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South China Sea: what scenarios after The Hague ruling

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The forecasts have been met: The Permanent Court of Arbitration based at The Hague, called by the Philippines in defense of their fishing areas, has expressed yesterday in a ruling that meets Manila requests and disregards the Beijing claims on the islands of the South China Sea. The Court ruled that the Chinese expansion violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement that regulates the right of the states on the oceans, signed by 166 nations, including China.

How was equally predictable, given the statements of Chinese leaders before the verdict, the Asian giant does not intend to respect the ruling of the Court, to which it never wanted to recognize any jurisdiction over the maritime dispute involving the major countries of Southeast Asia, as well in Japan, the US and, to a lesser extent, Australia.

The so-called “Nine-dash line” claimed by Beijing covers 90% of the South China Sea and finds its shaky historical justification in the control of the archipelago of Paracelsus Islands, militarily withdrawn from Vietnam in 1974. China, over the past three years, has strengthened unilaterally its position by building artificial island along the coral reefs, where then installed civilian and military outposts and asphalt airstrips for the landing of its aircrafts.

In fact, the judgment further stirs the waters in a geopolitical theater already subject to frequent storms. China is convinced that no act of the court will ever questioning its national interests in the area. Moreover, the Hague International Court has no binding instrument to force Beijing to respect its judgment. The Chinese government, however, is concerned that the judgment favorable to the Philippines may trigger a domino of appeals from other countries whose coasts are on the disputed stretch of sea, among the most strategic globally by fishing and commercial point of view. The US, meanwhile, could use the ruling to reaffirm the  freedom of navigation principle, the banner that Washington carries out to safeguard their own economic and military interests in the area.

Beijing’s response is likely to be more important than the ruling itself and could point the way for future relations between the hegemonic power of the area and the bloc of nations that attempts to contain its expansion. The question is: what will China do? It will try to direct the development of events in his favor, or try other unilateral actions, even at the cost of exacerbating tensions?

Beijing could decide to be accommodating and, without publicly accept the principles of the judgment, could mitigate its positions, stopping the construction of artificial islands and recognizing the right of fishing in the disputed waters for its neighbors. In the long run, a conciliatory attitude could benefit the growth of the country, ensuring peace and contributing to the emergence of an international legal system more sensitive to its interests.

The events may, however, take the opposite direction. China may reject the ruling and, with it, reject UNCLOS principles, accelerate the construction of artificial islands and strengthen the military outposts, showing muscles to the Philippines and other ASEAN countries.

Beijing could also opt for a third way: do nothing and ignore the ruling. But to cement his leadership China needs to produce rules, not to ignore them, offering an image of reliability in terms of international law. A proactive approach is the only one that would convince other Asian countries to recognize to China a leading role in the medium and long term.

All actors involved should, therefore, openly or tacitly accept the principles underlying the judgment without pushing for a rapid implementation. China would take time to gradually adapt its initiatives to the new standards, in the name of political stability and for the affirmation of an international law which build its supremacy within.

At the moment, it is not easy to imagine such reasonableness, because the Asian giant also feeds itself with nationalism and revanchism against the western and pro-Western powers, which in the past have used the gauntlet to impose their interests to China. An official statement released just before the verdict came by the Minister of Defense, and wasn’t too conciliatory: “Chinese armed forces will firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security and maritime interests and rights, firmly uphold regional peace and stability, and deal with all kinds of threats and challenges.”

Today Beijing feels as strong as ever and could decide to challenge the common rules to force opponents to accept its own. In this case even peace itself would be at risk, because an increase in the construction of civil and military infrastructure in the South China Sea would strengthen deterrence but would multiply the chances of accidents with the US and its allies. The escalation, at that point, may be rapid and uncontrollable.

The US warn Beijing in the South China Sea

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The United States have decided to flex its muscles in the South China Sea to reassure regional allies and send a clear message to China, whose claims on the area appear more and more explicit.

