Tossed in a stormy sea of subterfuge
By Barry Wain
CHINESE action in the volatile South China Sea has escalated from assertiveness to aggression - and now subterfuge. Under the guise of an innocuous, long-arranged port call by a civilian ship, China has tried to score propaganda points and implicate Singapore in its extravagant claims.
The visit of the Haixun 31, which belongs to China's Maritime Safety Administration, was supposed to be part of existing technical exchanges on marine safety and environmental protection between the two countries.
Before docking in Singapore last Sunday after a 1,400 nautical mile (2,593km) voyage from China, however, the Haixun 31 sailed past the disputed Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, which are claimed, in part or their entirety, by China and one or more of five other countries. Controversially, official Chinese media representatives embedded on the ship reported that the trip was to reinforce China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and to keep watch on foreign oil rigs and ships 'in Chinese waters'.
The deviation from the agreed mission would have been regarded seriously anyway. But happening at the height of an outcry over the latest series of Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, it was nothing short of outrageous.
By the time the Haixun 31 arrived in Singapore, the international community had begun to wonder what was going on. The United States and France, as well as Vietnam and the Philippines, are known to have sought clarification from the Singaporeans, who were in turn surprised, embarrassed and annoyed by China's audacity.
The way they see it, Beijing exploited the visit to reinforce its claims in the aftermath of well-publicised incidents involving Vietnam and the Philippines. With Singapore not a claimant, but a vocal advocate of freedom of navigation like Beijing, the Chinese saw value in trying to associate closely with Singapore.
The ploy did not work. In fact, the Chinese ended up with egg on their face. In a lengthy statement that stopped short of censure, the Singapore Foreign Ministry nevertheless advised China bluntly to explain its expansive claims in the South China Sea and get on with the stalled process of negotiating a code of conduct with Asean.
China has come under increasing international criticism in recent months over what appears to be its willingness to use armed strength to pressure rival claimants in the South China Sea.
In early March, two Chinese patrol boats confronted a Philippine oil exploration vessel and ordered it to cease activities in an area Manila claims but which Beijing said was under Chinese jurisdiction. Last month, the Philippines discovered posts and a buoy thought to have been unloaded by Chinese vessels, indicating possible new construction plans.
In what were probably the most serious incidents, Chinese ships late last month and early this month cut the survey cables of one PetroVietnam vessel and attempted to do the same to another vessel inside Vietnam's 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
Independent analysts regard Beijing's actions as a breach of the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in which they agreed to 'exercise self-restraint' and do nothing 'that would complicate or escalate disputes'.
Increasingly, criticism of China has centred on the ambiguity of its claims, which are marked as nine broken lines covering almost the entire South China Sea. It is this U-shaped line that the Singapore Government, along with many others, wants Beijing to clarify.
Maritime lawyers say the line is at odds with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). China loudly proclaims its adherence to freedom of navigation under Unclos but has not defined its claims under the UN convention.
Speaking at a conference last week, Singapore's former senior minister S. Jayakumar said China should clarify its 'puzzling and disturbing' nine-dotted lines map of the South China Sea. Professor Jayakumar said the map had no apparent basis under Unclos and could be interpreted as a claim to all maritime areas within the nine dotted lines.
The contentious South China Sea was the last thing on Singapore's mind when it accepted the Maritime Safety Administration's request for a port call, presented as a routine visit, in January. Captain Chen Ai-ping, the administration's executive director-general, confirmed the nature of the call when he visited Singapore last month.
But media statements sent from the Haixun 31 en route to Singapore put an entirely different spin on it. A reporter for China National Radio reported from the vessel as it set out from Guangdong province on June 15 that 'the purpose of the journey is to protect China's maritime rights and sovereignty'.
The next day, the People's Daily, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, reinforced the message, saying the Haixun 31 had tasks 'besides the usual inspection on routine navigation routes'. They included checks on 'oil rigs, stationary ships' operations in construction and surveys, and foreign sailors who are sailing close to Chinese waters'. The report added: 'The vessel will also conduct checks on foreign ships navigating, anchored and operating in Chinese waters'.
That was read in Singapore as deception, and hope that symbolically and politically, the welcome of the ship in Singapore would amount to endorsement of Beijing's selective definition of Unclos.
According to one diplomatic observer in Singapore, the Maritime Safety Administration will find it hard to be invited to any regional ports, 'if it makes a habit of trying to play such silly tricks'.
The writer is writer-in-residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
Jun 22, 2011
China 'can crush Viet naval fleets'
CCP newspaper warns Beijing will show no mercy in dispute over South China Sea claims
BEIJING: China yesterday used unusually harsh language in warning Vietnam to back off from its claims to territory in the South China Sea.
In an editorial, the Global Times - a newspaper published by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) whose stories echo the government's official line - said: 'If Vietnam wishes to create a war in the South China Sea, China will resolutely keep them company.
