South China Sea Time Bomb Threatens To Go Off

Yves here. The latest North Korean rocket launch is now the lead story at the BBC, yet it’s hard to find press coverage of this dust-up in South China Sea.

By David Llewellyn-Smith, founding publisher and former editor-in-chief of The Diplomat magazine, now the Asia Pacific’s leading geo-politics website. Originally published at MacroBusiness

Via News:

Asia has just taken a giant leap towards disaster: The combat jets of four nations have squared off above a disputed island. Vietnam is challenging an aggressive Chinese spy ship. And the Philippines has appealed to the US for protection.

Overnight, a chaotic confrontation unfolded above a tiny island claimed by both South Korea and Japan. Chinese and Russian bombers infringed the territory, with Tokyo and Seoul fighting over the right to defend the airspace. South Korea says it fired more than 300 warning shots at the Russian bombers.

Meanwhile, Hanoi has accused Beijing of violating its sovereignty by sending a survey ship to Vanguard Bank, which sits within Vietnam’s UN-recognised 370km (200 mile) exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Beijing arbitrarily claims the South China Sea — in its entirety — as its own.

…It came shortly after a demand by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte for the protection of the US Navy after a deadly collision in the disputed Spratly Islands.

“I’m calling now America. I am invoking the RP-US pact, and I would like America to gather their Seventh Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now,” he said during an interview.

US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus has called on Beijing to “cease its bullying behaviour and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilising activities”.

…Beijing has ignored US calls for a “hotline” to de-escalate tensions in the region.

…Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed earlier this year that “any armed attack on Philippines forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea” would trigger the treaty with the Philippines.

But Beijing has been making clever use of “grey zone” tactics to avoid a formal confrontation.

Such tactics are designed to generate sufficient uncertainty and “plausible deniability” under international law and rules of engagement to cause opponents to hesitate.

For that reason, Beijing is using its government-controlled fishing fleet and nominally civilian coastguard to aggressively lay claim to territory — and not its officially designated military warships.

We also have China setting out its new uber-aggressive White Paper outlining how everyone else to blame and the US responding with the traditional naval bird, via Bloomie:

An American warship’s sail past Taiwan was the sixth such voyage this year — the most since President Donald Trump took office — as the U.S. ramps up military support for the democratically run island.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam completed a transit through the Taiwan Strait on Thursday, Seventh Fleet spokesman Clay Doss said, adding that it “demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. China, which views such passages as provocative because they reaffirm American support for Taipei, urged Washington to “avoid undermining China-U.S. relations and the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Just another day in Cold War 2.0.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    There are a near constant stream of provocations in the region, with far too many parties involved to be comfortable that no stupid mistakes will be made. As the article says, China is constantly pushing and pressing with deniable assets – they won’t be stupid enough to do anything overtly aggressive with combat aircraft or warships, but they have literally hundreds of ‘assets’ (i.e. semi-civilian ships, etc), to do the job for them.

    We can judge the Vietnamese from their history. They will not back down in the face of aggression, even from much bigger neighbours. They will fight if they have to.

    Duterte is becoming increasingly unpredictable and unhinged. He has tried playing a triangulation game with the Chinese and the US and it hasn’t really worked. He has made a number of deals with China, mostly regarding financial investments, which have proven extremely unpopular with his people, and I think he knows it. His plea to the US shows that he has bitten off more than he can chew and he is no longer in control of the game he started. His big selling point to the Philippines people is his tough guy, can-do image. If he looks weak and confused he is toast, but given how much he has weakened the democratic structures of his country (arguably, they are already destroyed), its hard to judge what he would do rather than lose his grip on power.

    The one thing both Vietnam and the Philippines are desperate for is to boost their submarine capacity – this is one thing China fears. Vietnam is trying to get the latest Kilo class vessels from Russia (they already have half a dozen older ones) with Klub cruise missiles. The Philippines don’t, which makes them helpless without US support. If the Russians supply the Viets with the latest equipment, they have the ability to make life very difficult for China.

