More US and China Jousting Over South China Sea

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By Tim Daiss, an oil markets analyst, journalist and author working out of the Asia-Pacific region for 12 years. He has covered oil, energy markets and geopolitics for Forbes, Platts, Interfax, NewsBase, Rigzone, and the UK-based Independent (newspaper) as well as providing energy markets analysis for subscription newsletters. He has also authored geopolitical reports and analysis for Singapore-based consultancy Enerdata. Originally published at OilPrice

It should come as no surprise that U.S. officials took China to task last weekend over its seemingly never-ending South China Sea build up.

Saturday at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a much covered and annual international security forum in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis pulled no punches, stating that Beijing’s moves in the disputed body of water was intended to intimidate its neighbors.

The former Marine Corps four-star general, who served as the Commander of U.S. Central Command during the Obama Administration, said that the U.S. is willing to work with China on a “results-oriented” relationship, but Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea call into question its intent and the Pentagon will “compete vigorously” if needed.

“Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater,” Mattis said. “We are aware China will face an array of challenges and opportunities in coming years, we are prepared to support China’s choices if they promote long-term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region,” he added. “Yet China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes. It calls into question China’s broader goals.”

Mattis’ remarks drew a stern rebuke from Chinese Lieutenant-General He Lei, deputy head of the Academy of Military Sciences of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and leader of the Chinese delegation at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue.

“It is those that are shouting about ‘the militarization of the South China Sea’ who are militarizing the South China Sea,” the general said in a press conference later the same day. He also defended China’s actions as necessary on its own islands and reefs in the South China Sea in accordance with international law.

“Certain countries, under the guise of so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ and ‘freedom of aviation,’ have sent military vessels and aircraft to the waters and airspace near China’s territory, even sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese waters. This has jeopardized China’s security and challenged China’s sovereignty,” the general said. He added that freedom of navigation activities “are the true root of the militarization of the South China Sea.”

He Lei also reiterated that various islands in the South China Sea and their related waters are Chinese sacred territories acknowledged by history and international laws. According to some reports, the general even suggested that Shangri-La delegates visit Spratly island facilities to confirm their civilian nature for themselves instead of believing “rumors” about their militarization.

The war of words between the Washington and Beijing come just weeks after China installed long-range anti-ship cruise and anti-aircraft missileson the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. In 2015, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to not militarize islands in this body of water.

Tensions between the U.S. and China over the South China also comes just two weeks after fledgling U.S.-ally Vietnam had been coerced by Beijing to stop drilling for oil and gas within Vietnam’s own UN-mandated 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It marked the second time in less than a year that Vietnam had to suspend a major oil development in the South China Sea due to overt pressure from Beijing.

After Beijing’s recent victory over its smaller Southeast Asian neighbor and crucial trading partner, Chinese officials said that no other country would be able to drill within China’s own territorial waters.

The problem with that assertion is that Beijing agreed to and later signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the international agreement that resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), which took place between 1973 and 1982. This agreement insures a country’s right to develop resources within its own 200-nautical mile (370 kilometers; 230 miles) EZZ, extending from its own baseline.

Now, however, under the guide of historical ownership Beijing claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia all have competing claims with China in the body of water. Of these rival claimants, Vietnam has been the most vocal and also one of the hardest hit.

The root of China’s South China Sea push, which has arguably been a PR disaster for Beijing not only with its smaller Asian neighbors, wiping out decades of attempts by Beijing to build trust in the region, but on the world stage as well, is not only about Chinese hegemony in the region, but control of South China Sea shipping lanes and oil and gas resources underneath its seabed.

Moreover, trade estimated at nearly $4 trillion per year pass through the South China Sea, including crucial oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies to rival Japan, on-and-off-again friend South Korea and also Taiwan, which China, under Xi Jinping, has increased military operations in the Taiwan Strait as it seeks to intimate and drive a wedge between Washington and Taipei.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that roughly 80 percent of global trade by volume and around 70 percent by value is transported by sea. Of that volume, some 60 percent of maritime trade passes through Asia, with the South China Sea carrying an estimated one-third of total global shipping.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    I do not think that this is just about oil trade or international treaties or claims on the South China Seas but a matter of national defense for the Chinese. Whether they believe their territorial claims is irrelevant but what is not is the fact that China has now established itself on islands that give it strategic depth and cover vital trade routes. It forces western nations to reconfigure their defensive postures and in particular the US Navy which is working as can be seen in the change of name to the Indo-Pacific Command in this theater
    For generations there has been a containment policy on China with the Chinese coastline being boxed in by South Korea and Japan to the north, Taiwan in the center and the Philippines to the south. In recent years the US has been recruiting Vietnam as an ally against China to be the anchor point to the south. This model has now been broken. The US may be able to move its carriers around this region but apart from the fact that they are terribly vulnerable to the newer generation anti-ship missiles, an island is able to contain more weaponry and defensive gear giving it an advantage and these islands now outflank several nations.
    The U.S. may be willing to work with China on a “results-oriented” relationship but it would amount to a Chinese retreat which will not happen. The Chinese are now building a blue-water navy and I think that we will see much more of their ships in the coming years, not only in the Pacific but around the world. Of course this is all personal opinion and I reserve the right to be as wrong as the next person but I do believe that there is a valid case to be made for the above.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yeah, there are complex issues at work, but fundamentally there is a conflict between a superpower (the US) believing it must ‘box in’ potential challengers, and regional powers seeking strategic depth. The Chinese may well have long term aspirations for a Blue Water Navy, although its difficult to see how they can possibly challenge the US for this, even in the next half century. More likely, IMO, they are developing the capacity for long range military action to defend their far-flung interests. In other words, if some African or South American country gets the idea of seizing Chinese assets and holding Chinese citizens as hostages, it wants the military ability to strike at them – this means aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships.

