Military tensions rise in the Asian Game of Zones


As the Obama administration’s “Asian pivot” accelerates in the waning months of his administration, tensions are continuing to rise, with military confrontations involving the U.S. , China, Japan, and the Philippines accelerating.

First up, a warning from Beijing, via Reuters:

China’s foreign minister spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by telephone on Wednesday ahead of a key international court ruling on China’s South China Sea claims and warned Washington against moves that infringe on China’s sovereignty, Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

Xinhua said Wang Yi repeated China’s rejection of the jurisdiction of the International Court of Arbitration in a case the Philippines has brought against China’s claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, calling it a “farce” that should come to an end.

The court, based in The Hague, is due to give its ruling on Tuesday, raising fears of confrontation in the region. U.S. officials say the U.S. response should China stick to its vow to ignore the ruling could include stepped up freedom-of-navigation patrols close to Chinese claimed islands in what is one of the world’s business trade routes.

In the call initiated by Kerry, Wang “urged the United States to honor its commitment to not to take sides on issues related to sovereign disputes, to be prudent with its actions and words, and not to take any actions that infringe upon the sovereignty and security interests of China,” Xinhua said.

U.S. ships test the limits

An American military response to the tensions is covered by the Navy Times:

U.S. Navy destroyers have been quietly stalking some of China’s man-made islands and claims in recent weeks ahead of a ruling on contested claims in the South China Sea.

Over the past two weeks, the destroyers Stethem, Spruance and Momsen have all patrolled near Chinese-claimed features at Scarborough Shoal and in the Spratly Islands, according to two defense officials.

“We have been regularly patrolling within the 14 to 20 nautical mile range of these features,” one official said, who asked for anonymity to discuss diplomatically-sensitive operations.

The distance is important because if the ships patrolled within 12 miles, the Navy would handle it as a freedom of navigation operation that asserts U.S. rights to freely operate in waters claimed by other countries.

Those FONOPS patrols must be approved at very high levels, but these close patrols outside of 12 miles are in international waters. Experts say the tactic serves as a message of resolve to the Chinese and U.S. allies in the region and is a deliberate show of force ahead of a major international ruling on the legality of some of China’s claims; Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea, setting up conflicts with its neighbors and the U.S.

China’s navy holds its own maneuvers

But China is holding its own exercises in the region, reports China Daily:

China said its naval drill in the South China Sea is within its sovereign rights, and it urged the Philippines to come back to the negotiating table to solve its maritime disputes with China regardless of an arbitrary tribunal’s ruling.

“The drill is a routine exercise the Chinese Navy carries out according to the annual plan. It is within China’s sovereign rights and is not targeting any specific countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Wednesday.

Hong made the remarks after Vietnam claimed the drill was violating Vietnamese sovereignty.

The Ministry of National Defense confirmed on Tuesday that China would hold a drill in the area between Hainan Island and the Xisha Islands in the first 10 days of July and that military equipment including multiple ships and fixed-wing aircraft would participate.

The Defense Ministry said the drill “aims at improving the military’s ability to respond to security threats and implement missions”.

“The Xisha Islands are China’s inherent territory. There is no dispute of this,” Hong reiterated on Wednesday. He asked the parties concerned to “objectively view” the drill.

More from Hawaii Public Radio:

China claims that a vast swath of water to its south and east has been Chinese since the Ming Dynasty and sent fishing fleets escorted by huge Coast Guard ships to slowly reclaim what it sees as its own territory.  This case dates to 2012, when they used water cannon to hose Philippine fishermen off their decks and seized Scarborough Shoal, almost due west of Manila.

China’s legal claim is based on a map produced by Nationalist China in 1947, which shows a nine-dash line extending south and east.  Due to its shape, it’s sometimes called the cow’s tongue.  In 2013, the Philippines filed suit with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  While it’s a member of that treaty, China argues it does not apply in this case, refused to participate in the proceedings and declared it will not comply with any judgement.

Last week, Paul Reichler, an American lawyer who served as lead counsel for the Philippines told the Associated Press that while this ruling would only apply to China and the Philippines, “If the nine dash line is unlawful as applied by China against the Philippines, then logically, it is equally unlawful as applied by China against other states.” The US has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines and sent warships into the disputed area in recent months to assert its claim, that the South China Sea is International waters, open to all.

After the jump, Taipei keeps watch, aerial confrontations between China and Japan, North Korean concerns continue, and a bright spot. . .

Taipei keeps a close watch

The response to recent developments from Taiwan, via the China Post:

The Taiwan military has prepared contingency measures ahead of an upcoming ruling by an international court on a dispute between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea, Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan said on Thursday.

Fielding questions during a Legislature committee session, Feng said the Ministry of National Defense (MND) has been carefully monitoring the regional situation near the South China Sea ahead of the July 12 ruling.

It is also closely watching the movements of nearby countries before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issues a ruling on the dispute between China and the Philippines.

The Taiwan military also has full grasp on mainland China’s ongoing military exercises in an area around the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea ahead of the ruling, Feng added.

Japan/China aerial confrontations continue

And from United Press International, rising tensions in the air:

Japan was forced to scramble their Air Self-Defense Force jets a record 199 times between April and June when Chinese airplanes neared Japanese airspace, the SDF’s Joint Staff said Tuesday.

The alarming number was a rise of one incident from the previous three month period of this year, but jumped by 85 from 2015. Most of the aircraft — including Chinese military planes — appeared over the East China Sea, according to the Joint Staff.

“The area where Chinese planes are active is continuing to expand, particularly southward,” an official at the Joint Staff said. The area south is the Senkakus, claimed by China.

ASDF fighters scrambled a total of 281 times in the three-month period, including 78 times against Russian planes. However, in that time, no Chinese or Russian aircraft actually violated Japanese airspace.

The North Korea question continues

And, of course, there’s always the wild card in the game.

From the Yomiuiri Shimbun:

Senior diplomats of Japan, the United States and South Korea are set to hold a meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, on July 14, the U.S. Department of State said Wednesday.

Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam are expected to discuss issues related to North Korea.

And a possible easing of Beijing/Manila tensions

Finally, one potential bright spot in the region, as the new Philippine president and strong man makes overtures towards Beijing, via China Radio International:

Analysts in China are suggesting that ties with the Philippines may improve if President Rodrigo Duterte keeps his promise to talk with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, the country’s military and foreign affair experts say China has nothing to fear when it comes to its national sovereignty.

Tuesday’s comments were the first since Rodrigo Duterte became Philippines president, confirming he was open to talks with China.

During the speech before his country’s Air Force, he said he wanted friendly relations with China and that he was against any armed conflict.

Li Kaisheng with Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences suggests the speech shows a significant difference in attitude over the issue between the new and former Philippine governments.

“President Duterte holds a totally different attitude over the arbitration from his predecessor. Benigno S. Aquino III wanted to use the case to heighten the stakes of the situation in the region, while Duterte expects talks with Beijing, though it will only take place after the ruling and will be based on the verdict.”

One response to “Military tensions rise in the Asian Game of Zones

  1. “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World
    War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

    –Albert Einstein

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