On March 18, officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Singapore to resume consultations on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that began last September. This meeting should have created an atmosphere for the lowering of tensions in the South China Sea. At the least, China and the ASEAN claimant states could have been expected to avoid provocations while the consultations were progressing.
Just the opposite occurred. Nine days before the ASEAN-China discussions commenced, Chinese Coast Guard vessels stationed at Second Thomas Shoal took the unprecedented action of blocking routine resupply for Philippine Marines stationed at the shoal.
At the end of March, as the deadline approached for the Philippines to submit its memorial to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal set up to hear Philippine claims regarding its maritime entitlements under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China unleashed a shrill diplomatic attack on the Philippines.
In the midst of these developments, South China Sea claimant states began to push back against China’s assertiveness.
Indonesia and the Philippines both took steps to shore up their maritime defense forces against future contingencies in the South China Sea. Vietnam pressed China for compensation for harassing its fishermen in disputed waters around the Paracel Islands while quietly taking delivery of its second Kilo-class submarine.
Resupplying Second Thomas Shoal
On March 9, two Chinese Coast Guard ships stationed at Second Thomas Shoal (known as Ayungin shoal in the Philippines and Ren’ai Reef in China) intercepted two Philippine-flagged civilian vessels making a routine resupply run to the shoal and ordered them to return to port. The vessels were carrying supplies to Philippine Marines deployed at the shoal on the BRP Sierra Madre, a beached LST still in commission in the Philippine Navy.
This was first time Chinese ships had physically interfered in this manner.
The Philippines responded by summoning a senior Chinese diplomat to the Department of Foreign Affairs to deliver a protest. The Chinese official was told that the actions by the Coast Guard ships were “a clear and urgent threat to the rights and interests of the Philippines.”
A spokesperson for the United States Department of State went on record as saying that “This is a provocative move that raises tensions. Pending resolution of competing claims in the South China Sea, there should be no interference with the efforts of claimants to maintain the status quo.”
China’s Foreign Ministry accused the Philippines of attempting to build structures on Second Thomas Shoal in violation of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). This accusation ignored the fact that the Philippines had occupied Second Thomas Shoal three years before the DOC was issued.
The Philippines then resorted to airdrops to resupply the Marines. On March 29, the Philippines mounted a second resupply effort by sea. The Philippine supply vessel was once again challenged by two Coast Guard ships who ordered it to “stop all” illegal activities. The resupply vessel outwitted the Chinese ships by sailing through waters too shallow for them to follow.
This turn of events led a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson to accuse the Philippines of illegally occupying Chinese territory.
As of this writing, the standoff continues and it remains to be seen if China will reinforce its presence at Second Thomas Shoal and adopt even more aggressive tactics to prevent future Philippine resupply efforts.
China may be constrained, however, by the impending visit of President Barack Obama to the Philippines in April.
Philippines Submits Memorial to the Arbitral Tribunal
On March 30, the Philippines submitted its memorial to the UN Arbitral Tribunal outlining its case for a determination of its maritime entitlements under international law. The Philippines’ memorial comprised 10 volumes running to more than 4,000 pages.
The Philippine claim, initially filed in January, was amended to include Ayungin Shoal in light of China’s actions in blocking supply.
The Philippines made its submission despite intense pressure by China on the Philippines to drop its claim and resume direct bilateral negotiations.
Immediately prior to the Philippines’ submission, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson publicly called on the Philippines “to stop its wrongdoing” and withdraw from arbitral proceedings. The spokesperson also declared that China “will neither accept the unilateral action of the Philippines nor be present in the international arbitration.” This refrain was repeated by other Chinese officials.
On March 30, China’s Foreign Ministry called on the Philippines to honor their commitments under the DOC “and return to the correct path of bilateral talks in resolving disputes.” The following day the Foreign Ministry summoned Erlinda Basilo, the Philippine Ambassador to China, to receive a “solemn representation” from Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin. Liu noted that China was “extremely dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the international arbitration.
On April 1, the Chinese Charge d’Affairs in Manila issued a strongly worded statement that declared, “we are deeply disturbed by and concerned with the consequences of such moves.” The Charge then stated that the actions by the Philippines “seriously damaged bilateral relations.”
Claimant States Push Back
In late February, it became apparent that Indonesian defense officials were growing increasingly concerned about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the implications this held for the island archipelago.
