Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Tugs-of-War, Figurative and Literal

Sarah Grant
Friday, June 30, 2017, 11:30 AM

Chinese Construction and Patrolling Operations Continue Apace in Contested Waters and U.S. Doubles Down on Its Defense Commitment to Taiwan

(Photo: Center for Strategic and International Studies/Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, DigitalGlobe)

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Chinese Construction and Patrolling Operations Continue Apace in Contested Waters and U.S. Doubles Down on Its Defense Commitment to Taiwan

(Photo: Center for Strategic and International Studies/Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, DigitalGlobe)

Following last week’s U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a weekend press release highlighting takeaways from the event. Written like a joint statement but delivered only by Beijing, the press release declared that both sides are committed to “mak[ing] joint efforts to expand mutually-beneficial cooperation, manag[ing] differences on the basis of mutual respect, and promot[ing] the sound and steady development of China-U.S. relations in the long term.” With regard to the South China Sea, the parties “support efforts to maintain peace and stability[,]…support resolving disputes by peaceful means[,]…[and] support the management of disputes through dialogue”—at least on paper.

Meanwhile, Beijing continues to build capacity in its South Sea Fleet and expand its reach and control throughout the South China Sea. Imagery released this week by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reveals steady progress in the construction of Chinese military outposts on Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands. Four new shelters, expected to house surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, have been built at Fiery Cross since February, and communications and radar facilities have been expanded at all three sites. Additionally, as of last month, four Chinese Y-8Q anti-submarine aircraft and three Harbin BZK-005 high-altitude, long-range UAVs arrived at Lingshui Air Base on Hainan Island, at the northern edge of the South China Sea. The Y-8Q is China’s newest and most advanced maritime surveillance aircraft and adds a critical combat capability to the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet; the BSK-005 UAV has a primary mission of maritime surveillance and has previously operated out of the Chinese facility on Woody Island, in the disputed Paracel Islands. Lastly, on Wednesday China launched the first of its Type 055 guided-missile destroyers, heralded by its Ministry of Defense as the largest and most advanced warship in Asia. The destroyer is billed as similar in size and capability to the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, featuring a vertical launch system for surface to air, anti-ship and cruise missiles, a multifunction phased array radar similar to the U.S. Navy’s AEGIS system, and helicopter hangar facilities. The ship launched this week is expected to be commissioned in 2019 after at-sea testing, and additional Type 055s already under construction will follow shortly after.

The spirit of amity also seems lost on the U.S., which announced on Thursday that it intends to sell approximately $1.4 billion in arms to Taiwan in the coming years. The package is expected to include joint stand-off weapons, high-speed anti-radiation missiles, heavy weight torpedoes, components for missiles currently in Taiwan’s arsenal, electronic warfare system upgrades, and technical support. The day before, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to send to the full Senate for consideration, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, a proposal to resume regular port calls by U.S. Navy ships to Taiwan. If implemented, the proposal would mark a dramatic shift in the U.S. posture toward Taiwan, as such visits ceased after the U.S. adopted the “One China” policy in 1979. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang responded on Thursday, saying the proposals “severely violate the three joint communiqués between China and the US, and constitute interference in China's domestic affairs. China by no means accepts that. We urge the US to honor its commitment on the Taiwan question …[and] immediately stop military contact and arms sale to Taiwan.”

In Other News…


Senior officials from the Japanese and Chinese foreign and defense ministries met in Japan on Thursday to discuss maritime communications and methods for preventing clashes at sea. This week’s talks, the seventh round of such meetings, come just days after four Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels sailed into Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea, near the contested Senkaku Islands. In what has become an increasingly common occurrence, the CCG vessels were closely tracked by the Japanese Coast Guard and departed after several hours.


Recently-appointed Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano traveled to Beijing on Wednesday for a four-day official visit. The South China Sea code of conduct being negotiated through ASEAN is expected to be a primary focus of that visit. The framework agreement is slated to be submitted to the Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers at a summit in August.


