Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Calm Before Potential ASEAN-Summit Storm

Lawfare Staff
Friday, February 12, 2016, 11:02 AM

This past week was the quietest in terms of breaking news since Water Wars began nearly five months ago—somewhat surprising, given that only last week the USS Curtis Wilbur conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Paracel Islands. All signs point to an upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which will take place February 15-16, as the most likely cause of the relative calm.

PRC soldiers and construction workers attend a Chinese New Year flag-raising ceremony in the Spratlys (Xinhua)

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This past week was the quietest in terms of breaking news since Water Wars began nearly five months ago—somewhat surprising, given that only last week the USS Curtis Wilbur conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Paracel Islands. All signs point to an upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which will take place February 15-16, as the most likely cause of the relative calm. Nonetheless, there is plenty of opportunity for tealeaf reading, both about the summit itself and about the potentially divergent intentions of several attendees. Additionally, regional experts have made up for the brief respite in the news cycle with some of the strongest analysis we’ve had the pleasure of highlighting thus far.

President Obama originally proposed the upcoming U.S.-ASEAN summit after the economic and security community’s decision to elevate its relations with the United States to the strategic-partner level last November. On Monday, Mr. Obama will welcome leaders from the ten members of ASEAN at Sunnylands, California, and the group will start by discussing the economy. On Tuesday, the focus will shift to regional security, with a likely focus on maritime concerns.

Senior White House officials have promised that President Obama will send China a tough message, despite the PRC’s absence from the summit. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes suggested that Mr. Obama will reiterate that maritime disputes must be settled through negotiations rather than by “one nation, bigger nation, bullying a smaller one.” The President’s top Asia adviser, Dan Kritenbrink, added that the United States will call on all claimants to halt artificial island construction and militarization. This aggressive diplomacy will be applauded on the Hill, at least by the six Senators who sponsored a resolution that both welcomes the ASEAN leaders and sets out the Senate’s positions on Asian Pacific maritime security. Among other things, the bipartisan resolution—which was introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin—reiterates a commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight for all parties, support for an ASEAN Code of Conduct, and a desire for the development of a “common approach” to reaffirm the upcoming decision Philippines v. PRC maritime arbitration case.

Several other countries have also telegraphed their intentions for the meetings. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III will raise the issue of maritime disputes in the South China Sea, specifically focusing on the PRC’s land-reclamation projects and Beijing’s control of air space over the disputed waters. Charting the opposite path, Cambodian PM Hun Sen has suggested that ASEAN “should not take gasoline to douse on fire, but try to encourage the countries concerned in the [maritime] dispute[s] to continue negotiations with each other because ASEAN has no rights to measure land for any sides.” During the same speech, the Prime Minister also vented that he is “fed up” with allegations that Cambodia was beholden to China during its 2012 ASEAN chairmanship and emphatically asserted that “Cambodia’s foreign policy is independent.”

In other news…

United States

On Tuesday, during a hearing on “Worldwide Threats” before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper predicted that China will continue its land reclamation campaign this year in order to bolster its “exorbitant” claims in the South China Sea. He also implied that the PRC is militarizing these artificial islands. In his prepared testimony, America’s top spy explained that “[r]egional tension will continue as China pursues construction at its expanded outposts in the South China Sea and because competing claimants might pursue actions that others perceive as infringing on their sovereignty.”


Although official PRC denunciations of the recent U.S. FONOP were decidedly less vitriolic than those following the FON patrol conducted by the USS Lassen last October, a number of articles in government-controlled media outlets have used the incident to justify deploying missiles and warplanes to the Paracels Islands. For example, in the Global Times, PLA Senior Colonel Liang Fang called for stepped-up “military deployments” to both the Spratlys and the Paracels, as well as the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entirety of the South China Sea.

To ring in the Year of the Monkey, the party-owned People’s Daily released a series of photographs showing Chinese soldiers and construction workers in the Spratlys celebrating the Lunar New Year. Festivities included the raising of the Chinese national flag and an assortment of traditional entertainment. Given the tendency of this kind of publicity to stoke flames related to competing claims on the islands, this can perhaps be read as an ominous sign for the year to come.

