THE BYSTANDER SUSPECTS that the aerial incident involving two Su-30 fighter jets and a US WC-135 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea this Wednesday past has more to do with North Korea than China-US conflicts.
The American plane was on deployment sampling the atmosphere for evidence of nuclear explosions, though Beijing has accused it of unspecified ‘surveillance’ activity in airspace over the Yellow rather than the East China Sea. Whether the flight indicates that Washington is expecting another test by Pyongyang shortly or whether it was a routine radiation measurement flight, we are unsure.
It is sure, however, that the repeated flights by US warplanes near Chinese airspace are a constant irritant to Beijing, to which Washington is disinclined to pay any heed. The last occasion planes from the two sides came dangerously close was over the South China Sea in February. That may have been inadvertent, but an incident in May last year was not.
The risk from such ‘unsafe intercepts’ is a collision as happened in 2001 when a PLA-Navy pilot died after his interceptor jet hit a US Navy signals intelligence aircraft over Hainan Island. Systems were put in place after that to make such incidents less likely, and there are parallel procedures at sea-level for naval vessels. Disaster, though, will always be waiting to happen for as long as these flights continue.
THIS BYSTANDER NOTED earlier that a year ago to the month Aviation Industry Corp.’s China Aviation Industry General Aircraft subsidiary had completed the fuselage of a giant modern flying boat. That aircraft (seen above), conceived as the TA-600 Water Dragon but born as the AG600, has now rolled off the production line.
It is bigger than Japan’s Shinmaywa US-2, currently the world’s largest seaplane in service. The AG600 can carry up to 50 passengers and has a range of up to 5,000 kilometres. AVIC once said it could be modified to meet the needs of “maritime surveillance, resource detection, passenger and cargo transport”. State media now say its purpose is to “fight forest fires and perform marine rescue missions”.
We confess to not having counted how many forests there are in the South and East China Seas prone to combustion events, but any that might be blocking the PLA-Navy’s access to the blue waters of the Western Pacific, and even those as far away as Australia’s northern coast, will be within the AG600’s dousing range. Coincidentally, the country’s first indigenous large military transport aircraft, the Y-20, has a similar range.
When not fighting fires, the AG600 could, no doubt, be productively employed hopping between those islands — or ‘rocks’, by the light of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration’s recent ruling under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — in the East and South China Seas that Beijing claims as its own.
The embers of anti-Japanese sentiment are always smoldering in China. It doesn’t take much by way of political oxygen to bring them forth in full flame. Thousands of Chinese took to the streets on Sunday across several cities to protest against Japanese nationalists landing, albeit briefly, on one of the specs of rock in disputed waters of the East China Sea known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China. Japanese flags were burned in several cities and some Japanese restaurants ransacked. In Guangzhou, the Japanese embassy was picketed. In Shenzhen, demonstrators overturned Japanese cars, including a Honda in the service of Chinese police, no doubt an unintended piece of symbolism.
Both governments have tried to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalist expression on both sides since 2010 when Japan arrested in 2010 the captain of a fishing boat after it collided with Japanese Coast Guard ships near the islands, chilling diplomatic and economic relations. Yet at the same time, both governments are keen to assert their sovereignty. It is not a combination that will douse the flickering embers of nationalism for good. Not that politicians in either country really want to, providing it doesn’t get out of hand. The risk is that one day it will.
Much has happened this week since Beijing and Manila announced mutual temporary fishing bans that lower the tension in their dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea that came to a head with a stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China). In summary:
- Vietnam has repeated its rejection of China’s imposition of the above mentioned seasonal fishing ban in the South China Sea.
- Beijing and Tokyo are holding a first round of talks on their maritime dispute in the East China Sea.
- China is putting 4,000 islands to which it lays claim under real-time 3-D ariel surveillance, including 45 islands described as being “along baseline points of China’s territorial waters”.
- Filipino oil company, Philex Petroleum, says it is seeking rigs to drill for natural gas near the Reed Bank off Palawan, waters disputed with China. China’s CNOOC might supply them.
