Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: What the TPP Means for the PRC

Zack Bluestone
Friday, October 9, 2015, 10:45 PM

USTR Michael Froman with TPP-partner trade ministers (Photo: Erik S. Lesser/European Pressphoto Agency)

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USTR Michael Froman with TPP-partner trade ministers (Photo: Erik S. Lesser/European Pressphoto Agency)

On Monday, the United States, Japan, and ten other Pacific Rim nations concluded the historic Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. Although the substance and merits of the accord fall outside the purview of this column, the TPP’s wider strategic import merits consideration in light of China’s absence from the deal and the deal’s potential for spill-over on to the maritime disputes in the Asian Pacific. Jane Perlez of the New York Times described the deal as both “a check on China” and “an important symbol of America’s staying power in Asia.” She further concluded that the TPP will serve as “a counterweight to China’s efforts to expand its influence not just in trade but in other areas, including its island-building in the disputed South China Sea.”

This interpretation of the TPP was underscored on Tuesday, when Japanese PM Shinzo Abe discussed the deal in terms of a new era of U.S.-Japanese leadership in the region: “Japan and the United States will together lead Asia Pacific toward the goal of turning it into an ocean of freedom and prosperity, working in partnership with countries that share values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law.” During the thirty-minute news conference, Mr. Abe mentioned “rule of law” three times, which WSJ’s Mitsuro Obe explained as a reference to what Japan sees as PRC violations of the law of the sea in the Asian Pacific.

ChinaFile hosted an exchange of essays about the pact that sheds further light on its strategic consequences. Barry Naughton argues that “the TPP shifts economic balances and alliances within Asia,” and suggests as an example that the TPP might pull signatories like Vietnam out of China’s orbit. Arthur Kroeber suggests that the deal will likely distill the U.S.’s “deep ambivalence about whether or not [to] accept China as an equal” and will thereby reveal whether America is to pursue a strategy of containment or accept Chinese spheres of influence that exclude the United States. And Graham Webster rejects altogether the premise that the TPP represents a “No China Club.”

In other news…

United States

As discussed last week, the U.S. Navy plans to challenge the PRC’s Great Wall of Sand by conducting freedom of navigation (FON) operations within twelve nautical miles of man-made islands claimed by China. Several additional hints about the expected FON patrols emerged this week. Navy Times suggested that “an action” somewhere in the Spratly island chain could occur “within days.” The FT, by contrast, flagged artificial islands in the Spratlys as the likely target of such operations and predicted that the maneuvers are likely to start in the next two weeks.

ADM Scott Swift pledged on Tuesday that the U.S. remains “as committed to freedom of the seas as ever” and warned that if bullying at sea is not addressed, it will spread and lead to a “friction point” on land. Speaking at the Royal Australian Navy’s Seapower Conference in Sydney, the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet explained the rationale for FON operations: “[W]e know from painful past experience, to shirk this responsibility and obligation, puts much more at risk than any one nation’s maritime interests.” The Australian Broadcasting Corporation interpreted the remarks as a not-so-thinly-veiled “swipe at China.” Other media outlets seized on different portions of the speech, including ADM Swift’s warnings against “revising” international law and his critique of “egregious” restrictions on the freedom of the seas.


Early this morning, Reuters reported that the PRC has returned rhetorical fire against recent threats from U.S. officials that the Navy would conduct FON operations in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying warned against any such patrols: “We will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight.” The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi provides additional context to Ms. Hua’s remarks, and The South China Morning Post analyses how the PLA Navy might respond to FON operations.

According to UPI, a recent PLA military award ceremony suggests that a Chinese Type 094 submarine might have begun its first patrol last week. The Pentagon expected the Jin-class nuclear sub, which is armed with JL-2 missiles capable of reaching the United States, to deploy before the end of the year. A report released by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence in April describes why the new JL-2 missiles are a substantial upgrade for the PLA Navy.


The Chicago Tribune reported this week that discussions between Japan and the PRC regarding the establishment of a maritime liaison mechanism to prevent accidental clashes between planes and ships in the East China Sea have deadlocked. The talks, which took place in June, made progress on several fronts (e.g., establishing a hotline to connect top brass). However, China Balked at Japan’s proposal to exclude territorial waters and airspace from the communications agreement, as this would include the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Japan’s Coast Guard accused three Chinese Coast Guard vessels of intruding into the territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on Saturday—the first such intrusion by any PRC government vessels since mid-September. Separately, a Japanese patrol claimed to have spotted a Chinese marine survey ship within Japan’s EEZ around Kume Island.

According to Kim Soon-Hi of The Asahi Shimbun, one of the two Japanese citizens detained last week in China based on allegations of spying was arrested on the Nanji islands, 300km northwest of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Aside from their proximity to the disputed islands, the location of alleged spy’s apprehension is significant because HIS Jane’s reported back in January that China is constructing a military base, including a heliport, on the Nanjis. A Chinese paper suggested that the Japanese national was specifically photographing the helipads.


Building on recent comments (described in last week’s post), Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne made what the Sydney Morning Herald deems a “veiled warning to China” regarding its actions in the South China Sea: “Australia continues to strongly oppose the use of intimidation, of aggression or coercion to advance any country’s claims or to unilaterally alter the status quo.” She added that her government remains “concerned about the destabilising impact of land reclamation activities in the South China Sea.” Senator Payne spoke at the same Royal Australian Navy’s annual Sea Power Conference where ADM Swift (USN) delivered similar “blistering remarks,” as noted above.


