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.
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.
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.