    I think its likely that China will keep provoking, but will stop short of anything that would make the war go hot – this isn’t in their interest (yet). However, with Trump and Duterte involved, the chance of something going out of control is pretty high.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Duterte has made the Philippines extremely vulnerable to pressure from both the US and China. He tried to play them off against each other, but this strategy has blown up in his face. Just a few days ago, a Filipina friend ranted to me about how the ‘pines is now dependent on Chinese rice – Duterte opened up domestic markets to foreign rice as an anti-inflation measure back in January, and the predictable result was to undermine local farmers.

      Duterte has been talking about buying Kilo-Class submarines from Russia, but it would take a decade or more to develop the knowhow to run them independently. So until then, his country is essentially a plaything or pawn for Xi and Trump to do as they wish.

      Btw, the ‘pines may not have oil, but they have a lot of fish.

      1. russell1200

        Why Kilo-Class? Are the Russians giving them away? I thought the Russians were having problems getting Air-Independent-Propulsion (AIP) to work for them.

        Seems like the Japanese or Germans would be the better long term bet. I guess the Australians surprised everyone when they went with a French offer recently, but those were super sized boats.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          The Kilo Class are Russia’s main export sub and they are designed for relatively shallow continental waters, not deep ocean operations which makes them perfect for the South China Sea. Russia of course makes very good submarines, and they’d probably be a lot cheaper than the European alternatives. The Vietnamese of course have always opted for Russian weapons for obvious reasons.

          I assume the Philippines are interested as it provides them with a ‘neutral’ supplier of weapons who won’t have an incentive to insert a kill switch or at some future stage embargo parts. The presence of a Kilo sub in those waters around the ‘pines would make even a US fleet commander very worried. The Chinese carrier wouldn’t stand a chance.

          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            I assume the Philippines are interested as it provides them with a ‘neutral’ supplier of weapons who won’t have an incentive to insert a kill switch or at some future stage embargo parts.

            Given the coming or already existing Sino-Russia heartland alliance, can Russia be deemed ‘neutral’ by the Phillipines?

          2. cbu

            The Chinese carrier wouldn’t stand a chance.

            It depends on how good the Chinese SOSUS system is in the South China Sea. China probably has already started to build such a system in the West Pacific, if they haven’t done so.

          3. Bill Smith

            I doubt the Philippines would have the capability to run the Kilos for long or very effectively. Even Iran has issues with theirs and I would say that Iran is a number of steps up the technology ladder above the Philippines.

  2. Seamus Padraig

    Beijing arbitrarily claims the South China Sea — in its entirety — as its own.

    When obviously it all belongs to the Pentagon!

    Seriously though, for the Chinese this all about security. The South China Sea is of supreme strategic importance, since in the event of hostilities with the US, the latter could blockade China’s coastal cities, causing dire shortages of fuel and probably a lot of other natural resources as well. Once the belt-and-road-initiative pipelines are completed, this will all become unimportant. But that could take many years, and so until then, things are going to stay tense in the S. China Sea … and in the Persian Gulf, too.

    1. James O'Keefe

      The Belt and Road initiative will help China deal with a potential US blockade, if only by moving sea ports to neutral Pakistan, Myanmar and Cambodia, but it would still handle a fraction of the traffic that is moved by sea.

      China has a long coastline and it would be hard for the US to blockade China even without China’s military bases in the South China Sea. Those bases don’t help China’s tankers much going through the Malacca Strait or past Japan to arctic waters though.

      Plenty of countries adjacent to the South China Sea don’t appreciate China claiming it as their own, taking their islands and forcing their fishermen to go elsewhere.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Looking back at WWII, when the ROC government relocated to Chongqing, and the Japanese Imperial Amry occupied pretty much all of the coastal provinces of China, the only way was through the hump from India, or later throught Burma Road.

