Why the US’ tough South China Sea rhetoric is not very smart

It was never realistic to think Southeast Asian claimants would hop on the China-bashing bandwagon. With a more aggressive military presence, the US could force nations to choose between it and China, but Washington might not like the outcome

Mark J. Valencia

Published: 3:30am, 14 Aug, 2020

Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a position on the South China Sea, declaring in a statement: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources…”

He then mounted a diplomatic full-court press to round up Southeast Asian countries for the US’ campaign against China’s actions in the South China Sea.

He vowed the US would “support countries … who recognise that China has violated their legal territorial claims”, adding: “We will go provide them the assistance we can, whether that’s in multilateral bodies, whether that’s in Asean, whether that’s through legal responses, we will use all the tools we can.” Presumably, that would include military “tools” if necessary.

But the reaction of many Southeast Asian countries was cautious. Indeed, this policy initiative seems likely to fail. Why?

China hits back at US after Pompeo says most of Beijing’s claims in South China Sea are illegal

Mainly, these states are concerned that, as in the Cold War, they will become pawns and suffer accordingly. It did not help when, days later, Pompeo crossed the political Rubicon by directly attacking the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper poured petrol on the fire by declaring: “Goodwill and best wishes do not secure freedom. Strength does.”

This ramped-up rhetoric was preceded by a show of force involving two US Navy aircraft carriers. Yet, Pompeo did not get the response from Southeast Asia he might have hoped for.

As William Choong of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute noted, a challenge to China on values was “not going to take off” in Southeast Asia. “We are not going to see the same kind of pushback that the US expects to see in Asean,” he said. “This whole confronting China and kicking down the front door, I don’t think that’s an Asean way.”

That’s not the only problem. Some worry that Pompeo’s tough talk is just a ploy to help President Donald Trump’s re-election. Others see the US presence in the region as a double-edged sword, which could deter or escalate tensions with China.

In the analysis of Shahriman Lockman at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies: “The worst-case scenario is for things to escalate, and then the US gets distracted … and we get saddled with more Chinese ships in our waters.”

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations like Indonesia and Singapore have remained neutral. Indonesia described any country’s support for Indonesian rights in the Natuna Sea as “normal”.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called on countries to “avoid military posturing”. He added that Malaysia should not be “dragged and trapped” in a tug of war between superpowers.

The Philippines did not join a recent US-led naval exercise in the South China Sea, with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr saying: “We’re sitting out this one.”

Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

There are good reasons that a US-instigated anti-China front is unlikely to materialise in Asean. These nations each have their own economic and geopolitical reasons for not wanting to be out of favour with China.

Indeed, it was never realistic to think Southeast Asian claimants to the South China Sea would jump on the China-bashing bandwagon – especially if it involves military intervention.

With the exception of Vietnam – and even its support remains in question – it is doubtful that Southeast Asia will welcome any attempt to back up a threat of the use of force with specifics.

Yet, there are those who say the Trump administration made a “smart” move, in clarifying its position on the South China Sea. Maybe they think China’s rival claimants can be persuaded by US rhetoric and convinced that the US has interests beyond freedom of navigation (or freedom to engage in intelligence probes into China).

Perhaps they are counting on anti-China (or anti-Chinese) sentiment in some countries in the region. They might even be hoping that some will follow the US’ example if it uses military force. If so, this is dangerous wishful thinking.

If the US fails to deter China, it might have to choose between a credibility loss and a “kinetic” conflict. This is the very dilemma it had avoided by being ambiguous. But now the cat is out of the bag. The US must either back up its bold words, or lose more credibility with regard to its staying power and its commitment to friends, allies and the region.

Worse is the possibility of unilateral provocative actions by those like Vietnam, which may feel emboldened by the idea that the US will support China’s rival claimants. That clarification was not a smart move.

The US has been rapidly losing soft power in Southeast Asia since the Trump administration withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump’s “America first” mantra has made Asean nations feel like they are on their own. With a more aggressive diplomatic and military presence, the US could force nations in the region to choose between it and China, but the US might not like the outcome.

An appeal to Southeast Asia to join in the US’ ideological struggle against China is not sufficient. The only way to rebuild the integrity of its relationships is to respect the region’s self-defined interests as much as its own. Otherwise, this US policy initiative, like others before it, is likely to fail.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

Dr Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. Currently he is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

Source: SCMP “hy the US’ tough South China Sea rhetoric is not very smart”

Note: This is SCMP’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.

Tensions due to China’s Fishing Ban under Control unless US Interferes

SCMP says in its report “Beijing’s South China Sea fishing ban threatens to raise tensions with rival claimants”, “Fishing groups in Vietnam and the Philippines have urged their governments to take firm measures to resist ban, which is intended to preserve fish stocks”.

Vietnamese government has said something but not the Philippines.