Voice of America looks at the impact of China’s emergence as a global leader in the drone industry, with some experts predicting that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) will play an increasingly important role in the East and South China Seas. According to Foreign Policy Research Initiative senior fellow Michael Boyle, “The area over the disputed islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea is increasingly a prime area for drone competition. They have a number of advantages: drones can identify changes on the ground in the islands and provide photographic evidence of military build-ups.”


Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario announced his resignation this week, which President Aquino accepted, effective March 7. Media reports have attributed the decision to a variety of heath concerns, including a heart condition that required a pacemaker surgery last November. As The Diplomat’s Prashanth Parameswaran explains, del Rosario has been a vocal critic of Chinese maritime assertiveness, particularly within ASEAN. More concretely, his five-year tenure has witnessed the signing of the U.S.-PH Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will bring American bases back to the island nation and the filing of a challenge to China’s nine-dash line in the Philippines v. PRC case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

On Wednesday, Mr. del Rosario spoke on two maritime security issues that will fall to his yet-to-be-named successor. First, the head diplomat suggested that rumored joint U.S.-PH maritime patrols may start within the year. He further intimated that other nations might also take part in the joint patrols. Second, Mr. del Rosario predicted that the PCA will hand down its merits decision by or before this May. Stressing the sense of urgency that has defined his tenure, he added: “From our point of view, we hope a decision will come soon in view of the exacerbating situation in the South China Sea.”


The Japanese Ministry of Defense claims to have spotted a PRC naval intelligence vessel just outside of Japan’s territorial waters. According to Japan Coast Guard (JCG) officials, the vessel was spotted along with several other Chinese ships about twenty miles northwest of the Senkakus/Diaoyus, but Japanese patrol boats prevented their entry into the twelve-nautical-mile zone surrounding the islands. In light of previous maritime provocations and similar incursions by air, The Yomiri Shimbun argues that Japan must strengthen defenses around the islands.

Nippon’s Suzuki Yoshikatsu suggests that Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s “Democratic Security Diamond” has started to shine in recent months. The plan, which Mr. Abe developed before assuming his current post, envisions a maritime security partnership between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. In related news, the informal defense pact may grow to include a new member: the Philippines. As the Japan Times reports, the U.S. and Japan will hold a meeting of coast guard commanders with Australia and the Philippines to bolster their united front against China’s maritime activities. The four-way meeting is expected to cover a framework for enhancing maritime security, including cooperating in equipment procurement and holding joint drills. The summit will likely take place in the Philippines sometime this spring, according to unnamed diplomatic sources.


On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the United States and India have discussed the possibility of conducting joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, according to an exclusive interview with an American defense official. Although both countries support freedom of navigation and overflight in the Asian Pacific, the Indian Navy has never carried out a joint patrol with another country. Later on Wednesday, India’s Ministry of Defence denied that the rumored talks had occurred, dismissing the reports as “highly speculative.” For its part, China responded with noticeable frustration. In an emailed statement to Reuters, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei warned that “[c]ountries from outside the area must stop pushing forward the militarization of the South China Sea, cease endangering the sovereignty and national security of littoral countries in the name of ‘freedom of navigation’ and harming the peace and stability of the region.” The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda provides some additional analysis on the rumored patrols, predicting that they are unlikely to occur anytime soon, at least not in the South China Sea.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

Mira Rapp-Hooper recaps recent American efforts to confront the PRC in the South China Sea and advocates a “longer-term multilateral approach to freedom of navigation” to maximize the effectiveness of future operations.

Over at The Straits Times, Victor Savage explores whether Chinese influence is redefining the regional order Southeast Asia, while Mark Valencia refutes the popular narrative that China is responsible for militarizing the South China Sea. On a related subject, Nikkei’s Mariko Kodaki claims that China’s territorial ambitions have led to a surge in Asian military budgets, despite a 4% decrease in global defense spending.

Ngo Di Lan offers a counter point to Nhung Bui’s recent post at The Diplomat, in which she argues that now is the time for Vietnam to abandon its policy non-alignment. Elsewhere at The Diplomat, Steven Stashwick suggests that China’s policy of official ambiguity about its true claims in the South China Sea might have to give way under the pressure of U.S. FONOPS.

Lastly, Andrew Erickson and Joel Wuthnow unpack the enduring geostrategic importance of Pacific island chains, both from a historical and modern perspective.

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 us with breaking news or relevant documents.

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