        (Not sure if any went from the USSR to China at that time).

        To rely on only the land routes of the New Silk Road is to be vulnerable to potential disruptions in many places along the way.

  3. b

    “The combat jets of four nations have squared off above a disputed island. ”

    Nonsense. The remarkable thing was a joint Chines and Russian air patrol by long range AWACS and bombers – a first. They crossed through air defense INFORMATION zones (ADIZ) of Japan and South Korea which are not internationally recognized. The Koreans and Japanese showed up just to take a look.

    Dutere’s call for the 7th fleet was sarcastic and in response to people who said he should “do something” against the Chinese. The obvious point was that the Philippines can’t do much and that the U.S. would not be willing to risk a conflict with China over some minor Phillipine interests.

    1. Bill Smith

      The Korean’s didn’t just look when the Russian aircraft entered their territorial airspace

  4. James O'Keefe

    Duterte’s call for the US 7th Fleet to remove Chinese forces from the Philippine islands they occupy wasn’t a serious call for the US to do something, but the opposite:

    “We can never win a war with China,” he said. “There is always America pushing us, egging us … making me the bait. What do you think Filipinos are, earthworms? Now, I say, you bring your planes, your boats to South China Sea. Fire the first shot, and we are just here behind you. Go ahead, let’s fight.”


  5. phiw13

    Hmm, that article is quite hysterical.

    B above notes Duterte’s sarcasm in calling the 7th fleet – if you want fight do it yourself…

    On that Chinese ‘uber-aggressive White Paper‘, here is the opinion from someone who actually knows what he is talking about: M. Taylor Fravel (link to the relevant white paper).

    1. orange cats

      Thank you! I just deleted my comment quoting Fravel after I saw this. The alarmist spin on everything China even here on NC is quite disturbing.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        I think many people in neighboring countries, say, for example, Taiwan find China quite aggressive.

        1. Ian Perkins

          I think many people in China itself, and in nearby countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, remember Western aggression, and remember it as a bitter reality, not a possibility.

          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            That’s correct.

            Everyone has cause to fear any dominant power, and it’s reasonable for many here to be wary of any uber-aggression, potential or existing, from any source.

            1. orange cats

              Yet you seem very focused on China, and not the uber-aggression of the United States. Have you even read the statement by Fravel on the White Paper? Or the White Paper?

              1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

                I also focus on the uber-aggression of the US, other Western nations, and others in general.

                Sorry if I have given the wrong impression. This thread here is about South China Sea, so, perahps, if I am excuse myself, the comments might turn out that I am only focused on China.

                In general, we as a species have many faults, and nations, consisted of humans, are all capable of them, including aggression or uber-aggression.

                On that, us Homo Not-So-Spiens, I am fairly confident that I have been criticai, and perhaps others will confirm my skepticism of human nature.

                1. orange cats

                  This thread here is about South China Sea, so, perahps, if I am excuse myself, the comments might turn out that I am only focused on China.

                  Indeed, the thread is about the South China Sea, where there are many players, including the U.S. which has NO business doing this:

                  According to the Pentagon, “since 2004, Air Force bombers such as the B-1, the B-52 and the B-2 Spirit have been in continuous rotations, providing nonstop stability and security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region . . . They provide a significant rapid global strike capability that enables readiness and commitment to deterrence . . .” It is official policy that the United States sends nuclear-capable bombers to fly round China’s coastline in order to demonstrate its “global strike capability.” (counterpunch)

                  Thus, if China maintained a continuous bomber presence off the coast of the U.S. you would be right to focus on China.

        2. Briny

          I’ve been starting my day wading through Asian news sites before heading to my regular ones (NC, ZH, The Register, &c.) China is definitely making a lot of nations in their part of the world extremely nervous, completely aside from the West. My sense is that are pushing too hard, too fast and I have to wonder why? There’s a factor in their political-economy that I am, and apparently others are, missing here. The calculus is all wrong. But, what?