      If you contrast the situation to the 19th and 20th Centuries, there were five great naval powers, but they were well balanced enough that they agreed to treaties limiting their navy sizes (this helped stop them bankrupting themselves by battleship). It was in everyones strategic interest for them to have these gentleman agreements to carve the world up between them. This worked, up to the point where new powers like Japan decided they wanted to join the party.

      So the lesson I think is that when you have relatively balanced powers, you can have sensible agreements to limit militarism. The problem comes when there is an imbalance and the main parties are unable to accept the others strategic needs or desires (this of course resulted in the mid-20th C Pacific wars). I think its inevitable that the sheer speed of China’s military growth would cause conflicts, not just because of US policy, but because of the legitimate fears and concerns of all its Pacific neighbours. Even if the US were to withdraw its bases tomorrow, it wouldn’t bring a resolution there, as the Japanese, South Koreans, Vietnamese, etc., would feel they would have to respond.

      The huge danger here I think is that unlike in the 19th Century, there is little evidence that the great powers are talking to each other as equals. I don’t think the US has gotten its head around what China wants and needs, let alone acknowledging it, and I would suspect the Chinese don’t really understand US policy either (such as it exists, i strongly doubt the US has a real coherent strategy apart from ‘lets control everything’). 19th Century imperialists were far more pragmatic than the modern variety.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, PK.

        Further to your point about African and South American countries seizing Chinese assets or citizens. I can’t comment about South America, but the local grumbling about Chinese activity in Africa is overstated in the western MSM.

        With regard to the great powers not talking, I wonder if that is partly due to emerging powers from Asia and the professionalisation of politics. In the run-up to the world wars, many British politicians had studied in France and Germany. Few politicians or aspiring ones now know or desire to know what goes on overseas.

        When working at City trade associations, we had colleagues from overseas. All has masters in international relations from LSE. One soon got the impression that this qualification was for sale and a bucket list item for people aspiring to make a career in politics and / or serve the 1%. International affairs were of no interest, especially if outside the core EU27. They had little curiosity.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Thats an intersting observation, CS, thanks of that. Of course, in the 19th Century international relations could be easier as so many of the rulers were… well, actual relations. I do get the impression that in those days the upper crust of the major powers saw themselves as all equally good chaps who could agree to carve up some bit of Africa over a damn fine meal with some brandy afterwards. And it possibly helped that the people building the battleships were seen as nouveau riches, who were kept an arms length away from real decision making.

          I’ve mentioned in the past, but when I’ve been inclined to read the various journals read by ‘serious’ foreign policy types, I’ve been struck by the intellectual shallowness of many of the assumptions. There are exceptions of course, but certainly in the English speaking world, it seems to be a world of back scratching and hobbyists, which would account for at least some of the rampant incompetence we’ve seen, at least by some of the Western powers. To an extent this I think is complacency brought about by too long a stretch of domination. Weaker powers don’t have the luxury of having the sons and daughters of second raters taking up crucial positions of influence in a countries affairs.

          1. Colonel Smithers

            Thank you and well said, PK.

            In July 1914, the PM and Foreign Secretary prevailed upon a reluctant to King George V to call his cousin, Kaiser Bill, to clarify something.

            In one of the Agatha Christie novels, a character comments about a family being “Victorian millionaires, not one of our old families”.

            In late 19th century Buckinghamshire, the Rothschilds bought much land from the Churchills as that family was going bust. The Rothschilds got the seat, Aylesbury, in the Commons that went with the estates for a generation, standing as Liberals.

            The distinction remains to this day as the current owner of Cliveden, an Israel Firster from NYC, was moaning in the press recently about the previous owners (Astors and Sutherland-Leveson-Gowers).

      2. RBHoughton

        You paraphrase the Athenians talking with the Milesians – “Justice becomes important in international relations only when both sides are evenly matched. At other times, the strong take what they want and the weak concede what they must.”

    2. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Kev. I agree.

      Just to bring Brexit into this picture.

      There are rumours in London and Mauritius that, in return for an FTA, the US may ask for the cession or leases in perpetuity of British territories like the Chagos archipelago, which includes Diego Garcia, and perhaps Ascension island, plus greater use of facilities in (the) Cyprus (sovereign base areas) and the Falklands. Apparently, Brexit means taking back control / reasserting sovereignty.

