Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Big News of the Week Is No Big News

Zack Bluestone
Friday, October 23, 2015, 11:27 AM

Aerial photo of Chinese land reclamation in the Spratly Islands (Photo: AP)

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Aerial photo of Chinese land reclamation in the Spratly Islands (Photo: AP)

Water Wars readers will have noticed that two widely-anticipated events—U.S. freedom of navigation (FON) patrols in the Spratlys and the Arbitral Panel’s jurisdictional ruling in the Philippines v. PRC case—have reportedly been less than a week away for a few weeks now. Yet another week has passed without any big news on either topic.

Regarding the rumored freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPS), it is worth noting that there has been a downtick in harsh rhetoric between U.S. and Chinese officials since the rapid-fire exchange last week. The Diplomat’s Jeff Smith summarizes the recent war of words and the broader “risky game of chicken” the two countries have been playing. For a Chinese view on FONOPS, the official Xinhua published an editorial excoriating this “provocative move” that “risks destabilizing the region.” Coming from the opposite perspective, The Navy Times offers a good overview of various aspects of FON patrols and also reveals that, if the conducted at all, the operations will likely be carried out by a destroyer, the USS Lassen (rather than the USS Fort Worth, a littoral combat ship). Lastly, David Ignatius’s op-ed in The Washington Post discusses the receptiveness of several Asian Pacific nations to U.S. FONOPS.

Unlike FON patrols, the Philippines v. PRC case has received almost no attention since last Friday. The only news to speak of is a recent article in Bloomberg tying a cyber-attack against the Permanent Court of Arbitration back in July to an alleged campaign of Chinese cyber espionage aimed at advancing PRC interests in the South China Sea.

Stay tuned next week for an update on these critical topics.

In other news…

United States

Underscoring a policy shift described by the Nikkei Asian Review as a “clear message to China” on the SCS, Vice Admiral Nora Tyson indicated that the Third Fleet could be deployed as “a force multiplier” in the western Pacific, supplementing the Japan-based Seventh Fleet if necessary. The Third Fleet, which she commands, is based in San Diego and bears responsibility for the eastern Pacific—an area extending from the international date line east to the U.S. West Coast. However, as Admiral Tyson explained, Pacific Fleet Commander Scott Swift “would like to blur the international date line and ensure that the Third Fleet and Seventh Fleet can work seamlessly together.” Admiral Swift’s decision to send Admiral Tyson to the Tokyo Fleet Review (see below) served as further confirmation of this policy shift. As CNO John Richardson explained in Tokyo on Thursday, “Admiral Tyson’s presence here is just a recognition that we are trying to be as flexible as possible to keep as many options on the table as possible so that we can be as responsive as possible” in the Asian Pacific.

Reuters reports that a delegation of U.S. naval officers visited the Liaoning—China’s only aircraft carrier—this week as part of a reciprocal visit after PLA naval officers spent a week in the United States earlier this year. The 27-member delegation also toured the PRC’s submarine school and discussed issues like “personnel training and management, medical support, and aircraft development strategy.”


Late last week, China attempted to bolster its reputation with neighboring countries during two regional conferences hosted in Beijing, according to The Washington Post. On Friday, the defense ministers of ASEAN held an informal summit. In a surprise move, PRC Defense Minister Chang Wanquan offered to hold joint naval drills with ASEAN members—a symbolic olive branch that the South China Morning Post interpreted as a play to persuade the region not to support Washington’s planned FON patrols. The paper also predicted that ASEAN states will respond differently to the joint-exercise proposal, with some accepting the invitation and others, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, significantly less likely to participate. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs has posted an official read-out of the ASEAN gathering on its website.

The second conference, a regional gathering of security officials called the Xiangshan Forum, took place in Beijing on Saturday. PRC General Fan Changlong used the forum as an opportunity to defend island reclamation in the South China Sea: “[T]hose construction projects are mainly carried out for civil purposes. . . . As we have promised, the projects will not affect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Instead, they will enable us to provide better public services to aid navigation and production.” Also, in an apparent reference to rumored U.S. FONOPS, the General pledged, “We will never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues bearing upon sovereignty, and have done our utmost to avoid unexpected conflicts.” In response to these remarks, former U.S. CNO Gary Roughead suggested that the rapid expansion of these islands and Beijing’s opaque policies “heightens suspicions and presents the potential for miscalculations.”


On Saturday, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) hosted vessels from five other nations for its Fleet Review in Sagami Bay—a triennial event that, according to Reuters, heralded several new dynamics in the Asian Pacific. First, punctuating recent security legislation that will allow Japan to defend foreign allies for the first time since WWII, the fleet review served as a power symbol of what PM Shinzo Abe described as policy of “proactive pacifism.” Second, the naval exercise signaled the MSDF’s growing role in the region and offered Japan a chance to flex its military muscle. Lastly, given Mr. Abe’s tour to the USS Ronald Reagan and the participation of Vice Admiral Tyson of America’s Third Fleet (see above), the fleet review drove home the message that Japan’s naval resurgence will be accompanied by wider naval engagement by the United States. Altogether, 50 vessels and 61 aircraft from Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, France, and the United States participated in the display of force.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense announced that it scrambled jets 117 times against Chinese planes in the third quarter of 2015—a 13.5% increase from the same period last year. This follows a record high number of scrambles against PLA planes for the first half of the year—making the currently-stalled negotiations over a maritime and air communications mechanism more important than ever. The vast majority of these scrambles were in response to Chinese patrols over the East China Sea. The PRC routinely sends both Coast Guard vessels and aircraft into the region to assert its claims over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry defended the patrols, saying that “the activities conducted by Chinese planes in relevant waters and airspace are justified and lawful.”


