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Asia Pacific

Pacific Heat


Common Sense has been tracking the nascent arms race in the Pacific here, here and here, and what it portends for the future. As the Asian economies grow in relative and absolute importance, competition for resources and markets is increasing. Wealth brings the means and incentives to spend on armaments, and the burgeoning middle classes are traditionally the most nationalistic element in societies.

Events continue to develop rapidly. On the 22nd of April, Russian and Chinese naval forces conducted joint exercises that included search and rescue and convoy escort operations[1]. The Russians sent six ships, a Varyag-class guided missile cruiser, two Udaloy-class ASW destroyers and three tender ships. The Chinese dedicated 16 surface ships and two submarines to the task force.

China has very significant naval interests to protect. Beyond the issue of Taiwan and a potential conflict there, the Chinese are keen on claiming the Paracel and Spratly Islands, an enormous archipelago of mostly uninhabited coral reefs and islands in the South China Sea that stretch from Hainan Island to Malaysia. These coral islands are both rich in fish stocks and potentially wealthy in hydrocarbons. The claims are disputed Vietnam and the Philippines, with Malaysia also claiming parts of the archipelago.

Beyond these claims, China’s economic life depends on maritime imports of raw materials and energy, as well as the export of her industrial goods. China knows how immensely vulnerable she is to a naval blockade: the most cursory glance at a map shows China surrounded by lands and islands dominating the sea approaches to the People’s Republic:  South Korean, Japan, Guam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Five of these are key US allies, two are friendly, and even communist Vietnam is rapidly developing relations with the United States.

Russia has no naval interests to speak of except in the Arctic Ocean, and the once powerful Soviet Navy has been sold off, scrapped and allowed to languish during a long period of constrained budgets and political chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet they are now participating in yearly naval exercises with China.

There is an element of wishing to play the Great Power in Russia’s actions, but more of it is the natural alignment of undemocratic powers; nations who are happy to enrich themselves through access to free markets, but which continue to resist the political liberalization that should be the other half of the deal. It is not so much a question of anti-Americanism, though that is undoubtedly an element; rather it is a dislike, mistrust and rejection of the liberal world regime that the United States and her allies have fought for and defended over the last 60 years.

China has not been squeamish in exerting its claims to sovereignty, including significant skirmishes with Vietnam over the disputed islands[2]:

  • In 1974, the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy – yes, it’s a bit strange) fought with Republic of Vietnam over these islands. Substantial forces were involved:  3 frigates, 4 corvettes, two Chinese marine battalions, and two platoons of South Vietnamese forces. The Chinese forces sank one frigate and heavily damaged another, leading to the withdrawal of the South Vietnamese forces. The South Vietnamese claim one Chinese corvette destroyed and another run aground, thought the PLAN disputes this claims. Total casualties were 71 killed and an unknown number of wounded. Significantly, the North Vietnamese did not congratulate their supposed Chinese allies on their victory over the South Vietnamese class enemies;
  • In 1988, PLAN forces again clashed with the Vietnamese Navy, this time in Johnson Reef of the Spratly group. The Vietnamese sent naval forces to the area when they learned that China was constructing a concrete naval observatory post. In a confused battle, similar to the previous skirmish, the PLAN sank three Vietnamese vessels, killing 72 sailors. Vietnam withdrew her forces from the reef, but not from the other disputed islands, and China took no further action after completing the post.

More recently, the Asian arms race has heated up, and the pace of incidents, provocations and misunderstandings has accelerated. All the familiar old elements from the Age of Empire are driving it: economic competition, access to resources and markets, pseudo-colonialism, and national chauvinism. Substitute “China”, “Philippines”, and “Vietnam” for “Germany”, “Great Britain”, and “France” and the headlines could be out of the 1910’s.

