the party once led by Chiang Kai-shek, believes that the Republic of China (ROC) is the rightful government of all of China, both Taiwan and the mainland.  According to their political platform reunification is a given once the People’s Republic of China (PRC) becomes democratic.  Because the KMT sees themselves and the ROC as Chinese, not Taiwanese, the foundation of their policy toward the Senkaku/Diauyo is exactly the same as the PRC: the Diaoyu belong to “China.”

This belief creates a strategy/policy disconnect for the KMT.  Strategic-level decision making becomes difficult because the party’s fundamental political belief can be at odds with the things that will help ensure the economic, political, and military security of the island of Taiwan.  Japan is likely the ROC’s strongest ally in the region, yet on the Senkaku/Diauyo the ROC rhetoric makes it appear that they are siding with the PRC.  Their fishing fleets have engaged in some unconventional tactics with the Japanese Coast Guard, similar to the work of the PRC’s maritime assets.  This likely strengthens the fact that the PRC prefers the “anti-PRC” KMT over the “liberal” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which believes in Taiwanese independence.  Is it any wonder that President Ma Ying-jeou wants to try and avoid the sovereignty issue?  Japan has elected a new conservative government with military expansion on their agenda.  The PRC has initiated maritime aviation patrols of the islands.  Neither side appears willing to set aside the fundamental sovereignty question in the conflict.

There is a large Chinese diaspora all over the world, from the islands of Southeast Asia to the streets of Panama City to Chinatowns of most major U.S. cities.  An audience member at the CNP panel reminded the gathering that there is a strong belief in all these places that the Diaoyu are “Chinese” – the political system that controls them is irrelevant.  The history of the Pacific and the military and political conflicts between the Chinese, Japanese, and the states of Southeast Asia go back centuries.  These cultural realities make the Pacific a complex place.  If the U.S. military thinks that trading the tribal cultures of Southwest Asia for the centuries of history in East Asia will make things simpler, it needs to rethink things.  Will hoping for modern ideals and economics to overwhelm centuries of culture and history work any better in Pacific waters than it did in Middle Eastern sands?

The Firm of Maynard, Cushing, & Ellis does not represent the opinions of anyone that matters. Formed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard RN, Lieutenant William Cushing USN, and Captain Pete Ellis USMC, the firm doesn’t speak for the US Government, the Department of Defense, The Foreign Office, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or the Department of Silly Walks.

(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.


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.