On an unbending course?
By Daljit Singh
CHINA'S recent actions in the South China Sea have been accompanied by an uncompromising diplomatic stand and harsh nationalistic rhetoric in the Communist Party-controlled Chinese press. In the 1990s, adverse regional reactions to its assertive behaviour had caused China to adopt a more conciliatory stance, without conceding anything on the fundamentals. But since 2008-2009, regional and international outcry had little or no effect on its conduct.
This week's pledge by Vietnamese Vice-Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son and China's State Councillor Dai Bingguo to resolve the disputes peacefully raises the possibility that the rhetoric might be toned down and some action taken to bring down tensions.
Interestingly, the pledge came at a time of discussions between senior United States and Chinese officials in Hawaii where the US side, arguing that it has 'a strong interest' in the maintenance of peace and stability in the area, called for a lowering of tensions.
While any lowering of tension would be most welcome, do not expect it to bring about a change to the Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
Several analysts believe that the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 on the US economy, coupled with China's rapidly increasing military power, strengthened the view in Beijing that it can advance China's perceived interests more aggressively. If true, this is ominous and raises the question of what China will do when it becomes even more powerful economically and militarily.
It is important for Asean countries to be clear-sighted and bereft of wishful thinking. In the 1990s some thought that China's South China Sea claims were peripheral to its core security interests. Events since have proved otherwise.
Chinese officials' statements to American officials last year, and the Chinese Defence Minister's remarks at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, suggest that China views the South China Sea as touching on its core interests. This means the use of force, or threat of it, cannot be ruled out.
Proximity to an increasingly powerful China and the economic benefits of good relations can cloud the clarity of strategic thought in some Asean circles. So can the soothing effect of assurances about China's peaceful intentions even though actions on the ground (or on the water) often belie them.
Asean, and particularly its four claimant states, need to deal with the South China Sea challenge with unity, clarity of purpose, firmness and wisdom, and with the cooperation of other members of the international community that have a stake in preserving the high seas status of much of the South China Sea.
What is at stake? The observance of international law on which the security of states, in particular small states, depends; as well as the strategic stability and balance of power in the region.
It is worth recalling that China has resorted to force in the South China Sea in the past, when it perceived its opponents as weak and did not expect a strong response. In 1974 China grabbed the Vietnamese part of the Paracels just before Vietnamese reunification - at a time when the US had withdrawn from South Vietnam and the latter was preoccupied with defending itself from the North.
The 1988 clashes with Vietnam in the western Spratlys occurred when the Soviet Union under then leader Mikhail Gorbachev was mending ties with China and reducing commitments to Vietnam, while the US was still loath to deal with its former Vietnamese foe.
Likewise, broader geopolitical circumstances and the weakness of the Philippines could have had a bearing on the Mischief Reef incidents in 1994-1995.
Presently, China's actions are giving a boost to the US-Philippines alliance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has assured Manila that the US would honour its security commitments, without going into specifics. The US-Philippines security treaty commits the US to defend the Philippines from external aggression, including any attack on Philippine 'public vessels' (naval or air) in the Pacific. China's conduct is also driving the US and Vietnam closer. Despite their military cooperation, the US and Vietnam are not military allies. The US navy may increase its presence in the South China Sea.
China today has stronger military muscle than in the 1980s and 1990s, but the US remains militarily stronger in the Western Pacific. Aggressive Chinese behaviour will further drive South-east Asian countries into the arms of Washington; worse, it could lead to a confrontation with the US which China wants to avoid. Though dangers of miscalculation cannot be entirely ruled out, China is more likely to wait for an opportune time if it sees the strategic situation moving in its favour - as the US heads into the unchartered territory of a possible public debt crisis some time this decade accompanied by significant defence retrenchments, even as China's own military power keeps growing.
Countries involved must press on with efforts to prevent conflict, and work towards a peaceful resolution through negotiations or international arbitration with the consent of all parties involved.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Storm before uneasy calm?