On Thursday, a Vietnamese newspaper reported two recent incidents in which Chinese personnel forcibly disrupted Vietnamese fishing activities near the Paracel Islands. This follows a pattern that has emerged in recent years, as fishermen from Vietnam in particular but also Taiwan and the Philippines push back against fishing moratoria that Beijing has unilaterally imposed throughout the region.

And in this week’s lighter news (still with serious implications), personnel from the Vietnamese and Philippines navies met on Southwest Cay in the Spratly Islands for a day of friendly sporting events, including rounds of tug-of-war. The exchange was part of a larger effort to develop ties between the two nations’ militaries and demonstrate common resolve.


On Tuesday, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, through his Deputy Prime Minister, invited Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to make an official visit to Singapore. The invitation comes ahead of Singapore’s assumption of the ASEAN chairmanship in 2018 and at a time of strained relations between Singapore and China, for reasons that include Singapore’s growing military ties with the United States. Li accepted, with the date of the visit to be determined.

New Zealand

The Royal New Zealand Navy announced this week that the frigate HMSNZ Te Kaha has been temporarily re-tasked to support the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group. The RNZN offered the assistance of the Te Kaha after the crash of the USS Fitzgerald two weeks ago, and the U.S. Navy accepted. The Te Kaha is on an extended deployment to the region and was most recently operating near Japan, after participating in the International Naval Review in Singapore last month and other exercises and port calls throughout the region.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

Discussions continued this week about the proper role for the U.S. in addressing tensions in the South China Sea. Responding to Ely Ratner’s Foreign Affairs piece, Hugh White of the Australian National University argues that “there is now no way [for the U.S.] to push back effectively against China in the South China Sea itself without a high risk of war.” White suggests the U.S. instead “focus on rebuilding the credibility of America’s strategic commitment to Asia where it matters most—at home in America.” Ratner followed up on Friday, saying that White “overlooks a number of important political, diplomatic, and institutional brakes on armed conflict between the United States and China,” but also agreeing with White that U.S. leaders need to be “clear at home and abroad about the intensity of the China challenge and the commensurate importance of America's enduring commitment to Asia.”

Several analysts considered the state of tensions between China and Vietnam following the abrupt cancellation of a bilateral defense dialogue early last week. In The Diplomat, Carl Thayer highlights a discrepancy between the optimistic tone leading up to the meetings in both the Chinese and Vietnamese state press, and reports after the fact of a significant dispute arising over Vietnamese oil exploration near the disputed Paracel Islands. Murray Hiebert and Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explain the basis for the dispute: Hanoi’s plan to proceed with exploration of oil and gas reserves in contested waters. They suggest conflict is most likely near Vietnam’s Block 136, on Vanguard Bank, which China also claims and has previously contracted companies to explore. While Beijing has demanded Hanoi stand down, China nevertheless continues its own exploration operations throughout the region.

Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, Senior Research Associate with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and J. Berkshire Miller, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, write in The National Interest that Japan’s increasing involvement in the South China Sea reflects Tokyo’s long-standing concern with maritime safety and the security of sea lines of communication, and a sense that Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea may be a sign of things to come in the East China Sea if left unchecked. But Tokyo has to strike a fine balance, they say, as Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force faces persistent capacity shortcomings and Japanese participation in freedom of navigation operations could cause an escalation in Chinese activities the East China Sea to which the JMSDF would be ill-equipped to respond.

Finally, Donald Rothwell of the Australian National University proposes the creation of a dedicated South China Sea Commission representing claimant states and other interested parties, and consisting of “diplomats and jurists with expertise in territorial and maritime disputes, assisted by a staff of permanent technical experts including geographers, historians, hydrographers and marine scientists.” This type of commission, Rothwell suggests, would provide a “regional legal solution for a regional problem” by facilitating “mediation, conciliation and ultimately arbitration of the disputes.”

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 email Sarah Grant with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections.

Sarah Grant is a graduate of Harvard Law School and previously spent five years on active duty in the Marine Corps. She holds an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge and a BS in International Relations from the United States Naval Academy. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the Marine Corps, or any other agency of the United States Government.

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