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Two Americans Carrier Strike Group (CSG), each composed of a aircraft carriers and other warships of large size, started last Saturday a series of military exercises in the territorial waters of the Philippines, a key ally in the dispute for the control of the South Asian seas.

The drill involved the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers Ronald Reagan and John C. Stennis, 12,000 sailors, 140 aircraft and six battleships, a few days from the judgment that an international court is preparing to issue about the Chinese claims on the disputed sea stretches. The message is clear: the US does not intend to leave field to the Chinese opponent and regional allies, from the Philippines, will not be left alone in the face of Beijing’s pressures.

The American ships began to carry out air defense, maritime surveillance and long-range attack maneuvers, showcasing their firepower not far from the disputed waters, in which China continues its constructive activities of artificial atolls for civilian and military purposes.

The intent of the drills, in the formal language of the navy information bulletins, would be to promote the freedom of navigation and overflight in the waters and on the skies of the area. The statements that come from commands better clarify the purpose of the drill: ” (This) has been a great opportunity for us to train on how we would operate multiple Carrier Strike Sroups in a contested environment” explained Admiral John Alexander .

By Philippine, military mobilization is the clear demonstration that the US is determined to give credence to their ” ironclad commitment”, reiterated on several occasions, in favor Asian ally. ” e welcome the strong cooperation and partnership we have with our friends and allies … in light of (the dispute) where our legitimate rights have been overstepped” said Peter Galvez, spokesman of the Philippine Department of Defense.

The reference is to the decision, expected in a few weeks, in which the Court of Permanent Arbitration of The Hague will speak about the legitimacy of the Beijing claims on the the South China Sea waters, one of the most important navigable areas of the world, from economic and strategic points of view, on which also overlook Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan and on which the interests of China, US and Japan gather.

The ruling will likely be favorable to the Philippines, which addressed to the international court to counter Chinese expansion. China, for its part, has decided to ignore the court, to which does not recognize any jurisdiction over the matter, and did not take part in the proceedings.

 

Luca Marchesini

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Chinese missiles on a disputed island

Asia @en/BreakingNews @en di

 

On 14 February, the images captured by a satellite, showed the presence of new military installations on a small island in the Paracels archipelago in the South China Sea, occupied by China and claimed by its neighbors, particularly Taiwan and Vietnam. The island, once known as Woody on nautical charts, was annexed by Beijing in 1956 under the name of Yongxing.

It is probably two HQ-9 batteries, able to arm eight surface-to-air missiles each, with a range which experts estimate at about 200 kilometers, capable of hitting aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic. Their deployment further exacerbates the tension along the already troubled waters of the South China Sea, the theater for several years of a territorial dispute on a large scale, with major political, strategic and economic implications, in which all the powers of the region are involved, including Japan, and the United States, determined to defend its freedom of military and commercial shipping in the area and to limit the expansionist ambitions of Beijing.

The revelation, released yesterday by the Taiwanese authorities, has angered the Chinese who, at first, have thundered against the lies of the pro-Western propaganda, and subsequently reaffirmed their right to install weapons of “self-defense” on islands inhabited by Chinese civil and military personnel, “according to international law”.

The major concern for the Americans and their allies in the area, is that Beijing brings forward a unilateral project of militarization in the region, strengthening, officially for defensive purposes, a growing number of islands and neo-artificial islands, made ex- novo by Chinese engineers through massive drainage of the sandy ocean floor, there where once there were only semi-submerged sections of the reef.

The Yongxing island in fact already have an airstrip and, in November 2015, the satellites captured the image of a Chinese military jet landed on the outpost. The missiles deployment, according to experts interviewed by the BBC, may be a warning addressed to Vietnam, which continues to advance their claims on the archipelago, and to United States, after that, in January, an American missile destroyer sailed close to the island’s shores.

For now, Beijing has avoided to deploy military installations on the disputed islands of the Spratly archipelago, far away from the Chinese territorial waters and nestled between Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, who are claiming themselves its possess. If the escalation would go so far south, Chinese action would be perceived not as a simple provocation but as an explicit act of hostility, with consequences difficult to predict.