  • On 03 March 2011, the Japanese Self-Defense Air Force sent interceptors to shadow Chinese military aircraft over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands[3];


  • Also in March 2011, Chinese patrol boats threatened to ram a survey ship chartered by the government of the Philippines on Reed Bank in the Spratly Islands;


  • On 26 May 2011, a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel cut the exploration cables of a seismic survey ship belonging to the Vietnam Oil and Gas Group. The incident occurred less than 120 miles from the Vietnamese coast;[4]


  • On 01 June 2011, the Philippine government protested the discovery of building materials consistent with military outposts on the Amy Douglas Bank, after fisherman had reported seeing Chinese vessels in the area[5];


  • On 02 June 2011, Chinese marine forces chased off Vietnamese fishermen in the waters of the Spratly archipelago. This incident led to mass demonstrations outside of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi[6];


  • On 18 October 2011, the Philippines patrol boat BRP Rizal accidentally rammed a small Chinese fishing trawler when approaching a larger Chinese fishing fleet to warn them off the disputed Reed Bank. On the 19th, the government of Benigno Aquino issued an official apology  to the Chinese embassy in Manila, though claiming that the patrol boat had acted “properly”[7];


  • On 11 April 2012, a standoff developed between a Philippines Navy frigate and two Chinese maritime surveillance ships at the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines ship had boarded a Chinese fishing boat the day before and discovered illegal corral, giant clams and live sharks – all contraband according to Philippine law. The two Chinese surveillance ships later interposed themselves between the frigate and the Chinese fishing boats, allowing the latter to withdraw without any arrests or seizures[8];

This laundry list of clashes over remote and uninhabited Pacific reefs and atolls might seem exaggerated. The Spratlys extend over thousands of miles of shallow waters and coral reefs, making them not only an incredibly diverse and rich marine ecology, representing potentially 10% of the global catch[9]. The shallow waters and mild conditions also make them easy for oil and gas companies to exploit. Companies that can build and maintain platforms in the inclement North Sea and South Atlantic will have a walk in the park with the South China Sea.

China has refrained, for the moment, from escalating the recent incidents by sending in warships. Enforcement has been through the means of China’s large civilian maritime surveillance fleet, rather than the PLAN. This is noteworthy and laudable in the context of China’s repeated claims to be seeking a peaceful solution to the disputes. At the same time, however, China has refused all offers of international arbitration and third party involvement, especially that of the United States. China prefers bilateral negotiations where it can use its far greater economic and military weight to greatest advantage.[10]

The United States does not have any direct interest in these islands, though it is not in US interests to see China successfully claim the entire EEC represented by the Paracel, Spratly and Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Furthermore, the US has mutual defense agreements with Japan and the Philippines, which we must vigorously defend and support. To the extent that China continues to bully its neighbors, it plays into US hands: while no one wants to risk their economic ties to China, no one wants the US to leave the region – even former antagonists like Vietnam. To the extent that the US can continue to shape and strengthen regional security institutions, and bilateral relations with the ASEAN nations, it should aggressively do so.

In the end, this dispute is a microcosm of China’s rise. How it handles the concerns of smaller, weaker nations on its doorstep will either reassure or frighten other nations further abroad. The US too should approach the issue in the same way – seeking to facilitate Chinese interests in a non-threatening and participatory way that causes no one to lose face and allows all to share in the region’s resources. The deftness of the US will go a long way in determining whether the future world is one of antagonism and militarism, or one of cooperation. It must be the latter.

Sources and Notes

[1] Xinhua, “Russia-China Joint Naval Exercise Starts”, Global Times, 22 April 2012
[2] Lally, Mike, “Spratly Islands Strategic Importance and Rising Sea Levels,” ICE Case Studies, Number 226, December 2010
[3] Zhao, Shelly, “China’s Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea,”       China Briefing, 31 May 2011
[4] Amer, Ramses, “China, Vietnam, and the South China Sea Disputes: Assessing the Implications of the May-June 2011 Incidents,” South China Sea Studies, 19 December 2011
[5] Orendain, Simone, “Philippines seeks answers out latest South China Sea incident,” Voice of America, 01 June 2011
[6] Ibid, 2
[7] Reuters, “Manila apologies to China over South China Sea incident”, Asia One News, 19 October 2011
[8] Gomez, Jim, “Philippine Warship in Standoff with Chinese vessels,”  The Irrawaddy, 11 April 2012
[9] Cronin, Dr. Patrick M., “China’s Global Quest for Resources and Implications for the United States,” Testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 26 January 2012
[10] Ibid, 9

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