      A change in the status of the Chagos under the Tories makes it harder for, say, a Corbyn government to allow the islanders back on some islands, but not Diego Garcia, and Mauritius to recover that territory.

      China and India are deploying more vessels in the Indian Ocean. India has expressed interest in acquiring bases in Agalega (part of Mauritius) or the Seychelles. France, operating from Reunion and Mayotte, and the US are upping the ante, too. Blighty, not so much as there’s not much money to keep the rust buckets going.

      The star and key of the Indian Ocean (Mauritius) has been fought for since the 16th century. My French ancestors fought against the British invaders in August and December 1810.

      1. The Rev Kev

        I was in Mauritius a long time ago and saw what the island was like and yes, it is a gem. I just hope that they do not let themselves be turned into a military base for China or the US or any other country. You do that for a place like Mauritius and you never really get those lands back again and any foreign power in there will always want to control the government to ensure that they are never kicked out. Always a bad bargain for a tiny country.

  2. tc10021

    Chinese navy/airforce updates may create some discomfort to Allied power but the real Chinese threat is to Russia. Tough to move a million man army across the Pacific to the US very easy to move it up and into Russia.

    Also, consider how much oil transits up along the coast and is subject to Allied interdiction. Without continuous oil supply, Chinese aggression grinds to a halt.

    Just more fear mongering from the status quo about big bad evil China fighting with the US.

  3. L

    The root of China’s South China Sea push, which has arguably been a PR disaster for Beijing not only with its smaller Asian neighbors, wiping out decades of attempts by Beijing to build trust in the region, but on the world stage as well, is not only about Chinese hegemony in the region, but control of South China Sea shipping lanes and oil and gas resources underneath its seabed.

    While I agree with much of this analysis, I have said it before and I will say it again: fish.

    Yes China has growing energy needs but where they have been the most direct both in their advancing consumption and in protecting their claims is in fish. Chinese fisherman, using often illegal methods, have moved further and further into disputed waters and local fisherman such as those from Vietnam and the Philippines have been shut out. That has caused much of the initial friction between the countries and has been the focus of heated debates. Duterte, for example, has sought to promise “co-development” of resources but has yet to secure “fishing rights” which is creating broad social impacts for the Philippines.

    China, like the USSR is food insecure with the bulk of their population concentrated in the industrialized east. They need food and years of mismanagement has taken its toll. That is why Chinese trawlers now operate in places like Guinea and Argentina (in the latter case the ship was sunk) and it is a major issue in all their international relations.

  4. Scott1

    I like that notice L. Watched the Bloomberg youtube video “China may not be as strong as you think” Much of a “don’t worry about it” adviso.
    According to Grotius you are more likely to go to war with those you do business with, than those you don’t.
    Modern America demands the right to do business with everybody and so goes to war with everybody.
    America conducts experiments in Government, willing to alter the quality of life for vast populations just to keep power over these countries while proving Chile when privatized becomes despotic and miserable.
    All of it amounts to War and War by Other Means, and a consistent political pressure.
    China builds on the reefs making them unsinkable aircraft carriers. Food is more important than oil.
    Solar is king since you don’t need to make solar panels and run wires to grow food.
    Consistency is not what the United States is currently known for. The consistency that is just a fact of America and not a fact for Russia or China is that the US does not have a physical threat of starvation.
    Food is the number one ingredient of peace.
    Ingredient or factor?
    The Food Force Fact would imply the US could sit back and sell and provide food to those with food insecurity reducing the need of militarized foreign policy.
    I do not see the UN as it exists capable of enforcing treaties and commitments signed in the ’70s that correctly identified needed international agreements and laws we now have in our faces.
    The nuclear bomb was banned earlier this year.
    Fast now, there is the need of an independent UN with armed forces and food forces under a command structure that overcomes the ability of self interested Veto power nations to ensure war crimes continue till they win what they want.
    Thanks to L, RevKev, PK, C. Smithers, Tim Gass

  5. marku52

    I suspect this will end in war, with the US losing. Generals are conservative, and loath to concede that their prized tool is now obsolete. Every military tactic or tool eventually is overcome by a new one.

    Calvary was made obsolete by the machine gun in WWI
    Battleships, strategic in WWI, were nothing but largely useless fuel eaters in WWII, and could only be employed with air cover.

    Now the US bases its entire force projection on aircraft carriers, despite the fact that they have been repeated sunk in war games. Mines and ultra quiet subs have done them in repeatedly. And that’s even before we take into account swarms of hyperfast cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.

    “We need to get used to a very simple reality: the decades-old age of the aircraft carrier, that great symbol of U.S. power projection, has now passed. We can deny the evidence that is right before our eyes, but innovations in anti-ship missiles over many decades—combined with advanced but short-range carrier-based U.S. fighter aircraft and missile defenses that can be easily defeated—have conspired to doom one of the most powerful weapons ever devised.

    Any battle with china over these islands would quickly end with the carriers either disabled or sunk.

    Their weapons are obsolete but the admirals and the MIC that is handsomely compensated to serve them are loath to admit it. It will take a disaster to drive that point home, as military history shows time and again.

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