China’s Aircraft Landings in The South China Sea Worry Its Neighbors

By Dan Southerland
2016-01-08
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The map shows Vietnam and disputed territories in the South China Sea.
The map shows Vietnam and disputed territories in the South China Sea.
RFA graphic

As we enter a new year, the South China Sea appears to remain the biggest potential flash point in East Asia.

China’s announcement on Jan. 2 that it had landed an aircraft for the first time on  an airstrip in a disputed chain of islets and its confirmation that Beijing is building its second aircraft carrier have created new regional worries.

Vietnam quickly issued a strong protest to Beijing concerning the aircraft landing on an islet in the Spratly Island chain, known to the Vietnamese as the Truong Sa Islands.

Two more planes landed at the same location on Jan. 6 on a runway long enough to accommodate bombers. Beijing said, however, after the first landing that it was used to test whether the newly built airfield met “civil aviation” standards.

But less visible forces, such as growing nationalistic sentiments on all sides and China’s buildup of fishing vessel militias may prove more dangerous in the end than dramatic moves by ships and planes.

More immediately threatening to Vietnam may be the more than 20 attacks on its fishing boats that took place in 2015, with the latest occurring on New Year’s Day this year.

The attacks were conducted by vessels that are believed to have been controlled by the Chinese military.

In the Jan. 1 attack, a Chinese vessel repeatedly rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed territory near the Paracel Islands. According to the boat’s captain, five Chinese men carrying knives jumped on board the boat and confiscated its catch, communications devices, and fishing equipment.

When the boat sank, the crew were rescued by nearby Vietnamese fishing vessels.

Oil rig triggered crisis

China’s decision in May 2014 to deploy an oil rig in waters off Vietnam’s coast then set off an intensifying round of confrontation that included deadly anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam.

China claims most of the South China Sea, which harbors large oil and gas deposits. And ships passing through this area carry more than $5 trillion in cargo to and from the growing economies of East Asia.

China eventually withdrew the oil rig, apparently recognizing that its move had been overly provocative.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Vietnam two months ago—the first by a Chinese president in 10 years—raised some hopes that calm could be restored in the region.

But nationalistic, anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam, which reached a peak after the oil rig incident, is still running high.

At the end of Xi’s visit, Vietnam agreed to build a “truly trustworthy” relationship with China. But at the same time, Japanese officials told the Kyodo News Agency that Vietnam had invited Japan for a port visit and coastal military exercises in 2016.

This was a reminder of the stakes that several other nations have in the South China Sea.

High stakes region

In addition to China and Vietnam, claimants to disputed territory in the South China Sea include Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

China, Taiwan, and Vietnam each claim all of the Spratly Island chain.

“As the region continues to grow in influence and power,” says the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, “the handling of the competing claims will set the tone for relations within East Asia for years.”

“Even a momentary failure to manage tensions could pose a significant threat to one of the world’s great collaborative economic success stories,” the group adds.

The United States takes no position on the various sovereignty claims. But it may now be walking a tightrope by trying on the one hand to avoid a military conflict in the South China Sea while on the other providing military assistance to friends and allies resisting Chinese encroachments.

In late October last year, the U.S. sent the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, on a passage within 12 nautical miles off an artificial island built by China on Subi Reef in the Spratly Island chain.

China then summoned U.S. ambassador to China Max Baucus to its Foreign Ministry to make a “serious representation of protest” over the incident.

But the U.S. Navy described the Lassen’s passage as a nonthreatening effort to underscore the right guaranteed to all nations under international law to freely use vital sea lanes.

U.S. officials have indicated that more such freedom of navigation operations will take place on a regular basis.

Unpredictable future

China’s assertive approach to the South China Sea—and to the East China Sea, near Japan—has created some apparently unintended consequences, such as an increase in U.S. military aid to the Philippines and a buildup of naval forces in several Southeast Asian countries.

This includes Vietnamese purchases of submarines from Russia.

India has begun training Vietnamese submarine crews, and the Philippines has been negotiating the acquisition of defense equipment from Japan, China’s World War II enemy and modern geopolitical rival.

Japanese ships and planes would also get access to Philippine bases, according to Renato Cruz de Castro in a report for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

China’s long-term intentions are not transparent, which makes planning countermoves difficult. This is partly because China takes a long view of strategy, dating back to concepts developed in the ancient Warring States period.

These include the use of deception, misinformation, and intimidation to win battles without firing a shot.