FT reports that the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague will soon rule on whether it has jurisdiction to hear a case brought by the Philippines challenging China’s nine-dash claim under UNCLOS. Based on the Philippine Department of Foreign Affair’s assessment that the Arbitral Tribunal would render a decision within 90 days of oral arguments, AMTI anticipates the intermediary ruling sometime next week. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel asserted that if the tribunal finds itself competent to hear the case, the subsequent merits decision would be binding on all parties under international law.

Perhaps anticipating the decision, several Filipino officials have gone on a rhetorical offensive against the PRC. In his address before the UN General Assembly last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario chastised China, arguing that no country can stake claim to an entire sea: “The world cannot allow a country, no matter how powerful, to claim an entire sea as its own nor should it allow coercion to be an acceptable dispute settlement mechanism.” Mr. del Rosario expounded on his speech in an interview with Foreign Policy. In it, he accused China of having an “expansionist agenda” that, if realized, would lead to “chaos and anarchy” and the disintegration of the rule of law. Similarly, Philippines Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, slammed China’s nine-dash claim during a lecture at CSIS and argued that a finding of no jurisdiction by the Arbitral Tribunal would amount to a win merits for China. Such a ruling, the judge warned, would effectively “allow a single state to rewrite the Law of the Sea” and would thus serve as the “beginning of the end for UNCLOS.”


Stratfor predicted that the Democratic Progressive Party will openly abandon the nine-dash line if elected in January 2016, a rejection of the “One China Principle” upheld by the current Kuomintang-controlled government and a move that would undermine the Mainland’s claims in the South China Sea.

An official at the Taiwanese Ministry of Transportation and Communications suggested in a recent interview that Taiwan will soon complete the construction of a lighthouse on the disputed island of Taiping (aka “Ba Binh Island” and “Itu Aba”) in the Spratly Archipelago—a project that has been condemned by the Vietnamese government. Taiwan also plans to build a pier and runway on the island to further reinforce its claims to sovereignty.


The Diplomat’s Carl Thayer reports that a tug-of-war between members of the Communist Party Central Committee as to whether Vietnam should deepen ties with the PRC or the United States will likely be settled in the coming months. The article suggests that China’s island reclamation in the South China Sea features as one of the top concerns for those advocating for a deeper relationship with the United States. This and other issues related to the South China Sea will likely be a key topic of conversation when Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama visit Vietnam in October and November, respectively. A final decision on Vietnam’s strategic outlook will likely be made by Vietnam’s Twelfth Party Congress, which is scheduled for January 2016.

In the meantime, Vietnam has undertaken a diplomatic blitz of late. Last week, a delegation from Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense took part in the sixth Vietnam-USA defense policy dialogue in DC, and military officials from both countries have also discussed strengthening ties between their coast guards in recent weeks. Closer to home, Philippine and Vietnamese officials expect to conclude a strategic partnership by the end of the year. Lastly, Vietnamese PM Nguyen Tan Dung has visited Japan twice in the last three months, with an eye to building a maritime security relationship.


Security chief Luhut Panjaitan revealed in an op-ed that Indonesia will consider the use of drones and submarines to project force over the gas-rich waters around the Natuna Islands. A related article in The Diplomat suggests that Indonesian defense officials are interested in procuring French-built Scorpene-class 1000 diesel-electric attack submarines (SSK), with Russian-made Kilo-class attack subs as a secondary option.


As part of its “Look East” and “Act East” policy, India has sent the INS Sahyadri, an indigenously-built Shivalik Class stealth destroyer, for a four-day visit to Da Nang, as part of an effort to build bilateral ties and inter-operational abilities with Vietnam. After leaving Da Nang, the INS Sahyadri will make its way to Sagami Bay to participate in Japan’s international fleet review on October 18. The Hindu’s Josy Joseph reports that INS Sahyadri’s the tour, coupled with Navy Chief R.K. Dhowan’s official visit to Australia, are intended as a counter China.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

Marc Cancian assesses the current size of the U.S. Navy and concludes that it is too small based on stated policy goals. He explains that to maintain forward deployment in the three traditional theaters—the Pacific, the Mediterranean/Europe, and the Indian Ocean/Middle East—the Navy would need to expand from ten to 14-15 carriers, in addition to a swath of new support ships.

The Diplomat ran several interesting articles this week. Nguyen Hong Thao looks back at why the Xi-Obama summit failed with respect to the South China Sea and why comments by both leaders should raise concern for the future. Shannon Tiezzi interviews Dr. Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about what to expect next in Sino-U.S. relations, including the South China Sea disputes. And Benjamin David Baker argues that the PLA Navy’s Type-71 Yuzhao Class, comparable to USS San Antonio-class, is the most underrated ship in China’s fleet.

The National Interest’s Andrew Erickson provides a great summary and analysis of recent news regarding Chinese deck aviation development. Elsewhere at the magazine, James Holmes argues that “[p]rolonged, uneasy deterrence” is the U.S. Navy’s least bad option for confronting the PRC in the South China Sea, and Jonathan Odom suggests that the PLA’s decision to sail through U.S. territorial seas off the coast of Alaska (covered in last week’s post) effectively sunk China’s “legal warfare” of anti-access/area-denial in East Asia.

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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