During PRC General Fan Changlong’s remarks at the Xiangshan Forum, he cited two new lighthouses in the Spratlys as evidence of China’s good intentions in the South China Sea. The Philippines—one of several countries that criticized the PRC lighthouse construction as an attempt to buttress its claims to sovereign—fired back on Monday. The Philippine Foreign Ministry asserted that the new construction on the disputed islands was “obviously intended to change actual conditions” and pledged that Manila would not accept China’s “unilateral actions as a fair accompli.” PRC Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chanying continued the rhetorical sparring on Tuesday, claiming that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratlys and, thus, “there is no need for us to bolster sovereignty claims by building lighthouses.”


World Politics Review interviews Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, and explains steps Vietnam has taken to reinforce its claims in the South China Seas. On a related note, Alex Calvo of the South China Sea Think Tank provides a concise survey of the Western sources on which Vietnam bases its SCS territorial claims.


Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans called for the Royal Australian Navy to send warships to the South China Sea for FON patrols. Although Australia agreed to increase naval cooperation with the United States in the SCS last week, it has thus far shied away from joining U.S. FONOPS. In a recent interview, Mr. Evans said, “The Americans are entirely justified in wanting to demonstrate ‘freedom of navigation’ rights by sending ships to within 12 nautical miles . . . . And I think Australia ought to be quite willing to do that—[although] not necessarily in conjunction with the US.” The former Foreign Minister also indicated merchant ships could also play a role alongside military vessels: “There’s a case for shipping, be it military shipping or be it commercial shipping—exercising freedom of navigation rights.”


General Gatot Nurmantyo, the commander of the Indonesian Defense Forces, encouraged all parties with interests in the South China Sea to abstain from activities that could increase tensions. In an apparent reference to both U.S. FONOPS and the joint exercises proposed by the PRC at a recent ASEAN summit (see above), the general explained that this “means that whatever country invites (us) to take part (in a joint military exercise) in South China Sea, it is better that the [military] does not accept it, for the sake of (regional) stability.”


Malaysia staked out seemingly contradictory positions in its bilateral relations with the PRC over the past week. On Thursday, Defense Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein called for enhanced defense ties with China during meetings in Beijing. Striking a more neutral tone, Mr. Hisammuddin announced during his remarks at the Xiangshan Forum that his country remains convinced that a code of conduct is the best way to govern competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Later, during the same conference, Malaysia Armed Forces chief Zulkefli Mohd Zin deemed Chinese island reclamation an “unwarranted provocation.” Although Malaysia has generally taken a cautious approach with Beijing regarding the South China Sea, two PLA naval exercises around the James Shoal last year caused Kuala Lumpur to consider changing tact, according to Reuters.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative recently published two studies that assess peacefully-resolved maritime disputes with potential implications for current tensions in the South China Sea. Isaac Kardon finds inspiration within the SCS region from the 2000 Vietnam-PRC boundary agreement. Looking further afield, Sarah Watson assesses the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea settlement of the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime.

In addition to above discussion of the rumored U.S. FON patrols, several other opinion and analysis pieces are worth a read. The Japan Times assesses likelihood of Japan joining U.S. FONOPS, and Australia’s Financial Review explains how FON patrols might play into China’s hand by giving the PLA an excuse to militarize its artificial islands. Over at The Diplomat, Doug Bandow and Eric Gomez argue against FONOPS based on their potential to destabilize the region, while Sam Bateman criticizes the rumored plan for its total lack of direction. Taking a slightly broader perspective, James Kraska channels Ronald Reagan and assesses how the Gipper would respond to China’s violations of the law of the sea. And Julian Ku challenges the popular narrative that the SCS disputes are about whether China will follow international law. Instead, he suggests, that the U.S. and the PRC “have fundamentally different interpretations of what international law requires” and predicts that, as a result of the two powers talking past each other, “the South China Sea region to get worse before it gets better.”

Finally, on a lighter note, Heng Kim Song weighs in on the South China Sea disputes with a political cartoon in the New York Times, and John Shakespeare publishes a similarly-themed cartoon in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please feel free to email Zack Bluestone with breaking news or relevant documents.

Zack Bluestone is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, where he is Managing Editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy and Vice President of the National Security & Law Association. Zack has worked in all three branches of the federal government, including legal internships with the Office of the Chief Prosecutor of Military Commissions at the U.S. Department of Defense, the Office of the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Federal Courts. Zack graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown University with B.S. in Foreign Service and earned his MBA from the University of Oxford.

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