- North Korea has seized three Chinese trawlers in the Yellow Sea, apparently for ransom.
The standoff off the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China) between China and the Philippines is taking a different direction to other recent territorial maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas. Previously a confrontational incident, usually involving coast guards and Chinese fishing boats, has been followed by a diplomatic defusing. This time, there has been a second phase of confrontation at sea.
The incident started a week ago when a Filippino naval cutter detained a dozen Chinese fishing vessels for fishing in disputed waters. A vessel from China Marine Surveillance (CMS), the paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency, effectively a coast guard, went to the fishermen’s aid, then a second. Manila swapped its warship for a coast guard vessel. The trawlers were allowed to leave in two batches. One coast guard vessel stayed to face off its Filippino counterpart. But then a second arrived, and on Sunday there was reportedly overflights by Chinese planes.
All these incidents in disputed waters are tests of the other claimants’ will to defend their claims to the disputed waters–and the riches that lie below. They are mostly driven by the more nationalist and military sections of government. The danger is that one will spin out of control. As we suggested earlier, this latest incident is not just a test of Manila but also of Washington’s willingness to back its regional allies. The Philippines and the U.S. are now undertaking joint naval exercises in the area, though these were planned before the stand-off started, and are not happening in disputed waters). For its part, CMS now says it will step up its patrols in the South China Sea. (The BBC has this map of who claims what and where the claims overlap.)
Without a region-wide settlement of the question, something that ASEAN has been trying to broker without success, these incidents at sea will continue, as will the risk of one of them escalating. The more the uniformed services take matters into their own hands, the greater that risk becomes.
When in 2010 Japan’s Coast Guard seized a Chinese trawler, the Minjinyu 5179, in disputed waters of the East China Sea close to the islands Japanese call the Senkaku and Chinese the Diaoyu it caused a diplomatic row that bought relations between Tokyo and Beijing to a testy and very public low. Repeat incidents since have been dealt with more discretely. But now Japan’s Coast Guard is being given greater powers by the country’s parliament to seize or expel ‘suspicious’ vessels in its waters, including in disputed waters claimed by Japan, more discretion over the use of weapons in such incidents and fresh powers to interrogate suspects on land.
The legislation appears aimed directly at China and comes in the wake of other moves to bolster Japan’s Self-Defence Forces in response to Beijing’s perceived military build-up in the region. We shall be watching to see how Beijing chooses to react to the Coast Guard’s new powers as a bellwether of the current state of bilateral relations. A few days ago, a visit to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by Okinawa officials brought a swift complaint from Beijing while a group of Chinese activists attempted to sail there to protest against the Japanese visit.
In a move that is unlikely to calm any neighboring anxieties, China says it is increasing the size of its fleet that patrols the seas around its shores. A new high-speed surveillance cutter was launched this week, with three dozen more ships to follow, according to state media. That will boost the size of the Marine Surveillance fleet, a paramilitary agency of the State Oceanic Administration, by more than a third, as best as this Bystander can tell. The picture above shows the new vessel at anchor at Guangzhou, home port of the Marine Surveillance flotillas covering the South China Sea; the East China Sea flotillas are based in Shanghai and those for the Bohai and Yellow Seas in Qingdao.
Xinhua says that China has fallen behind countries like Japan and South Korea in its ability to protect its maritime rights. Beijing and Tokyo locked horns in September over a Chinese trawler detained by the Japanese Coast Guard in disputed waters of the East China Sea. China has already increased the number of fisheries patrol boats there in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands that it claims as the Diaoyu Islands and off which lie rich fishing grounds and potentially richer undersea oil, gas and mineral deposits.
China also has maritime claims around the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea that are disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. These claims were prominent durning Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s trip to Vietnam, where he urged a “proper handling of the South China Sea issue”. The newly launched patrol ship, which will be the fastest in the fleet, a 77-meter, 1,290 ton cutter equipped with satellite technology, is headed for those waters. Hanoi will be looking on with interest bordering on concern. Washington will be watching this new watcher, too.