  6. rc

    This is just another step in the Chinese Communist Party’s all-domain war against the U.S. They want to defeat the U.S. completely.

    Now the CCP are ratcheting up the game and attempting to sow division in those who have shared interests against their aggressive moves in the South China Sea, an area they have continued to militarize despite saying they would not.

    The CCP is at war and everyone else is divided by their tactics. Look at the corporate and financial interests in the U.S. who have willingly deindustrialized the U.S. and built up China. The CCP played the American business executives for fools exploiting their greed and short sighted ways plus lack of any patriotism. They and their politicians are co-opted. When people bring up legitimate issues around security, self-sufficiency, jobs, the environment, and all of the problems caused by the corporate-CCP marriage, the corporations kow-tow to the CCP and do their bidding. American multinationals and Wall Street are acting as foot soldiers for the CCP as they lie to themselves about free trade and global governance.

    Welcome to history.

    1. Ian Perkins

      a) The CCP hasn’t fought a war in forty years, unlike some countries.
      b) As you say, US corporate and financial interests (more or less the US state if you ask me) “have willingly deindustrialized the U.S.” Their “lack of any patriotism” is not the result of any Chinese war. It’s a result of their loyalty to profits.

      1. James O'Keefe

        Thanks Ian.

        Related to point a), periodically some Chinese general/admiral says they think the US couldn’t stomach casualties. I seriously wonder about their (military) leaders’ understanding of the US. We have been continuously at war for nearly eighteen years and have had at least 60,000 casualties, about 37,000 of which were due to our unnecessary war of choice in Iraq.

        I am certain that a war with China would be much worse, but if their leadership is under the impression that attacking US forces (especially if we didn’t throw the first missile) would cause US leaders to cave or the US public not to rally behind a military response, they really should reflect on their assumptions.

        Not that I think the “Pacific pivot” or focus on “peer-state conflict” is wise. Global warming, rising inequality, increasing deaths due to despair, rotting infrastructure, etc. are all more important threats to the US than China (or Russia/Iran/North Korea/…). The combination of such assumptions by Chinese leaders and the US leaderships’ increasing stupidity could lead us down a very dark path.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Another point is that we can’t assume that a country that has not been at war for 40 years would imply anything, for example, that it imply that they will not be at war in the future, or near future, or that they are not preparing for war.

          We have to look at context, perhaps one is an existing superpower, and another is on the way to become one (thus, not having much to defend up to now).

          Perhaps we look military build up, etc.

          1. Ian Perkins

            Perhaps we shouldn’t read anything into the USA’s having been at war for 223 out of 243 years since 1776 (precise numbers debatable).

            1. orange cats

              As long as hawks are driving the Chinese policy bus the narrative will be China as financial and military enemy. People knowledgeable about China will be ignored, Wikipedia will be repeatedly sourced.

              1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

                If it is not accurate, it would be enlightening, for us, to point out what is not accurate in the cited Wikipedia passage, no?

                And it would help the discussion to move forward to point out where the hawkishness occurs.

                I have made 4 ealier comments here in this thread.

                One concerns whether Russia can be deemed neutral.

                One is about how China was supplied during WWII.

                Another one about whether we can predict future war engagement based solely on lack of it during some earlier period.

                The fourth one is about being patient, and what countries are known to practice (by repute, not necessarily factual all the time), and what societies are not.

            2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

              We should look at the US, be criitical if those of us who are Americans, and people of the other nations, care about the US.

              Similarly, we can look at other countries as well.

              As for reasoning, the comment earlier to to point out if China has not been at war for 40 years, it doesn’t imply much, without looking at other factors. And that goes for any country, if we reason that way.

        2. cbu

          In my opinion, the only possible reason for military conflict between China and the U.S. is over the Taiwan problem. How many Americans are willing to fight for Taiwan, while most Taiwanese do not want to fight for themselves, especially if the U.S. has to bring back the draft?