Escalation possible

China’s use of its coast guard and fishing vessels to gain access to fishing grounds of rival claimants or to harass other nations’ ships and fishermen makes the escalation of small incidents into larger conflicts much more possible.

Growing nationalistic sentiment in China, encouraged in part by the country’s state-controlled media, might also be a force that the Chinese leadership has to take into account before reaching any settlement of disputes.

Meanwhile, long-term factors bolstering anti-U.S. sentiment might be pressures from hawkish, well-placed Chinese military officers and the demonization of the United States both by the Chinese media and the country’s education system.

Future clashes in the South China Sea may well involve China’s even greater use of its maritime militia, which includes civilian fishing vessels that can lay mines, jam enemy equipment, carry supplies for the military based on artificial islands, run reconnaissance patrols, and maintain a Chinese presence in disputed archipelagos.

Andrew S. Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval Warfare College in Newport, Rhode Island, who has studied this issue extensively, says that the maritime militia receive training from various Chinese military departments. They also work closely with the Chinese coast guard.

“China is trying to use these government-controlled fishermen below the radar to get the bonus without the onus to support its South China Sea claims,” Erickson told Defense News, based in Springfield, Virginia.

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Anonymous Reader

The formula for winning is "Big." Big in military which China has. Big in economic which China has. The big guy always wins, that's the reality. The biggest challenge for smaller claimants is to agree to form a block to hold off China while the giant U.S playing referee on the sideline, ready to assist. Occasionally the U.S can threaten to penalize the one doesn't play by the rule, mostly the Chinese. This is a win win for the U.S.

Jan 09, 2016 04:30 PM

Anonymous Reader

Youn certainly deserves every attention china gives to them for being a hypocrite for its own expansionism in Cambodia.

Jan 09, 2016 03:02 AM

Observer

from Sydney

The article's coverage is good. China is claiming most of the 1 million Sq. Miles of the South China Sea as it's territory with no historical claim for it. Half of the world's trade passing through it and most of Australia's trade. Very expansionist of China. It claims low elevation atols as land territory after building them up with dredging of sand and dumping concrete to build reinforced forts with hardened harbours, communications upgraded and some military grade airfields that can take bombers and fighter planes. This extends China's reach from Hainan Island by 1000km. It uses it's "3 warfares of psychological, media and legal to mask and confuse these strategic moves. These illlegal artificial islands not accepted as islands under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea are bases for force projection and interdiction for the Chinese military. The aim is to deny access of US and allied forces and challenge the Primacy of the US in the region. This would threaten the sovereignty of nations in the Indo Pacific including Australia. A loyal US Ally. The Taiwan elections in about a week and China's claim on controlling Taiwan's sovereignty could be a trigger point for a regional war. Most of Asia and the Indo Pacific do not want to be controlled by a Communist Superpower. We must all make a choice to not sell off our values and security to China and keep our alliances and freedom secure. China may make aggressive moves between now and the end of the US Presidential Elections.

Jan 09, 2016 12:21 AM

Observer

from Sydney

The article's coverage is good. China is claiming most of the 1 million Sq. Miles of the South China Sea as it's territory with no historical claim for it. Half of the world's trade passing through it and most of Australia's trade. Very expansionist of China. It claims low elevation atols as land territory after building them up with dredging of sand and dumping concrete to build reinforced forts with hardened harbours, communications upgraded and some military grade airfields that can take bombers and fighter planes. This extends China's reach from Hainan Island by 1000km. It uses it's "3 warfares of psychological, media and legal to mask and confuse these strategic moves. These illlegal artificial islands not accepted as islands under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea are bases for force projection and interdiction for the Chinese military. The aim is to deny access of US and allied forces and challenge the Primacy of the US in the region. This would threaten the sovereignty of nations in the Indo Pacific including Australia. A loyal US Ally. The Taiwan elections in about a week and China's claim on controlling Taiwan's sovereignty could be a trigger point for a regional war. Most of Asia and the Indo Pacific do not want to be controlled by a Communist Superpower. We must all make a choice to not sell off our values and security to China and keep our alliances and freedom secure. China may make aggressive moves between now and the end of the US Presidential Elections.

Jan 09, 2016 12:05 AM

Anonymous Reader

If there is a war it would be bad for the region and the world. These artificial islands are sitting ducks against cruse missiles. It takes minutes to destroy airfields and installations but it takes weeks or months to build back up due to lack of supplies. So these installations become useless in the first hour of war.

The Communist can puff and huff now, but that what would happen if the U.S got into war with the Chinese.

Jan 11, 2016 03:05 PM

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