Tag Archives: South China Sea

High Stakes

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under China-U.S.

Giant Seaplanes Add To China’s Maritime Reach

AG600

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Defence

Yongxing And Submarine Protection

Yongxing, Sansha prefecture, or Woody Island, in the Paracels archipelago in the South China Sea

CHINA HAS BEEN on Yongxing, known as Woody Island to most of the rest of the world, since Mao’s troops landed on the then unoccupied island in 1956. Woody is part of the Parcels, the closest of the South China Sea archipelagos to the Chinese mainland, and had previously been occupied by French Indochina, Japan and Nationalist China.

As the image above shows, Woody Island today has been extensively built up for a speck of land in the middle of the South China Sea. It has a hospital, library, school and sports fields as well as a military garrison and airport. ICBC and China Telecom both have branches there. The permanent civilian population numbers more than 1,000.

Beijing administers all its claimed land and waters in the region from the Sansha City prefectural government office that was set up on Woody in 2012. The city office is the building with the silvery dome on the right-hand side of the picture.

Vietnam, which calls Woody Island Phi Lam Island, and Taiwan also have territorial claims derived from previous occupants. Reports that the PLA has deployed two HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries on the island lend credence to the notion that Beijing is gradually stepping up its militarization of the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Last year, it flew J-11 military jets onto the island, whose airstrip is capable of landing China’s fourth-generation military aircraft. At the same time, it is believed that the newest nuclear submarines that China is building will be based at the PLA-Navy’s Yulin base on Hainan Island only 400 kilometers away and where there are underground pens for some 20 submarines as well as space to dock an aircraft carrier.

Woody could serve as a forward defense base for Yulin should it come to an air attack on the base. Yulin is of increasing strategic important as it offers a quicker route to the deep water passages to the Pacific than the PLA-Navy’s northern Xiaopingdao base. The PLA-N needs that rapid blue-water access if its subs are to be a credible second-strike nuclear deterrent.

The HQ-9 is a medium-to-long-range anti-aircraft missile that can be launched from the back of a heavy-duty military truck on land as well as from a destroyer at sea. An HQ-9 land-based battery would have accompanying power generation and radar trucks, the radar being capable of detecting both low altitude and stealth targets.

The arrays seen in the satellite images taken last weekend that have caused the latest stir are positioned to defend the approaches to Yulin.

The initial reports came from the Taiwanese defense minister, with the commander of the US Pacific Fleet subsequently confirming them to the Reuters news agency, saying it represents “a militarisation of the South China Sea” in ways China’s President Xi Jinping had pledged not to make.

China, for its part, says it has every right to deploy limited defences on its own territory and that that has nothing to do with militarisation of the South China Seas.

HQ-9s, though, are highly mobile weapons systems; they could be taken on or off the island by ferry at any time, or just driven into a storage shed.

Their presence on Woody doesn’t likely have great significance in itself. They are not as provocative there as they would be if rolled out on any of the artificial islands being built in the Spratlys. China vacillates in the South China Sea between asserting its claims and ensuring a belligerent stance does not trip over into live hostilities.

Leave a comment

Filed under China-Taiwan, China-Vietnam, Defence

Beijing And Washington Plot Course Through Disputed Waters Dispute

IT HAS BEEN three years since the United States sailed a warship within 12-miles of Subi Reef, part of the South China Sea’s Spratly islands that China claims as the Nansha islands. Washington says the recent passage of the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, was to assert the rights of freedom of navigation in international waters, albeit, this Bystander notes, waters also claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines as their own.

For all Beijing’s bombastic denunciation, as geostrategic sparring goes, this was well advertised and came less than a couple of months after five PLA-Navy warships sailed just as close to the United States’ Aleutian islands in the Bering Sea.

Washington made it known some time in advance that it intended to carry out the operation in the Spratlys. The Kunming, the first of the PLA-Navy’s Type 052D advanced destroyers, has reportedly been trailing the Lassen for weeks and kept a measured distance as the U.S. warship sailed past Subi Reef.

Barring accidents, both navies — and their political bosses — will want to avoid a direct clash in the South China Sea. But that doesn’t mean the face-off between the two powers won’t be ratcheted up by other means.

China will likely continue to strengthen its presence on disputed reefs and islands. President Xi Jinping has said China has no intention to ‘militarize’ the area, but that does not exclude growing coast guard, maritime rescue, fisheries and natural resources facilities and operations there.

For its part, the United States has said it will continue to sail freedom-of-navigation passages. It already routinely flies surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea in airspace that China claims, and its subs operate under those waters. “We will fly, sail, and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows,” a U.S. defense department official told the French news agency AFP.