By Mark Valencia
THE political water is getting hotter in the South China Sea. Although the disputes and types of incidents are not new, they are rapidly increasing in frequency and severity. Diplomatic vitriol - even sabre-rattling - is rampant. Does this verbal storm foretell a clash - or a calm, albeit an uneasy one?
The United States and China have had their own rather dangerous flare-ups in the South China Sea regarding what Washington believes is its right to freedom of navigation. Indeed, the EP-3, the Bowditch, and the Impeccable incidents have tested the nerves of commanders and defence leaders on both sides. Although the two continue to fundamentally and vehemently disagree regarding the principles involved they may have worked out a modus operandi. At least all has been relatively quiet on that front.
But now new brouhahas have erupted - between China and Vietnam - and more problematic for the US, between China and the Philippines. The US is an ally of the Philippines via the 1951 Manila Defence Treaty. Some Philippine leaders argue that the treaty obligates the US to come to its aid if its forces are attacked anywhere 'in the Pacific'. The US is maintaining a strategic ambiguity regarding what it may or may not do, but its actions, like the May Manila port visit of the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, speak volumes to analysts and the relevant militaries. Moreover, the US and the Philippines are engaging in pre-arranged maritime security exercises in the South China Sea.
China has disrupted ongoing exploration for petroleum by concessionaries of Vietnam and the Philippines in disputed waters - either by cutting seismometer cables or threatening the vessel and crew.
And in a twist, China is alleging that Vietnam and the Philippines are violating the agreed Asean-China Declaration on Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea and have 'invaded' Chinese territory and sea space. Incidents of intrusion into disputed waters on both sides are increasing in frequency and intensity and show every indication of escalating. Each party accuses the other of acting ever more assertively and violating the DOC's call for peace and stability.
The Western oil companies doing the exploration plan to continue and China has warned Vietnam in particular that it will 'take whatever measures are necessary' to protect its interests in the South China Sea. Its Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tanikai has now also urged the US to restrain such countries from provoking China lest Washington itself become embroiled in an unwanted conflict. Apparently in response, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton restated the US position that the recent events were undermining stability and that Washington was opposed to any threat or use of force to advance territorial claims in the area.
It is no secret that the US and China are at strategic odds in the South China Sea. One is striving to maintain - and if necessary - demonstrate its dominance while the other is bent on expanding its might and reach. The recently released US National Military Strategy states: 'To safeguard US and partner nation interests, the US will be prepared to demonstrate the will and commit the resources needed to oppose any nation's actions that jeopardise access to and use of the global commons and cyberspace, or that threaten the security of our allies.'
This is clearly aimed at Beijing and its actions in the South China Sea. But if China perceives that it is being strategically constrained and contained, it will likely strive to 'break out' both politically and militarily. Indeed, in November last year China, in reference to the East China and Yellow seas, warned against 'any military acts in our exclusive economic zone without permission'.
So does this mean a clash is inevitable? Perhaps. But not now. Neither nation is physically or psychologically prepared for such an event. It would not be in the interest of economically focused China, the economically challenged and war-weary US, or the not-so-innocent bystanders in the impotent Asean. But the risk of miscalculation is high and the potential for escalation is significant.
This is why all hands are needed on the diplomatic deck to secure the loose cannons and, if necessary, impose an interim solution. Underscoring his concern, outgoing US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has warned that more clashes between the claimants are likely without a formal code of conduct. US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell sought to defuse tensions in talks with China in Hawaii last weekend.
Indeed, it is in the interest of all the players to lower the diplomatic temperature and to have a code of conduct in place that will ensure freedom and safety of navigation and minimise incidents and their chance of escalation. That is why this diplomatic furore may be the storm before an uneasy calm.
The writer is a senior research associate with the National Bureau of Asian Research, which is based in Seattle, America.
