South China Sea Watch No. 1

South China Sea Watch No. 1
Photo Credit: 美國海軍 公有領域

What you need to know

China has launched a global media offensive ahead of the international tribunal decision on disputed territory in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Filipino nationalists attempted to plant a flag on one of the disputed islands, but were turned away by Chinese vessels.

There has been much talk in recent weeks about the legal case made by Manila against China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. A decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to be made soon, but China has already rejected the arbitration process as "illegitimate."

On June 9 Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia Xie Feng (謝鋒) wrote in The Jakarta Times arguing that the The Hague arbitration was illegal and slammed the Philippines. On June 13 Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang (黄惠康), in the Malaysian publication The Star, reiterated the message and also praised Malaysia for its willingness to consult China on territorial disputes. On June 15 a legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in the Netherlands made similar claims in an interview with Xinhua.

Xinhua has churned out article after article in the past week in support of China. On June 13 it claimed that Arab countries supported Chinese sovereignty and claims in the South China Sea. On June 16, the agency interviewed an Oxford University professor on international law to explain his research paper arguing why The Hague ruling would be illegitimate. On June 17, it interviewed an East-Asian studies expert at Sofia University, again on the arbitration.

In The Wall Street Journal on June 17 Jeremy Page wrote that out of the 60 countries Chinese media lists as backing the country’s territorial claims, only eight have publicly stated their support. These supporting countries are Afghanistan, Gambia, Kenya, Niger, Sudan, Togo, Vanuatu and Lesotho. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Fiji, Poland, and Slovenia were countries listed in the 60 countries but have publicly denied supporting China. All other countries in the listed 60 have not made a statement on the matter.

ASEAN views mixed

On June 15 the Malaysian foreign ministry released an ASEAN joint statement warning against rising tensions in the South China Sea following an ASEAN-China meeting in Kunming, but withdrew the statement only a few hours later. Although the document did not name China directly, it mentioned land reclamation as a source of tensions. The News International cited an anonymous ASEAN diplomat, present in the Kunming meeting, who claimed that China likely put pressure on Cambodia and Laos to withdraw their support for the joint statement.

Indonesia and the Philippines later affirmed their support for the retracted statement on June 16, The Straits Times reported; the two countries insisted that all foreign ministers had agreed to the joint statement during the Kunming meeting. Vietnam later released a statement on the meeting echoing concerns on military buildups and land reclamation efforts, but made no reference to the retracted joint statement, according to Reuters. Ian Storey, an analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Yusof Ishak Institute, told Reuters that the retraction revealed a lack of unity within ASEAN on the dispute.

Several other countries, which are not claimants in the territory but have commercial interests, also weighed in this week.

Responding to China's claims it has a right to reject the Hague ruling, New Zealand’s defense minister said Beijing should respect the rule of law. "We want freedom of navigation, we want freedom of overflight, we want the open lines of communication and we expect there will be adherence to international law," ONE News reported.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on June 14 that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull criticized China’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea. Turnbull said China cannot attempt to dominate a region already occupied by regional powers. Rory Medcalf, a security expert at Australian National University, observed that “China is seeking to expand its reach and its interests in what is already a shared space.”

Following the Shangri-La Dialogue, which drew to a close earlier this month, defense ministers from the U.S., Britain, France, Canada, and India criticized China for its actions in the region, The Straits Times reported.

Developments in the Pacific theater

Four star commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet Adm. Scott Swift told Nikkei Asian Review on June 14 that the U.S. Navy will start to use the combined strength of the 7th and 3rd Fleets to counter “rising uncertainty” in Asia. The fleets are based in Yokosuka, Japan, and San Diego respectively.

Days earlier, Chinese and Russian naval vessels entered the “contiguous zone” surrounding the Japanese-administered Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, prompting Japanese officials to summon the Chinese ambassador to Tokyo, The Hong Kong Standard reported. The zone is the band of water 12 to 24 nautical-miles from from the coastline, an area considered part of international waters but which the resident country has limited rights over. The New York Times observed that while China often dispatches non-military vessels to the area to "provoke" the Japanese Coast Guard, this was the first time China had deployed its navy to challenge Japan’s control. Later, on June 13 the Asahi Shimbun reported that Chinese Coast Guard ships that have patrolled the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in recent months were remodeled warships transferred from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

A Chinese spy ship entered Japan’s territorial waters during Japan-U.S.-India joint naval exercises on June 15, Rappler reported. A second ship shadowed an American aircraft carrier in the West Pacific as it arrived in the area to join other Japanese and Indian warships for the exercise, Reuters said. The Chinese foreign minister later told reporters the ships were passing through international waters in the Tokara Strait, which required no permission from Japanese authorities. The India-funded Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses later commented that China's actions were triggered by Tokyo’s announcement in March that it was expanding its East China Sea surveillance network, with Japan-U.S. submarine surveillance efforts perceived as a challenge to China.

Meanwhile, Filipino nationalists attempted to plant a Filipino flag on one of the disputed islands in the Scarborough Shoal on June 13. The group was turned away by Chinese Coast Guard vessels, Reuters reported.