Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: A Song of Oil and Fire

Doug Stephens
Friday, August 30, 2019, 8:00 AM

A tense standoff in the waters southwest of Vietnam is about to enter its seventh week. Throughout May and June, Chinese Coast Guard vessels aggressively patrolled around Malaysian and Vietnamese oil drilling platforms.

The USS Ashland and USS Green Bay operate in the Coral Sea on Aug. 1 with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. (Photo credit: MC Spc. 2nd Class Markus Castaneda)

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A tense standoff in the waters southwest of Vietnam is about to enter its seventh week. Throughout May and June, Chinese Coast Guard vessels aggressively patrolled around Malaysian and Vietnamese oil drilling platforms. The situation escalated on July 3 when Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 (English: “Marine Geology 8”) began surveying blocks of seabed on Vanguard Bank, a raised portion of the continental shelf within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the westernmost reef in the Spratlys. The surveyed blocks were just north of several of Vietnam’s tiny DK1 outposts and barely northwest of oil block 06-01, which supplies up to 10 percent of Vietnam’s total energy needs. Haiyang Dizhi 8 was accompanied by up to four Chinese Coast Guard ships at all times, including the 12,000 ton Haijing 3901, one of the largest law enforcement vessels in the world.

Vietnam responded by sending its own law enforcement vessels to the scene on July 4, although their attempts to close with Haiyang Dizhi 8 were blocked by the Chinese Coast Guard ships. On July 16, after nearly two weeks of tense maneuvering, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally issued a statement on the situation, reasserting Vietnam’s claim to its EEZ under the authority of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Two days later, on July 18, U.S. Adm. Philip Davidson, head of Indo-Pacific Command, criticized China for not responding to U.S. requests for crisis communications with China’s Eastern Theater Command. On July 19, Vietnam made a direct demand that Haiyang Dizhi 8 be removed from Vanguard Bank; the U.S. State Department also released a statement that day accusing China of “bullying behavior” and asserting that its “repeated provocative actions [...] threaten regional energy security.” China declined to confirm the presence of its ships in the area.

On July 25,Vietnam issued another statement demanding an “immediate withdrawal” of Chinese ships from Vanguard Bank. Later that day, the Southern Vietnam Maritime Safety Assurance Corporation announced that drilling operations on Vanguard Bank would be extended from July 30 through Sept. 15.

On July 26, the Chinese Foreign Ministry fired back, claiming sovereign rights over Vanguard Bank and accusing Vietnam of violating them. On Aug. 7, Haiyang Dizhi 8 left Vanguard Bank and was seen at China’s base at Fiery Cross Reef (Mandarin: Yongshu; Tagalog: Kagitingan) for an apparent refueling, while two of its escorts remained inside Vietnam’s EEZ. Shortly thereafter, on Aug. 15, Haiyang Dizhi 8 returned to Vanguard Bank, accompanied this time by five Chinese Coast Guard escorts.

On Aug. 16, Vietnam responded with yet another demand that the small fleet vacate their EEZ. China has declined to back down: On Aug. 19, its Foreign Ministry officially reiterated the claim that all relevant waters are under Chinese jurisdiction. Whether the countries will allow the Sept. 15 end of drilling operations to quietly conclude the standoff remains to be seen.

In Other News…

In Diplomacy and Politics

Australians’ perspective on China seems to be growing more grim. Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, argued in a televised interview on July 8 that the Chinese threat should drive Australia to become a nuclear power. White claimed that Australia cannot rely solely on U.S. weapons as a sufficient deterrent. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an address in Sydney on Aug. 4 in which he attributed China’s ability to strengthen its military to what he called “one-sided trade deals.” Pompeo went on to say that the U.S. and other countries have to be “very, very careful” when engaging in commerce with China. Later that week, on Aug. 8, Andrew Hastie, a member of Australia’s Parliament, published an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald that compared China’s ongoing development to the rise of Nazi Germany. The Chinese embassy in Canberra promptly issued a rare statement in response, arguing that “China’s peaceful development is an opportunity [...] to the world.”

Defense ministers from the 10 ASEAN nations gathered in Bangkok July 10-12 for their annual meeting. Issues such as Chinese territorial aggression and the proposed South China Sea Code of Conduct received little attention at the conference. However, after the meeting, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah reported that Malaysia is confident that the Code of Conduct will be finished within the three-year deadline.

On July 8, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ramped up his inflammatory rhetoric, publicly calling on the United States to send the entire 7th Fleet into the South China Sea to drive out the Chinese military. Then, on July 17, Duterte repeated the sentiment, adding that if the 7th Fleet was sent he would “join them” and “ride on the boat.” But Duterte is not ready to cut off relations with China: On Aug. 6, his office announced that he would soon be visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss the 2016 South China Sea arbitration.

Although China and Cambodia repeatedly denied that the new Cambodian naval base in the Gulf of Thailand would have any Chinese involvement, the Wall Street Journal reported on July 22 that U.S. and allied officials saw an early draft of an agreement that would allow Chinese military access to the base for decades. Details of the final agreement are unknown but likely bear a strong resemblance to the draft provisions.

In Military and Technology

Chinese authorities have announced numerous new vehicles and technologies over the summer months. The South China Morning Post reported on July 1 that a Shanghai research lab is conducting final experiments on a new graphene coating that Chinese officials hope to apply to a wide variety of ships, aircraft and structures in the South China Sea. The coating is designed to stall rust and corrosion, both of which have plagued Chinese equipment operating in the South China Sea due to severe conditions and rushed construction.