In fact even during the Scarborough standoff, the Philippines has to observe the ban, though China disallowed it to fish in the area around the reef.

Fishing conflicts between China and Vietnam have been common. A Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk by Chinese coast guard ship even recently.

Such tension for resources are normal and will not be a big issue unless the US interferes with its navy.

In the past, Japan planned to use its navy to drive Chinese fishing boats away from the area around the disputed Diaoyu Islands, China showed that it was to respond with war. The then US Vice President Joe Biden had to visit China to prevent the naval war as the US would not support Japan’s move. Biden said that the US would not fight for a few rocks. After that, China sent fishing fleet larger than the past to the area and Japan did not drive Chinese fleet away.

China banned Philippine fishing in the area around Scarborough Reef after Scarborough standoff, but the US did not interfere though the Philippines is its ally. The ban was not lifted until the Philippines had improved its relations with China.

There may be tension or even war if the US interferes as China vows to defend its core interests in the South China Sea.

The ball is on US side.

Comment by Chan Kai Yee on SCMP’s report, full text of which may be viewed at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3083304/delayed-south-china-sea-talks-expose-chinas-complex.

Beijing marks out claims in South China Sea by naming geographical features

China says it is asserting its sovereignty in the disputed waters in the face of Vietnam’s ‘aggression’

Latest move follows establishment of new administrative structures for Paracel and Spratly islands

Kristin Huang

Published: 6:30pm, 20 Apr, 2020

Updated: 12:08am, 21 Apr, 2020

China has given names to 80 geographical features in the disputed South China Sea in the latest move to assert its territorial claims in the face of increasing opposition from Vietnam.

According to a notice jointly released by China’s Natural Resources Ministry and Civil Affairs Ministry, it has given names to features in the Paracel and Spratly islands. These include 25 islands, shoals and reefs and 55 oceanic mountains and ridges.

The last such exercise was carried out in 1983, when China named 287 features in the area, where multiple nations have competing territorial claims.

Yan Yan, director of the Research Centre of Oceans Law and Policy in the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said China had acted to assert its sovereignty and sovereign rights after Vietnam raised the stakes in their dispute.

Last month, Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to the United Nations to protest against China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea.

To reiterate its sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, China coined names for 80 more features after the 1983 exercise,” Yan said.

China is faced with an increasingly aggressive Vietnam as the country continues to fish illegally and conduct oil and gas exploration unilaterally in the South China Sea. And as this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Vietnam should exercise more restraint rather than acting aggressively.”

The statement came a day after China said it had set up two administrative districts – which it named Xisha and Nansha – to govern the Paracel and Spratly islands.

China also dispatched a scientific survey vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, to sail into waters also claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 has been accused of tagging an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company, but a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman insisted the Chinese ship was conducting normal activities.

China claims almost the whole South China Sea, but these claims are not recognised by its neighbours or most other countries.

It has adopted salami-slicing tactics to boost its claims, gradually building artificial islands and facilities that could be used for military purposes over the past six years despite repeated protests from the international community.

China’s latest actions in the South China Sea come amid renewed tensions with the United States and Vietnam.

This month Vietnam lodged an official protest with the Chinese government after a fishing boat was sunk following a collision with a Chinese coastguard vessel near the islands.

China said the Vietnamese boat had been fishing illegally and sunk after ramming the Chinese vessel.

The incident provoked an angry reaction from Washington, which accused China of exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to act when other countries were preoccupied with the crisis.

Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said China’s latest moves would only deepen the lack of trust among Asean countries, which are currently negotiating a code of conduct for the area with China.

I think such moves are going to be counterproductive and backfire on Beijing,” said Koh. He said that its actions would increase international attention on the matter, something China had hoped to avoid.

Source: SCMP “Beijing marks out claims in South China Sea by naming geographical features”

Note: This is SCMP’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.

US Helpless as China Has Turned South China Sea into Its Lake

South China Morning Post’s article “Has the US already lost the battle for the South China Sea?” yesterday asked the stupid question whether the US has already lost the battle for the South China Sea.

It’s stupid as there has not been and will not be any battle there as by deployment of J-20s to control the air and construction of artificial islands the US is simply unable to fight a battle in the South China Sea.

Subdue the enemy without fighting is the best of best

                                                              –Sun Tze

The SCMP article says that some military experts and analysts believe China’s artificial islands may be destroyed by missiles but so are US military bases in Asia and the Guam.

If there were such a missile battle, it would be a battle in East Asia instead of a small battle in the South China Sea. In such a war, the US cannot be sure of the support from its allies Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines but China can be very sure of the support from its de facto ally Russia.

In fact, the US has lost dominance of not only the South China Sea but East Asia.