        3. FKorning

          I think the comment was not meant so much in terms of the US having the stomach, but more in terms of numerical demographic capacity to win an all out war of attrition.

      2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Patience is a virtue (if not particularly popular in Occidental).

        From a well-known episode in Chinese history, this one from the Spring and Autumn Period (per Wikipedia):

        After ten years of economic and political reforms, the last phase of the war began, by which time the State of Yue had come a long way from its previous defeat; as described in the Shiji, Ten years of reforms; the state is rich, the warriors well-rewarded. The soldiers charge in the face of arrows like thirsty men heading for drink… (修之十年,國富,厚賂戰士,士赴矢石,如渴得飲)[1]

        Ten years. Fifty years, or more.

        A century is not too lengthy to wait to regain China’s dignity after the humiliations of the 19th century.

        Vladivostok is still waitng to be returned to China, as is Mongolia*.

        So, forty years in preparation for war is not that long, looking at Chinese history.

        *From ‘Political Status of Taiwan,” Wikipedia:

        Currently, Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, and some other minor islands effectively make up the jurisdiction of the state with the official name of the Republic of China (ROC) but commonly known as “Taiwan”. The ROC, which took control of Taiwan (including Penghu and other nearby islands) in 1945, ruled mainland China and claimed sovereignty over Outer Mongolia (now Mongolia) and Tannu Uriankhai (part of which is present day Tuva, Russia) before losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communist Party of China (CPC)

        1. Oregoncharles

          IOW, China’s imperial ambitions remain unsatisfied.

          Coming to this late, but (and maybe counter-intuitive): nukes are one reason for the US to be challenging Chinese claims in the Philippine Sea. That is, both sides are restrained by the possibility of nuclear war – good old “Mutual Assured Destruction.” (Not so good, really, but it did work last time.)

        2. RBHoughton

          They were able to take Taiwan because Chiang Kai Shek sailed his defeated army over the straits with his plunder of banks and museums. He was able to exterminate all government officials and replace them with soldiers. They instituted a thirty year curfew and army law whilst awaiting the appearance of a new generation conditioned to love and honour them. That’s where we are now.

          1. FKorning

            This narrative is a complete inversion. Sure the Kuo Ming Tang were no angels and the jingoistic type of nationalist state it created is a bit much by western standards, but it’s pretty much the standard progressive model if one looks at singapore, south korea, japan. You make it sound like the legitimate chinese republic invaded Taiwan and massacred the locals, whilst ignoring or whitewashing the record of the outright invasions of nearby coutries, the sponsored maoist insurrections to destabilise other neighbours, the real genocidal population purges and forced displacement and reeducation. Kuo Ming Tang sabre rattling is nothing compared to the evils inflicted on the world by the PRC.

  7. Joe Well

    If only we could channel Barbara Tuchman. I’m getting a definite Guns of August vibe.

    1. Briny

      You aren’t the only one and considering that that part of the world and the ME were where I could get killed, I payed attention to the dynamics. So much so I’d be called on to give an intelligence estimate despite being a technician and engineer. There has to be a dynamic here that isn’t publicly known that is going on within the PRC.

  8. RBHoughton

    Beijing’s ‘government controlled fishing fleet’ might mean “government licensed fishing fleet.” I expect many countries license their fishermen in respect of places to fish and the size of nets and catch, Is that strange? For the South China Sea Chinese licenses are issued at Hai Nan Island and always have been.

    We might recall that it is Chinese fishermen who have been going to the shoals every year for at least three centuries to fish and the only other country to do so was Cochin China, now part of Vietnam, whilst it was a Chinese tributary. It would appear to be the commercial interests of the fishermen that China was initially protecting.

    1. FKorning

      Nobody in China is purely civilian. The state conditions the population to drink the coolaid early, and any cvilian enterprise is subject to the nudges, prods, and batons of party control.

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