Versatile US warships for regional ballast
By Ian Storey
IN HIS speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this month, the United States' outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates revealed that in the coming years, the US Navy would deploy some of its newest and most versatile warships to Singapore.
The announcement was important for two reasons: first, it signals a significant strengthening of the US-Singapore defence relationship; and second, it will help fulfil Mr Gates' pledge that America is committed to maintaining a robust military presence in Asia aimed at underpinning regional stability.
The vessels to be deployed to Singapore are littoral combat ships, or LCS. The LCS is a new class of warships able to operate in very shallow waters close to shore, otherwise known as the littoral. The ships are designed to counter asymmetric threats such as coastal mines, quiet diesel-electric submarines, and pirates and terrorists using small boats.
The LCS is fast, highly manoeuvrable and stealthy. It can achieve a sprint speed of more than 40 knots and has a range of 5,630km. Equivalent in size to a small frigate, the ship can be operated by only 40 to 50 personnel. It carries two Seahawk helicopters and is capable of launching unmanned air, surface and underwater vehicles.
The most unique aspect of the LCS is its modular design, which allows the ship to be quickly reconfigured for specific missions. Exchangeable mission modules the size of a shipping container equip the LCS for mine countermeasures and anti- submarine and anti-surface warfare, but can also be utilised for other tasks including intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, the insertion and recovery of special forces ashore, and humanitarian and disaster relief.
The US Navy operates only two LCS, designed and built by different suppliers. The USS Freedom, built by Lockheed Martin and commissioned in 2008, uses a conventional monohull design. The USS Independence, designed by General Dynamics and built by Austal USA, employs a futuristic trimaran or triple-hulled design. It entered service last year.
Despite massive cost overruns, the US Navy has plans to acquire 55 LCS at a cost of US$37.4 billion (S$46.4 billion). Last December, it awarded contracts to Lockheed Martin and Austal USA to build 10 ships each between this year and 2015. Several of these new ships will soon find themselves on the way to Singapore.
In the early 1990s, Singapore and the US developed close defence ties, and this relationship was deepened with the signing of a Strategic Framework Agreement in 2005. The two countries hold an annual strategic dialogue. Their armed forces conduct regular training exercises. Last year, the US Navy made 149 port calls at Singapore. The planned deployment of one or two LCS to the city-state will advance US-Singapore military relations. But what form will the deployment take?
There are three possible options.
In the first option, the LCS would remain homeported in the US, but during deployments to Asia it would use Singapore as a focal point to swop out modules and undergo light maintenance, perhaps staying for three to four weeks at Changi Naval Base.
The second option would be for one or two ships to be homeported in Singapore but with their crews remaining stationed in the US. Navy personnel would be flown out to Singapore for crew rotation or sea swops during mid-deployment. This is the model the US Navy uses in Bahrain, where four of its minesweepers are based.
The third option would see the warships homeported in Singapore, and their crews and families permanently stationed here. All maintenance and repair work would be undertaken in Singapore. This is similar to America's forward deployed naval presence at Yokosuka in Japan.
As Singapore and the US are not treaty allies, the second option would seem to be the most likely scenario.
How will the forward deployment of this new class of warship to Singapore contribute to regional security?
In response to Mr Gates' speech, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the country was open to the proposal because America's military presence in Asia has been and would continue to be a 'critical force of stability and progress for this region'.
The vessels will help promote that stability by undertaking regular presence missions in South-east Asia, including in the contested waters of the South China Sea, and ensuring that the sea lanes that pass through the region remain open to maritime traffic on which the prosperity of the region depends.
The LCS will also be used to provide capacity-building support for regional navies through training and exercise programmes. The ships are also ideally suited to participate in relief operations in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as tsunamis and earthquakes.
At a time of mounting concern over the rapid modernisation of China's armed forces, rising tensions in the South China Sea, and doubts about the long-term durability of America's military presence in Asia due to daunting financial problems at home, the forward deployment of the LCS to Singapore should be welcomed.
The writer is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.