It has little option to do otherwise if it wants to retain its credibility as a security guarantor for its regional partners as it and Beijing jockey for position in the Pacific. Similarly, Beijing has to challenge every challenge to its maritime claims.

1 Comment

Filed under China-U.S., Defence

South China Sea Territorial Waters: Ne’re The Twain Shall Meet

IT HAS BEEN a couple of years now since China abandoned its policy of asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea primarily by way of commercial fishing. Instead it has sent in its oilmen.

State-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) started drilling in the disputed waters in May 2011. Later that year it cheekily invited bids from foreign oil companies to join it in the exploration and development of nine blocks off the Vietnamese coast. The current standoff between China and Vietnam over the arrival of CNOOC’s deep-sea oil rig in what Vietnam says is its 200-mile exclusive economic zone and Beijing claims is only 20 miles off the coast of one of its islands, is only the latest development in a series stretching back to then.

Drilling rig HD-981 was China’s first home-developed deep-sea rig, and built to drill in those waters. It has been searching 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.

It is first place of operation was some 300 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong between the Paracel Islands, claimed by China as the Xisha Islands and Vietnam as the Hoàng Sa Archipelago, and the Macclesfield Bank, claimed by China as the Zhongsha Islands, and Taiwan. Not too far away lies the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island), scene of repeated maritime stand-offs between China and the Philippines, which calls it the Panatag Shoal. Earlier this week, Philippine authorities detained a Chinese fishing boat and its 11 crew members near the Spratly Islands, which China calls the Nansha Islands.

HD-981 is now deployed some 30 kilometers off one of the specs of rock in the Paracels and some 280 kilometers from the Vietnamese coast, which would put it 100 kilometers inside the exclusive economic zone Vietnam claims. The maritime argy-bargy has been matched by the diplomatic jostling. China has called for Vietnam to stop “disturbing” the operations of Chinese companies; Vietnam, for its part, has accused the PLA-N of intimidating Vietnamese vessels. Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has been told to butt out of it after saying China’s actions in the region were “provocative”.

What is concerning to This Bystander is the large number of Chinese and Vietnamese vessels that have reportedly been involved, 40 on the Chinese side, 20 from Vietnam, with several warships in both flotillas. For Beijing’s part. this appears to be a response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia in which he reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to its Asian treaty allies. If Beijing feels those nations have been stiffened by U.S. reassurances, it may feel it needs to demonstrate its own robust response. That could leave these disputed waters more troubled than they been been in recent years.

2 Comments

Filed under China-Southeast Asia, China-Vietnam

South China Sea Radar

Photo taken on July 18, 2012 shows a building on Zhubi Reef of south China Sea. (Xinhua/Wang Cunfu)

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.

2 Comments

Filed under China-Southeast Asia

China’s South China Sea Fishing Fleet: How Far Will It Go?

Fishing vessels sail past Zhubi Reef of south China Sea on July 18, 2012. A fleet of fishing vessels from China's southernmost province of Hainan departed from Yongshu Reef on Tuesday night. The fleet arrived at Zhubi Reef at about 10 a.m. Wednesday. The fleet of 30 boats, the largest ever launched from the island province, planned to fish and detect fishery resources near Zhubi Reef. (Xinhua/Wang Cunfu)

The picture above shows two of the 30 vessels that comprise the largest fishing fleet dispatched from Hainan to Zhubi Reef, or Subi Reef, in the Spratly Islands (Nansha to China) in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The 3-story domed building in the background contains a newly installed radar station and a helipad. It towers over the old wharf that China built to establish its claim to the reef. Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan all say the reef lies within their territorial waters. The reef surrounds a lagoon and is above water only at low tide, which is why the building appears to be in the middle of the sea. The sharp eyed may detect the band of lighter blue looking water above the reef itself. The fleet is being protected by the Yuzheng 310, one of the most advanced patrol ships of the Chinese fishery administration.

The 20-day fishing mission is the latest display of assertion of sovereignty by Beijing in the South China Sea. It comes in the immediate wake of a meeting in Cambodia of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), also attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, that failed to reach consensus over how to deal with China over its territorial claims in those waters. Beijing successfully divided to conquer ASEAN on the issue, leaving its fishermen free to sail ahead (and its oil drillers to drill), further testing the diplomatic limits of the Philippines and Vietnam in particular.

Footnote: The new city that China is creating to administer its South China Sea specs of rock and reef is preparing to elect a 60-member city council and mayor later this year, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily.

2 Comments

Filed under China-Southeast Asia