On July 12, China launched a new 7,800 ton supply ship to support Sansha, the city built on contested Woody Island (Mandarin: Yongxing; Vietnamese: Phu Lam) in the Paracels. Built in the Guangzhou shipyards, the vessel, christened San Sha 2 Hao, will join its sister ship San Sha 1 Hao in moving personnel and materiel between Woody Island and mainland China.

China’s new Type 001A aircraft carrier has completed six rounds of sea trials, and observers say that the 65,000 ton vessel will likely miss the Oct. 1 National Day parades in favor of further testing. In the interim, engineers at two Chinese corporations are racing to build the stealth fighter jets that will deploy to the new carriers. When fully optimized for carrier launches and storage, Chengdu Aerospace’s J-20 fighter and Shenyang Aircraft’s FC-31 jet are expected to hold their own against the U.S.-built F-22s and F-35s flown by China’s neighbors.

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported on July 15 that they have developed a membrane scored with microscopic patterns that can absorb radar waves across a spectrum larger than any other known stealth technology.

Chinese media reported on July 22 that the new brigade of 24 SU-35 fighter jets purchased from Russia have been successfully modified and are now participating in drills and tests in the South China Sea. On July 27, China launched a new 4,600 ton long-range oceanographic research vessel that state media claims will have the capacity for deep-sea resource discovery in any ocean.

On July 9, Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth, the new 65,000 ton aircraft carrier slated for use in the South China Sea, was forced to return to Portsmouth after a leak was discovered. The U.K. Ministry of Defense characterized the leak as “small,” but other sources reported that up to thousands of tons of water had flooded multiple decks.

On July 17, U.S. and Australian naval forces held the biennial Talisman Sabre drills off the northeast coast of Australia, joined this year by ships from the U.K., Canada, Japan and New Zealand. Thirty ships and 200 aircraft participated in the training exercise this year. Observers spotted at least one Chinese reconnaissance vessel off the coast of Queensland in the days immediately preceding.

From July 18 to July 29, U.S., Japanese and Indian forces held a joint training exercise in mine hunting and countermeasures off the northern coast of Japan. Mine Warfare Exercise J2A is an annual U.S.-Japan event, and this year’s event involved operations from small-boat dives to full-scale minefield-clearing exercises.

On Aug. 3, a day after U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced an intent to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Asia to counter Chinese expansion. Esper said he wanted a timeline of “months” but did not provide further details. Then, on Aug. 18, the U.S. tested a ground-based intermediate-range cruise missile from an MK-41 launch system, the first such test since adoption of the INF Treaty in 1987.

The USS Ronald Reagan and its full battle group arrived in Manila on Aug. 7 for a port call. Sung Yong Kim, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, described the visit as “a testament to our joint commitment to a free Indo-Pacific region.”

On Aug. 14, the U.S. Navy issued a draft request for proposals to design and develop the large unmanned surface vehicle (LUSV), a corvette-sized vessel capable of semi- or fully autonomous operations. The planned LUSV fleet follows the two unmanned ships developed by the Pentagon’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program.

Japan’s Ministry of Defense announced on Aug. 16 that it has selected the F-35B as the short take-off and vertical landing fighter of choice for the Air Self-Defense Force. The jets will likely be deployed aboard the JS Izumo and JS Kaga once they are fully retrofitted as aircraft carriers.

The Trump administration is moving forward with an $8 billion sale of 66 F-16s to Taiwan, according to U.S. senators. China’s Foreign Ministry responded with a statement that “the U.S. will have to bear all the consequences.”

The Army Times reports that the U.S. 1st Special Forces Group have been training indigenous militaries all around Southeast Asia this year. Their significant deployments include Sri Lanka, Mongolia and the Philippines.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in this year alone, South Korean airspace has been entered 30 times by Chinese aircraft and 14 times by Russian aircraft. On July 23, South Korea scrambled jets and fired hundreds of rounds in response to a Russian incursion over the Dokdo Islands.

In Analysis

Huong Le Thu, a strategist at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, analyzes the legal and geopolitical impact of China’s incursions into Vietnam’s EEZ. Huong suggests that the new pressures China is placing on Vietnam may be a test of their resolve in advance of Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN and 2020-2021 stint on the U.N. Security Council.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Institute (AMTI) has published a “grade sheet” analyzing the outcome of the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration in the context of China’s actions since then. AMTI’s conclusion is that China is in compliance with only two of the 11 parts of the arbitration’s holdings.

Writing in the South China Morning Post, academic Richard Heydarian reflects on the German navy’s entry into South China Sea disputes. Heydarian notes that Germany has historically been reluctant to join other Western powers in peacekeeping or mediatorial roles and suggests that their participation here may mark a shift in the tensions from a regional dispute to a truly intercontinental flashpoint.

Three Western academics have published a brief but provocative column in Foreign Policy suggesting parallels between the U.S. F-35 fighter distribution and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Jonathan Caverley, Ethan Kapstein and Srdjan Vucetic (professors at the U.S. Naval War College, Princeton University and the University of Ottawa, respectively) argue that the F-35 sales program has the effect of leaving U.S. allies critically dependent on American technology and supply chains even as Washington officials herald the sales as empowering.

A forum on China hosted by the University of California San Diego has highlighted a generational gap in China scholars, according to Washington Post reporter Ellen Nakashima. The forum’s participants found themselves largely split between those who came of age during a period of Sino-American cooperation and those who have known China only as an aggressive and often illiberal power.

Doug Stephens IV is a joint JD/LLM student at Harvard Law School and the University of Cambridge. He holds a B.A. in English from Liberty University and a M.A. in English from James Madison University.

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