Troubles brewing in the seas off China

By Eric Watkins

LOS ANGELES, May 4 – Hardly a day goes by than we hear about more troubles in the seas of East Asia, with one country after another descrying aggressive actions on the part of China, which appears to claim much of region’s waters as its own.

Now we hear that China has dispatched at least 14 vessels of various stripes to the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, while two of its fisheries patrol boats have begun regular missions to disputed islands off Japan.

It’s all about testing the waters in the region, with China largely letting other smaller nations understand that it will not tolerate their growing assertiveness – even if that assertiveness is backed by the United States.

“All those small Asian countries are going to challenge China’s territorial sovereignty just because they have the support of some countries,” Professor Wang Hanling told the South China Morning Post.

CHINA ‘FORCED’ TO ACT

An expert in maritime affairs and international law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Hanling was indirectly referring to US involvement in maritime disputes between China and its Asian neighbors.

“China was forced to make a strong reaction as Japan, the Philippines and other Asian countries have been very aggressive in dragging the US into the territorial disputes,” Hanling said, adding that, “We have to fight back now.”

Meanwhile, in an effort to keep rising tensions to a minimum, Taiwan has ruled out redeploying short-range surface-to-air Chaparral and Stinger missiles to defend its sovereignty on some of the islands it controls in the South China Sea.

“Redeploying short-range anti-air missiles in Pratas and Taiping islet could ignite political dispute,” said Taiwan’s Deputy Defense Minister Chao Shih-chang, referring to the largest of the hotly contested Spratly Islands.

Still, some Taiwanese politicians believe the country should do more to protect its interests in what are commonly believed to be the oil- and gas-rich Spratly Islands.

‘NOT ENOUGH EQUIPMENT’

“We don’t have enough equipment there,” said Lin Yu-fang, a legislator of the ruling Kuomintang party and chairman of the legislature’s defense committee. In Lin’s view, a large harbor should be built to improve accessibility to Taiping, with the defense ministry allocating up to $20 million for the project.

For the moment, though, Taiwan’s defense ministry will look to equip Taiping with older high-powered cannons – 40mm self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and 120mm mortar systems – in order to maintain defense, along with an airborne unit capable of rapid response and providing maritime support.

In the Philippines, though, military leaders accused China of sending more ships to the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, calling the move an “insult” that would increase tension in the region.

“They are just worsening the insult, bringing in all these fishing boats and all we can do is resort to diplomacy,” said Major Loel Egos, responsible for the Philippines’ military in the northern region.

SURVEILLANCE SHIPS

Egos referred to four Chinese surveillance ships and 10 fishing boats anchored off the disputed Scarborough Shoal, with the fishermen taking giant clams and corals in defiance of Philippine law.

“They really want to test what a little country like the Philippines can do against a giant,” said Egos, mindful of the fact that his country earlier withdrew its one main warship when confronted by two Chinese military vessels.

The Philippines says that under international law, Scarborough Shoal is within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. But that has had no effect on China, which claims the entire South China Sea as its territory.

Meanwhile, not wishing to stir its giant neighbor to anger or retaliation, the Philippines government will bide its time and merely document China’s actions in the region for future reference.

“We do not wish to escalate any tensions right now,” said Edwin Lacierda, spokesman for Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino. “Therefore, what we’re doing for now is to just to document the situation and consequently, raise it before the [international] tribunals.”

RESTRAINT NEEDED

Writing in Singapore Today, Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, recently urged all parties on the region and beyond to show restraint in the face of allegations about China’s aggressiveness.

“While [China’s] media commentators have been hawkish, government officials like Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai emphasize dialogue and diplomacy,” Tay said, noting that, “Privately, officials admit that a historical map they released with dotted lines all across the South China Sea does not mean they claim it all.”

That could well be. But China’s military actions suggest otherwise. Those actions also suggest that without US military backing, the smaller countries of the region would quickly find themselves out of the running when it comes to the exploration and development of offshore oil and gas reserves.

© Glamma Productions Inc 2012

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About Eric Watkins

Eric Watkins is a consultant specializing in oil diplomacy. A former journalist, Mr. Watkins's work has appeared in numerous leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Financial Times, and specialist media such as Oil & Gas Journal, Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), and Lloyd's List.
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