The dispute on the South China Sea was also addressed during the summit just concluded in California, between the United States and the ASEAN countries, the organization of the Southeast Asia states. Just yesterday, President Obama, concluding  the meeting, reiterated the US call to stop any further “claim, new construction and militarization”, indirectly referring to Chinese activities in the area. Obama also said the US will continue ” will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows” adding that the United States will provide their support to allies in the region so that they can do the same. A support that has been explicitly called for by the Vietnamese Prime Minister during the summit. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has appealed directly to Obama to ask that the US has ” has a stronger voice and more practical and more efficient” to achieve the interruption of all initiatives aimed at changing the status quo, clearly referring to China and its constructive activities on the Spratly archipelago.

The purpose of the summit was to find new common solutions to counter Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea and preserve the right to free navigation, a primary geopolitical interest for the United States in that part of the world. China’s choice to deploy a missile battery on the island of Yongxing in conjunction with the US-ASEAN summit is obviously not random and tends to reiterate Beijing’s intention to dispose as they please of the territories under its control.

For Americans and its allies a military escalation, although on a minor scale, has the flavor of provocation. A US official said to the microphones of CNN that the deployment of the missiles, which occurred during the summit, was a ” further demonstration of China’s attempt to unilaterally change the status quo” in the South China Sea. On the same line  is Japan, that by the mouth of Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide  has branded as unacceptable the initiative of Beijing.

The dispute looks set to exacerbate, especially if China decides to proceed with the creation of military infrastructure on the islands under its control, going further south. Another variable in play concerns the energy and mineral resources that could hide under coral beds. Geological surveys and drilling have not started yet, at least officially, but the discovery of oil or natural gas could further jeopardize the relations between the powers bordering on that slice of ocean.

 

Luca Marchesini

Dispute between the US and China for control of the South China Sea goes on

Asia @en di

During the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Summit in Manila, which ended last week, President Barack Obama reiterated the US position, calling on China to stop the construction of artificial islands and new infrastructure in the area of ​​sea dispute. The answer wasn’t long in coming. At the summit of the ASEAN countries, held in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, through the Deputy Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, accused Washington of wanting an escalation and defended the construction activities at sea, launched in 2013 and still in progress today.

First Obama, at the opening of the APEC summit in Manila, last Wednesday, pushed the issue of the South China Sea on the political agenda of the 21 leaders. After meeting with the President of the Philippines, Benigno S. Aquino III, Obama spoke to the press urging Beijing to cease all military activity in that part of the sea and to accept international arbitration to reconcile differences with its neighbors in South-East Asia.

“We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions – Mr. Obama said – including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea,”

Without taking a position on the front of the territorial claims made by the involved countries, the United States consider free navigation on the waters of the contended area as a vital point. For this reason, they confirmed their commitment to the side of the South Asian governments who oppose Chinese expansionism, and ensured the Allies a contribution of $ 250 million for military spending.

Beijing’s response came on November 22, during the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur. Deputy Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin asserted the legitimacy and legality of Chinese government initiatives, reiterating that China has no intention to terminate the building of new facilities off its southern coast. Zhenmin then replied to the American accusations, denying that Beijing is proceeding to a progressive militarization of the area. From Chinese prospective, Washington should instead halt its provocations after that, last month, an American navy ship crossed a maritime area that Beijing regards as part of its territorial waters.

“Building and maintaining necessary military facilities, this is what is required for China’s national defence and for the protection of those islands and reefs,” Deputy Foreign Minister said, adding that Beijing intends to “expand and upgrade” civil infrastructure ” to better serve commercial ships, fishermen, to help distressed vessels and provide more public services.”

The two main contenders positions are, therefore, very far and nothing portends, at this time, a change of course by the Chinese battleship.

South China Sea: big dispute for its control

Asia @en di

The main players in this story are four: China, the Philippines, the US and Japan. The stakes are enormous: the control of the waters of the South China Sea, at the crossroads of the interests of the powers involved.

