PRESIDENT FERDINAND MARCOS JR of the Philippines has wrapped up a three-day state visit to China.
An agreement was reached during the visit to restart negotiations over joint oil and gas development in non-disputed areas of the South China Sea, although not much is likely to come of it. Likewise, the hotline set up to avert dangerous incidents in disputed areas will likely prove of limited value.
In recent years, existing communication channels failed to prevent significant confrontations at Reed Bank, Whitsun Bank and Iroquois Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
The Philippines has also raised concerns over reportedly new Chinese land reclamation and construction work in the Spratlys and over what it called the ‘swarming’ of Chinese vessels in disputed waters claimed by the Philippines.
The Philippine navy believes Chinese ships manned by militias have been at the Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal for almost a year.
Away from the thorny defence and security issues, Marcos Jr’s office said he secured USD22.8bn in new investment pledges from China, including USD13.76bn in renewable energy, USD7.32bn in electric vehicles and mineral processing, and USD1.72bn in agriculture.
Precedent suggests that investment promises should be treated with similar scepticism to statements of progress over maritime disputes.
Marcos Jr differs from his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, in pursuing balanced relations between Beijing and Washington rather than tilting towards Beijing.
However, with Marcos Jr facing growing domestic public pressure to shore up defence ties with Washington to defend its South China Sea interests, Beijing is offering carrots, more than wielding this stick to prevent Marcos from turning more to Washington.
IT IS ALMOST a decade to the month since a sharp-eyed reader inquired about the white-domed object in a photograph (reproduced above) illustrating a post about Beijing’s use of fishing fleets to assert its maritime sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
It was a newly installed radar station and a helipad, towering over the old wharf that China had built to establish its claim to Zhubi Reef in Nansha — Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands to the rest of the world — in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
A decade of extensive island-building on, the contemporaneous assertion of another claimant to those waters, the Philippines, that China intended to use those enhanced specs of rocks and reefs for military purposes looks a lot more credible than Beijing’s claim that its radar stations sprouting up across the Spratlys were for weather monitoring. Not that Beijing’s claim sounded too plausible at the time.
New US Navy aerial reconnaissance photographs released by the US news agency, Associated Press, two of whose reporters were aboard the reconnaissance flight, show how fully militarized some the Spratlys have become, with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets.
This AP composite shows the difference in Mischief Reef between 1999 and now.
US Navy Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John Aquilino says construction of military facilities on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross appeared to have been completed.
For those who asked about the radar station in the background of the picture in our earlier post about a large Chinese fishing fleet arriving at the Zhubi reef in the Nansha Islands (the Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands to much of the rest of the world), we offer the close-up photograph above. Beijing says the radar station is intended to be for weather monitoring. The Philippines, which is also building four radar stations in its own waters of the South China Sea that will use communications and surveillance equipment supplied by the U.S., fears China’s station could easily be used for military purposes, too.
China also has a radar station on Yongxing island in the Xishas (Woody Island in the Paracels to the rest of the world), the site of its new administrative capital for the rocks and reefs it claims in the South China Sea. There are also reports it is has built another radar station in the Spratlys at its garrison on Mischief Reef. There is a map of China’s coastal and South China Sea radar stations here.
The Philippines says that two of China’s most advanced fisheries protection vessels have been deployed in disputed waters of the South China Sea off the Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island to China (shown right). They are among five Chinese government ships–three from Fisheries Enforcement and two Coast Guard–16 fishing boats and 56 utility boats Manila says are plying waters that saw a stand-off between the two countries’ coast guard vessels last month and sparked a continuing diplomatic row. Beijing says that only 20 fishing boats are in the area, a typical number for this time of year.