On February 27, the chief of Indonesia’s National Defense Force (TNI), General Moeldoko, announced that Indonesia would reinforce its military presence around the Natuna islands. According to Moeldoko:
Since Natuna is strategically located, the increase of its forces at sea, on the ground, and in the air is necessary to anticipate any instability in the South China Sea and serve as an early warning system for Indonesia and the TNI.
General Moeldoko announcement carried special weight because it came immediately after he returned from a visit to China where he reaffirmed Indonesia’s neutrality in maritime territorial disputes.
Indonesia has already completed considerable upgrading of its facilities at the Ranai Air Base on Riau Island, including the installation of integrated radar and runway and taxi lights. The air base currently houses Hawk 109/209 light fighters.
Indonesia plans to extend the runway and build new hangers to accommodate Su-27 and Su-30 jet fighters as well as the more capable F-16 air superiority fighters.
Indonesia is in the process of acquiring three Type-209 conventional submarines from South Korea, and two Dutch Sigma frigates.
On March 12, Air Commodore Fahru Zaini, assigned to the defense strategy unit of the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, revealed that China’s inclusion of part of the Natuna islands within its nine-dash line claims to the South China Sea affected “the Unitary State of Indonesia.”
In late March, Indonesia hosted the inaugural Komodo Multilateral Naval Exercise involving seventeen countries including ASEAN members and dialogue partners. The Komodo exercises will take place in the waters around Riau province, including Natuna.
Commodore Amarullah Octavian, director of the joint maritime exercise, was unusually blunt in discussing Indonesia’s political agenda behind the Komodo Exercise. On March 28, in remarks to a planning meeting reported in the Indonesian press, Commodore Amarullah was quoted as stating:
The exercise will focus on naval capabilities in disaster relief, but we will also pay attention to the aggressive stance of the Chinese government by entering the Natuna area. We want to explain that our laws stipulate that Natuna is part of Indonesia.
Commodore Amarullah also stated that the Indonesia Navy would distribute exercise maps clearly indicating that Natuna island fell within Indonesia’s national boundaries. “Therefore,” he argued, “diplomatically all countries have recognized all Indonesian borders.”
Meanwhile, on March 16, in the midst of deteriorating relations with China, Philippine President Benigno Aquino announced in a speech during graduation ceremonies at the Philippines Military Academy new arms procurements totaling $670 million.
The funds will be used to purchase twelve South Korean FA-50 dual-role fighter-trainer jets ($420 million), eight Canadian Bell 412 combat utility helicopters ($100 million), and two anti-submarine helicopters. The new fighters will revive the air combat wing disbanded several years ago. The FA-50s are expected to enter service next year.
The Philippines, which is already committed to spend 40 billion pesos ($890 million) by 2017, has put out tenders for two frigates. It is negotiating with France for the acquisition of five patrol boats and with South Korea for several multi-role strategic sea lift vessels.
On March 24, the Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien reported that Vietnam had requested the Chinese government to investigate allegations of assaults on Vietnamese fishermen by paramilitary state vessels in the waters surrounding the Paracel Islands. Further, Vietnam demanded compensation for the loss of equipment and fish.
In addition, Vietnam’s acquisition of conventional Kilo (Varshavyanka-class) submarines picked up the pace in March. On March 2, Russia handed over Vietnam’s third submarine, HQ 184 Hai Phong, at the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg. It is currently undergoing sea trials.
At the end of the month, Vietnam’s second submarine, HQ 183 Ho Chi Minh City, was delivered to Cam Ranh Bay, while Vietnam’s fourth submarine, HQ 185 Khanh Hoa, was launched at official ceremonies in St. Petersburg.
On April 4, Vietnam held an official flag raising ceremony at Cam Ranh Bay for the first two submarines.
Indonesia, like Malaysia, has been circumspect in responding to Chinese challenges to its sovereign jurisdiction in its maritime domain. Heretofore unpublicized reports of encounters between Chinese paramilitary ships and Indonesian vessels reveal that the “softly, softly” approach adopted by Jakarta has not resulted in a reduction of Chinese-initiated confrontations.
However, China’s increasing assertiveness this year – announcing the right to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, imposing a fishing ban on nearly sixty percent of the South China Sea, symbolic claims to sovereignty over James Shoal off Malaysia, blocking efforts by the Philippines to resupply Marines at Second Thomas Shoal, and diplomatic heavy-handedness in response to the Philippines’ submission of its memorial to the UN Arbitral Tribunal – coupled with less publicized encounters with Chinese paramilitary ships, explains why the Philippines, Vietnam, and, most remarkably, Indonesia are pushing back.