'China has the absolute might to crush the naval fleets sent from Vietnam. China will show no mercy to its rival due to 'global impact' concerns.'
The paper's belligerent tone went as far as to suggest that China saw the risk of a conflict with the US over Vietnam as minimal, and warned: 'Even if some friction occurs, that is no reason for China to put up with Vietnam's unlimited vice in the South China Sea.'
The editorial coincided with the conclusion of a joint naval patrol by the Asian neighbours in the Gulf of Tonkin - the 11th since such exercises began in 2005.
It remains unclear whether the two- day patrol signalled any cooling of tempers, despite China and Vietnam remaining locked in a heated spat over disputed territory in the South China Sea, the Associated Press reported.
'Respecting the signed agreements is one of the factors that will promote the friendly and neighbourly relations between two countries and ensure sustainable stability and security at sea,' Colonel Nguyen Van Kiem, deputy chief of staff of Vietnam's navy and commander of its naval ships in the patrol, was quoted as saying by Vietnam's People's Army Newspaper.
The paper also said the country's ships would pay a port call in China before returning home.
Relations between the neighbours have plummeted in recent weeks as both sides continue to trade diplomatic punches over run-ins involving territory in the South China Sea claimed by both sides.
The Global Times editorial claims Vietnam has occupied 29 Chinese islands in the region and has been gaining the most benefits from undersea natural gas and oil exploitation.
China has been upset with Vietnam's welcoming of American involvement to help resolve disputes in the South China Sea that Beijing believes should be settled one-on-one.
The United States has said the South China Sea, home to key shipping lanes, is in its national interest, Associated Press reported.
Hundreds of Vietnamese protested on Sunday for the third straight week, yelling 'Down with China!' as they marched through the streets of the capital, Hanoi.
Many also carried signs demanding that China stop invading the Spratly and Paracel islands, which are claimed entirely or in part by Vietnam, China and several other countries. The islands are believed to be rich in resources.
Vietnam and China have a long history of scrapes over the high seas, typically resulting in tit-for-tat diplomatic rhetoric.
Jun 21, 2011
In China's interests to clarify South China Sea claims: MFA
Routine visit by Chinese vessel attracts 'unusual number of inquiries'
IT IS in China's own interests to be precise about its claims in the South China Sea, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a statement yesterday.
In doing so, routine port visits such as by the Haixun 31, one of China's biggest maritime surveillance vessels, would 'not arouse so much excitement', said the statement, issued in response to media queries about the ship's arrival in Singapore on Sunday.
'We have repeatedly said that we think it is in China's own interests to clarify its claims in the South China Sea with more precision as the current ambiguity as to their extent has caused serious concerns in the international maritime community,' the statement said.
The ministry added that a good start would be to conclude implementation guidelines for an existing agreement on how competing claimants to islands and reefs in the South China Sea ought to conduct themselves.
Retired senior minister S. Jayakumar made a similar suggestion last week about the agreement - signed between Asean members and China in 2002.
When the Haixun 31 docked here, Singapore's Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) said its visit was part of ongoing exchanges on technical cooperation on maritime safety and marine environment protection with its Chinese counterpart.
The vessel belongs to China's Maritime Safety Administration, a civilian maritime regulatory body.
But the ship's journey last week sparked concern in the region as Chinese media reports said it was monitoring shipping, carrying out surveys, inspecting oil wells and enforcing maritime security in the South China Sea.
The reports added that it would also inspect foreign vessels anchored or operating in waters claimed by China.
The MFA noted yesterday that there were 'an unusual number of inquiries about Haixun 31's visit to Singapore'.
'The MPA has made a statement on the purpose of this port call. It is obvious that what ought to have been a routine visit has occasioned a high level of attention because of recent incidents between China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines, in the South China Sea,' it added.
MFA said: 'Singapore is not a claimant state and takes no position on the merits or otherwise of the various claims in the South China Sea.
'But as a major trading nation, Singapore has a critical interest in anything affecting freedom of navigation in all international sea lanes, including those in the South China Sea.'
The ministry said recent incidents in the area heightened the international maritime community's concerns and raise serious questions in relation to the interpretation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - which covers such maritime issues as sovereignty and navigation rights.
'This is precisely why this port call in Singapore by the Haixun 31 has provoked such interest,' it said.
'After all, scores of vessels from many countries, including naval vessels, call at Singapore every day without arousing the slightest excitement.
'It is our hope that parties to the disputes in the South China Sea will act with restraint to create conditions conducive to the peaceful settlement of these disputes and the continuation of peace, stability and growth.'
The ministry noted that Asean recently made new proposals to China on the yet-to-be implemented 2002 agreement 'to resolve this impasse, and we hope that they will be received in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation in which they were offered so that the declaration can be implemented without any further delay'.
