Tag Archives: South China Sea

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.

3 Comments

Filed under China-Southeast Asia

CNOOC Looking For Partners To Drill For Oil In The South China Sea

China’s recently abandoned tactic of asserting its territorial claims to the South China Sea through fishing rather than minerals extraction is well and truly dead. State-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) started drilling in the disputed waters in May. Now it is inviting bids from foreign oil companies for the joint exploration and development of nine blocks off the coast of Vietnam that would appear to lie south of the Paracel Islands and cover 160,000 square kilometers where Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea and the 200 mile zone claimed by Hanoi under the UN Law of the Sea overlap. Clash might be a more appropriate word. The diplomatic protests from Vietnam have already started. State-owned PetroVietnam also says CNOOC’s tender blocks overlap its own. This map from CNOOC shows the locations.

Footnote: CNOOC has invited such tenders in the South China Sea before but only in waters incontrovertibly Chinese.

1 Comment

Filed under China-Southeast Asia, Energy

Beijing Creates A City In The South China Sea

Photo taken on May 5, 2012 shows the sunset scenery on the Yongxing Island, south China's Hainan Province. The Chinese government has raised the administrative status of Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands in the South China Sea from county-level to prefectural-level, according to a Thursday statement. The State Council, or China's cabinet, has approved the establishment of the prefectural-level city of Sansha to administer the three island groups and their surrounding waters, while the government seat will be stationed on Yongxing Island, part of the Xisha Islands, according to a statement from the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The council has abolished the county-level Administration Office for Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands, which was also stationed on Yongxing Island, the statement said. (Xinhua/Hou Jiansen)Start re-labeling your South China Sea maps. In the latest ratcheting up of diplomatic pressure on territorial claims to the mineral rich waters, Beijing has raised the municipal status of its local government that administers the disputed area. A new prefectural level city, Sansha, replaces the existing county-level administration office for the Pratas, Paracel and Spratly Islands–the Dongsha, Xisha and Nanshas to China. Sansha, which will be part of Hainan province, will be based on Woody, or Yongxing Island (shown at sunset earlier this year in the photo), one of the Paracel (Xisha) Islands, as was the existing county-level administration.

Vietnam also lays claim to the Paracels and Spratlys. Hanoi formally incorporated them into the country by law earlier this week, a move that prompted formal protests from China, including summoning Hanoi’s ambassador in Beijing. Taiwan like China claims sovereignty over all three, while the Spratlys are also claimed by the Philippines, which is involved in a maritime standoff with Beijing off the Scarborough Shoal. Temporarily ended by bad weather, that looks set to be resuming.

4 Comments

Filed under China-Southeast Asia

Scarborough Shoal Dispute Flares Up Again

Landsat 7 image of Scarborough Shoal in South China Sea dated 23 February 2000The 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.

2 Comments

Filed under China-Southeast Asia

The Shipping News

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under China-Japan, China-Koreas, China-Southeast Asia

That Sinking Feeling

Crew members of deep-water drilling rig CNOOC 981 gather to watch a drill bit go down to explore in the South China Sea, south China, May 9, 2012. (Xinhua/Jin Liangkuai)

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.

5 Comments

Filed under China-Southeast Asia, Energy

Beijing Eases Tensions in South China Sea Stand-off

China's view of the South China Sea.

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.

3 Comments

Filed under China-Southeast Asia