The two countries had announced separate seasonal fishing bans in an effort to diffuse the dispute. Beijing says the Chinese vessels are observing its. Manila says they are harvesting clams and coral, in contravention of its ban, and has demanded they withdraw. The satellite image above shows the entrance to the lagoon bottom right; the outline is marked by the coral reef. On Tuesday, the foreign ministry said that what it called the Philippines’ provocations had necessitated “China to adopt corresponding measures to strengthen management and control.” It also took a dig, if not in name, at the U.S. for selling the Philippines a Hamilton class naval cutter. None of this sounds like an easing of tensions.
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.
It is not so much that China’s largest offshore oil company, CNOOC, has started drilling for oil and gas with the country’s first home-developed deep-sea rig, it is more where it is doing so–in the South China Sea. This is Beijing dropping a big marker, so to speak, for its claim to sovereignty over waters to which many nations lay claim.
The rig, CNOOC 981 (above), is able to drill to 3,000 meters; previously, China could only drill up to 500 meters. It is operating some 300 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong between the Paracel Islands, claimed by China and Vietnam, and the Macclesfield Bank, claimed by China and Taiwan. Not too far away lies the Scarborough Shoal, scene of a month-long stand-off between China and the Philippines.
While Chinese fishing fleets have been plying the disputed waters, and sparking diplomatic spats, for years, Beijing has been slow to start exploration for the energy and mineral riches that lie beneath the South China Sea, in part to stop the fisheries tiffs, and the bombastic claims of sovereignty that invariably accompany them, from getting out of hand. That drilling has now started for the 23 billion-30 billion tonnes of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of natural gas believed to lie beneath the South China Sea–equivalent to one half of China’s existing onshore oil and gas reserves–suggests that the hawks are playing a stronger hand as well as talking one.
China has pulled back two of its three coast guard ships involved in the two-week long stand-off with the Philippines off the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China) in disputed waters of the South China Sea. State media, quoting a Chinese embassy spokesman in Manila, says the two withdrawn vessels include the Yuzheng-310, China’s most advanced fisheries patrol ship and which had arrived in the area late last week as a show of force.
The increasingly prickly incident started on April 10 after a Filippino Navy cutter attempted to detain a dozen Chinese trawlers for alleged illegal fishing. The de-escalation comes despite little progress being made on the diplomatic front.
Update: China continues to reiterate its historical claim to the shoal, whose location is shown on the map, above, with the Philippines conspicuous by its absence. On Monday, Beijing denounced Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario’s call for other countries to take a stand against China’s maritime territorial claims. On Tuesday, it rejected his assertion that its territorial claims may threaten freedom of navigation in the region.
The standoff between China and the Philippines in disputed South China Sea waters off the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China) has ratcheted up a notch with the arrival of the Yuzheng-310 (left), China’s most advanced fisheries patrol vessel, to “protect China’s sea rights and ensure the safety of Chinese fishermen”. The vessel is no stranger to such duty, having done the same in waters disputed with Japan in the East China Sea off the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands to China).
This latest incident started when a Filippino Navy cutter attempted to detain a dozen Chinese trawlers on April 10th for what Manila said was illegal fishing in its waters. While Manila swapped out its warship for a coast guard vessel and released the trawlers, it has refused China’s demand to withdraw from what Beijing says is Chinese territory. The arrival of the 2,580-tonne Yuzheng-310 to support the two Chinese coast guard vessels already there is being taken as a test of how far Beijing will push its increasingly assertive territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea. Protests have been staged outside the Chinese embassy in Manila, while hackers claiming to be from China briefly defaced the home page of the Philippines’ leading university with a message asserting China’s territorial maritime claims, all highlighting concerns that the increasingly testy incident could spin out of control.
As well as the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims on parts of the South China Sea, which China claims nearly in its entirety. (The BBC has this map of who claims what and where the claims overlap.)
The Philippines bases its claim to the Scarborough Shoal on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing has rejected Manila’s latest proposals to take the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for adjudication. It wants any settlement to be a bilateral one between governments, reckoning it holds the upper hand. Meanwhile it has beefed up its patrols in the South China Sea to underline the point.
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.