'Then perhaps a routine port call will not arouse so much excitement,' it said.
Latest comments (Or stupid Singaporeans speak on ST Online)
I think China has made its claims abundantly clear. It's our MFA that is clueless.
Whether other countries accept China's claims is a different matter. Why is MFA so kaypo?
Posted by: vajrapani at Tue Jun 21 10:34:07 SGT 2011
What else is there to be clear abt? Like coolbeagle said, China has made its interests and claims clear enough. It claims almost the whole of the South China Sea area. It's the overlaps of the claims by the claimants that are causing the dispute, not the ambiguity of China's claims. This MFA statement seems to be made out of insufficient research into the issue.
Posted by: RedneckLoo at Tue Jun 21 10:33:37 SGT 2011
I think PRC has made its interests in South China Sea clear enough via its claims on the Spratly Islands.
Posted by: coolbeagle at Tue Jun 21 10:23:07 SGT 2011
Jun 27, 2011
Watchful eyes as China flexes its maritime muscles
By Michael Richardson
AS CHINA prepares to start sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, possibly as early as this Friday to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party, foreign analysts will be watching to see how quickly the Chinese navy can bring its power-projection ship into service.
It may not be smooth sailing. The handful of countries with carriers have spent years learning how to operate them.
Moreover, China's refurbished Soviet-era vessel - the Varyag, bought from Ukraine in 1998 - comes with inherent design limitations, even though it has been modernised. Its ski-jump launch deck and lack of a catapult system limit the munitions load on the combat jets it will have on board. Their range will also be limited because the Varyag cannot launch refuelling tankers to extend the distance the jets can fly from the carrier. It also cannot carry fixed-wing, airborne early-warning planes. Instead it must use helicopters, a much less effective alternative.
The fighter bomber chosen for the carrier by the Chinese military is the J-15, which has an airframe closely resembling the Russian Sukhoi Su-33. Although known as the 'Flying Shark', the fleet on the carrier is 'no great leap forward', according to United States analysts Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson.
Writing last Thursday in the Tokyo-based online portal The Diplomat, they said that the imminent launch of the Varyag was 'nevertheless triggering concern in the region because it indicates rapid improvement in Chinese naval aviation, and suggests Chinese determination to extend its regional blue water presence'. They added that with advanced missiles, carrier-based J-15s could credibly threaten surface targets 500km away.
If the Varyag and later a class of all-new carriers being built in China are deployed in the South China Sea with surface warships and submarines as escorts, Beijing's ability to enforce its controversial claims to control over much of the maritime heart of South-east Asia will be greatly strengthened.
China is already the dominant naval power in the region, although it lags well behind the United States.
Yet the focus on China's impressive military modernisation may overshadow another significant trend that is increasing its powers in disputed waters of the South China Sea in the short term.
This is the rapid expansion of maritime law enforcement agencies and their integration as an arm of state policy under increasing control of the Chinese navy.
Earlier this month, Chinese media reported on plans for a major enlargement of the China Maritime Surveillance Force (CMSF), a paramilitary law enforcement agency that polices waters Beijing says are under its jurisdiction, even though they may be contested by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as they are in the South China Sea.
The CMSF will get an extra 16 aircraft and 350 vessels by 2015, and boost its current 9,000 personnel, mainly former naval men, to 15,000 by 2020. The number of patrol vessels in the fleet will rise to 520 by 2020.
A majority of these ships are expected to be deployed in the South China Sea and off East China, where Japan and China have overlapping claims to islands, fisheries and seabed oil and gas reserves.
At present, the CMSF South Sea fleet, one of three under the State Oceanic Administration, has only 13 patrol vessels, two planes and one helicopter.
But other Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies also have fleets of ships to help enforce bans on fishing and oil and gas exploration in waters claimed by Beijing, which cover about 80 per cent of the South China Sea.
They include the Maritime Safety Administration of China. It recently sent its biggest and most modern ship to Singapore in a show of resolve to defend Chinese claims from challenges by South-east Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Haixun 31 displaces 3,000 tonnes, has a helicopter launch pad and can stay at sea for 40 days without refuelling. It is a forerunner of the more capable surveillance vessels planned by China.
US and Asian officials say that another significant development is the Chinese navy's programme to organise a maritime militia drawn from fishing fleets.
Dr Erickson, a China specialist at the US Naval War College, said he has concluded that China 'does not want to start a war, but rather seeks to wield its growing military might to 'win without fighting' by deterring actions that it views as detrimental to its core national interests'.
In the past few years, Chinese fishing boats have joined patrol craft from the maritime law enforcement agencies in apparently coordinated operations to harass US surveillance ships and South-east Asian oil and gas survey vessels in the South China Sea.
Such tactics make it difficult to pin the blame on China's navy. But they are provocative and not conducive to maintaining peace in the region.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.