Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: A Month of Simmering Tensions to Ring in the New Year

Zack Bluestone
Friday, January 8, 2016, 7:54 AM

Editor's Note: Welcome back to Water Wars! Following our holiday hiatus, this first edition of the new year will look back at the major events in the Asian Pacific since our last post in late November. Next Friday, we’ll be back to our normal format, with a more detailed and nuanced analysis and commentary of the week's events.


B-52 Stratofortress flies past the USS Nimitz as two Navy F/A-18 Hornets intercept (U.S. Navy photo)

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Editor's Note: Welcome back to Water Wars! Following our holiday hiatus, this first edition of the new year will look back at the major events in the Asian Pacific since our last post in late November. Next Friday, we’ll be back to our normal format, with a more detailed and nuanced analysis and commentary of the week's events.


China Again Rejects PH v. PRC Arbitration After Second Hearing. Beginning on November 24, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague heard oral arguments on the merits of the Republic of the Philippines v. PRC case, despite China’s boycott of the proceedings. Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario delivered closing remarks on November 30, during which he compared the nine-dash line to “a Berlin Wall of the Sea.” The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi provides an excellent overview of the case and Secretary del Rosario’s closing argument. Following the hearing, on December 2, PRC Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying criticized the arbitration process as “a political provocation under the cloak of law” and promised once again that “China will not accept any solution imposed on it or any unilateral resort to a third-party dispute settlement.” Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, an expert on the international law of the sea, anticipates that the decision will likely be handed down before the Philippines holds elections in May 2016.

Philippine Protestors Conduct Freedom Voyage. A group of nearly fifty young anti-China protestors sailed to the disputed Thitu Island in late December and camped there for several days in a show of support for Philippine claims in the South China Sea. The symbolic act was enough to provoke the ire of PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, who urged “the Philippine side to withdraw all its personnel and facilities from the Chinese islands and reefs it is illegally occupying and stop doing anything that undermines regional peace and stability.”

U.S. Clarifies Position on October FON Patrol. In a letter dated December 22, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter responded to a request from Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain for additional information on an October freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. The Secretary confirmed that the USS Lassen “conducted a FONOP . . . by transiting inside twelve nautical miles of five maritime features in the Spratly Islands — Subi Reef, Northeast Cay, Southwest Cay, South Reef, and Sandy Cay — which are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.” He further explained that Lassen’s voyage was a continuous and expeditious transit consistent with the right to innocent passage. Our very own Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper explain the legal ramifications of this new revelation.

United States Conducts New, ‘Accidental’ FONOP. On December 10, two American B-52 bombers mistakenly flew within twelve nautical miles of Cuarteron Reef, an artificial island in the Spratly chain. An unnamed senior defense official told WSJ that bad weather was to blame for the off-course flightpath. Tying to the incident to a similar, intentional overflight in November, the PRC Defense Ministry responded by posting a statement on its website that criticized the U.S. action as “a serious military provocation, complicating the situation in the South China Sea, to the extent of militarizing it.” Despite public assurances from a Pentagon spokesman and a Navy Commander that the overflight was unintentional, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi later called Secretary of State John Kerry to demand that the United States “respect China’s core interests” in the South China Sea. Looking back on the incident, The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda considers the costs and benefits of and ‘accidental’ FONOP.

Australia Joins FON Fold with Overflight Mission. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) conducted “a routine maritime patrol” over disputed features in the South China Sea from November 25 to December 4. Although the Australian government has not deemed the overflight a FON operation, a radio recording published by the BBC captures an RAAF pilot alerting the PLA Navy that his P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft was “exercising international freedom of navigation rights, in international airspace in accordance with the international civil aviation convention, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” In response, China’s state-owned Global Times cautioned that “it would be a shame if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian.” Australia’s Defense Ministry said it would continue surveillance flights despite this warning.

PRC Increases Pace on Island Reclamation. After deploying advanced fighters to a newly-constructed airfield on Woody Island in October, China concluded the year with substantial advances on runways atop three other artificial islands in the South China Sea: Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef. To kick off the new year, the PRC christened its freshly minted airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef with a civilian test flight. Although this maiden voyage drew formal diplomatic protest from Vietnam and the Philippines—as well as condemnation from Japan, the United States, and other countries—China conducted two additional civilian landings on Wednesday. A Maritime Executive report explains that much of the international blowback stems from the fact that the new constellation of runways could be used for military purposes, including a potential future air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. For its part, the PRC has dismissed such concerns. For example, PRC Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying claimed that the purpose of the landings was to “test whether or not the facilities on it meet the standards for civil aviation” and further asserted that the “[r]elevant activity falls completely within China’s sovereignty.”

Japan Grows an Island of Its Own. Japanese scientists have launched an effort to build up Okinotorishia (“distant bird island”) by transplanting lab-raised coral to the atoll in the Philippine Sea. Beyond ecological motives, the Financial Times explains that the island harvesting has three potential ramifications for any future naval conflict between the U.S. and China.

China Ups the Ante in East China Sea. According to The Japan Times, China’s Coast Guard has sent two patrols within twelve nautical miles of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands over the past two weeks. Although such forays are common, Japanese coastguard officials have claimed that at least one of the ships involved in both incidents were equipped with gun turrets, marking the first time an armed Chinese vessel has been spotted in the area. The Daily Beast’s Gordon Chang suggests that the escalation marks a new phase in China’s efforts to seize not only the Senkakus but also the nearby Ryukyu Islands, which include the strategically vital island of Okinawa.

PLA Navy Confirms New Carrier. Last week, PRC Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujan acknowledged that China has begun production of its second aircraft carrier—and the first to be produced indigenously—at the port city of Dalian. The BBC explains how the new vessel improves upon the capabilities of its current carrier, the Liaoning.


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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