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For months now, the US is engaged in a verbal escalation with China. Beijing, in fact, does not hide his expansionist aims on the portion of ocean that flow through its southern coasts and it is building artificial islands to move forward to a few tens of kilometers the limits of its territorial waters. A forced widening of the borders that is putting in turmoil Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia as well, since they advance their own claims on that same sea segment.

China has repeatedly asked the US not to exacerbate the mood flying over the artificial islands with its aircrafts and bringing the ships of its fleet to sail near their coasts. The United States has responded sharply, appealing to international maritime law, and securing to its regional allies the cooperation of the US Navy for the control of Chinese positions.

It should be borne in mind that, in this area of ​​the world, water control and the ability to put a national flag on even very small portions of landmass is not just a symbolic goal. In fact, the patrolling of certain maritime communications, through the construction of military bases, gives the direct control of shipping trade and access roads to economic and strategic fundamental resources. The control of an isolated rock or a stretch of reef may have serious repercussions in terms of economic growth and political stability.

For China is, first and foremost, a matter of regional sovereignty, with inevitable global repercussions. For the United States, the main concern is represented by the freedom of navigation in the Pacific rim, where the US has built its own supremacy, after the end of the Cold War, with the help of regional allies, primarily Japan and South Korea. However, China is now questioning this assumption, emerging as a new power in the South China Sea and making explicit its hegemonic ambitions over the area. A redefinition of the balances that Washington sees as a serious problem.

Supremacy on the water has always been a fundamental element of American global strategy. Control over the seas, assured by the military supremacy of the US Navy, guarantees fast and secure trade routes for goods going to or coming from US ports and allows to quickly move large amounts of troops in case of need, even at a great distance. But these same necessities have now become vital for China, a global power whose economy is increasingly focused on export and therefore require more control over maritime trade routes, especially in the South China Sea, rich in fishery resources and natural gas. China is therefore trying to reshape the status quo, taking advantage of the weakness of regional adversaries, unable to cope with the Asian giant on the military level, and the uncertainties of American rival, who seems unwilling to use the force of weapons to contain its expansionist ambitions.

However, the Chinese construction activities in the middle of Southern Sea provoked the strong irritation of the Southeast Asia neighbors, primary the Philippines who claim sovereignty over many of the small islands cemented by the Chinese construction activities. China, however, think that is possible to control the countries of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, acting directly on the organization at the political level and operating its economic and military levers against the single states involved. Beijing also trust to be able to manage the reactions of Washington, in the belief that the US will avoid any escalation, fearing a direct conflict in the waters of the South China Sea. The facts, so far, proved China is right.

It remains to understand what is the position of Japan within this puzzle. The power of the Rising Sun is perhaps the only opponent that China really fears, right now. For the first time in decades, Japan seems determined to take a more active role in the Pacific and the South China Sea. Tokyo recently has signed new agreements with Manila and other ASEAN countries to conduct joint operations and to facilitate the supply of its fleet and its aircrafts. In return, he offered to the Philippines and Vietnam ships and aircrafts for the Navy and the Coast Guard. Japan has also reached an agreement with the US to carry out joint patrol operations in the South China Sea, starting next year.

Why this new activism? Japan is an island, with few natural resources. Tokyo must therefore necessarily safeguard its own interests on the seas, to ensure the subsistence of the Japanese economy, and it has realized that the new Chinese expansionism is a threat that can not remain unanswered.

From the point of view of Beijing, the new policy of Tokyo is a serious problem, especially if Japan acts in synergy with the United States for the creation of a joint force in the South China Sea. The answer for now is diplomatic. Through various channels, Beijing is trying to persuade Washington not to engage in the side of Japan, suggesting that Tokyo would be pursuing only its own interests in the area. Looking ahead, China also suggest that the conflict could lead to a possible military escalation with the Philippines, supported by Japan, for of the disputed islands control. A scenario that would oblige the US to make a difficult choice: whether or not to intervene on the side of its ally, with all the military and political consequences that the decision would generate.

 

Luca Marchesini

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