Comment on SCMP’s article, full text of which can be viewed at https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3046619/has-us-already-lost-battle-south-china-sea?utm_medium=email&utm_source=mailchimp&utm_campaign=enlz-scmp_international&utm_content=20200118&MCUID=480db96a00&MCCampaignID=ffe3a1a725&MCAccountID=3775521f5f542047246d9c827&tc=4

Beijing Preps 10-Story Oil Drilling Platform for South China Sea despite Wary Vietnam

By Ralph Jennings

September 30, 2019 05:46 AM

TAIPEI, TAIWAN – China has developed a giant new offshore oil exploration platform for possible use in disputed tracts of sea, a move that would anger Vietnam and extend years of energy-related disputes between the two Asian neighbors.

The platform dubbed Haiyang Shiyou 982 sits over the sea now, ready to seek oil deposits up to 9,000 meters deep, a Chinese social media account run by the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission reported Wednesday.

Boats from Vietnam and China rammed one another in 2014 after China allowed an offshore oil firm to position the platform’s predecessor, Haiyang Shiyou 981, in disputed waters. Earlier this year, Vietnam asked a Chinese survey vessel to leave Vanguard Bank, a maritime feature where the Southeast Asian country is looking for fuel under the seabed.

Expect more resistance if Haiyang Shiyou 982 ruffles Vietnam, analysts warn.

They will have some kind of reaction for sure, because the South China Sea is by no means cool in terms of temperature,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It can flare up at any moment.”


The worst case could reignite a sometimes violent two-way spat over maritime sovereignty that goes back to the 1970s.

Haiyang Shiyou 982

Chinese-language media reports said in early 2018 the sixth-generation drilling platform had been “delivered” in the northeastern port city Dalian. The platform should improve the equipment for China’s offshore drilling work, those reports said.

The commission said media had been invited to observe operations aboard the 10-story-high platform. It did not say where at sea the platform was deployed but said the site was about a one-hour helicopter ride from Sanya in southern China. Sea tracts along the mainland Chinese shoreline are not contested.

Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines claim all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. China, which calls about 90% of the waterway its own, has taken a military and technological lead over the past decade. Other countries, for example, often contract for oil exploration while China relies heavily on its own rigs.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates 11 billion barrels’ worth of oil under the South China Sea along with 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Vietnam vs. China

The 981 rig’s 2014 deployment also set off deadly anti-China rioting in Vietnam. The Vanguard Bank flap this year led to a standoff after the Chinese energy survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, began patrolling waters near Vanguard Bank 352 kilometers off the coast of southeastern Vietnam. Vietnam operates an undersea energy exploration platform nearby.

Vietnam sometimes works with foreign companies, such as the Spanish firm Repsol and ONGC Videsh of India, on exploration contracts. Beijing resents foreign influence in the South China Sea and pressures Vietnam to stop some of the joint projects.

I think (the new platform) is probably not to consolidate the Chinese sovereignty, but it’s to undermine the effort or the attempt of Vietnam to pursue joint exploration with other countries,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.


Strategic gain for China

China’s new platform strengthens its control over the disputed sea and could be even read as a “second front” of resistance against the United States, Chong said. The U.S. government does not claim the South China Sea but advocates keeping it open internationally. The U.S. Navy regularly sends ships into the sea and China criticizes the passages as foreign interference.

If questioned by other governments about the new oil platform, Chong said, China could say the platform is purely aimed at drilling for oil.

The platform could also send a signal to the Philippines, among others, about China’s willingness to explore jointly for oil or gas in the disputed sea, said Herman Kraft, political science professor at the University of the Philippines.

Manila and Beijing said earlier this year they would explore together and let the Philippines take 60% of any discoveries. That deal extends Beijing’s effort to get along with the other South China Sea claimants and limit U.S. influence in the region, Asian maritime scholars have said.

China hopes to start the project with Manila while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is in office through 2022, Kraft said. Duterte began pursuing friendship with China in 2016, a departure from his predecessor.

At this point, this is really more of China trying to make sure that they’re going to being able to take advantage of Duterte’s still being in power and being able to move forward that memorandum of understanding into something that’s actually more operational,” he said.

Source: voanews.com “Beijing Preps 10-Story Oil Drilling Platform for South China Sea despite Wary Vietnam”

Note: This is voanews.com’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.

Chinese ship inches closer to Vietnam coastline amid South China Sea tensions

Khanh Vu August 24, 2019 / 1:42 PM / Updated 3 hours ago

HANOI (Reuters) – A Chinese survey vessel on Saturday extended its activities to an area closer to Vietnam’s coastline, ship tracking data showed, after the United States and Australia expressed concern about China’s actions in the disputed waterways.

The Haiyang Dizhi 8 vessel first entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) early last month where it began a weeks-long seismic survey, triggering a tense standoff between military and coastguard vessels from Vietnam and China.

The Chinese vessel continued to survey Vietnam’s EEZ on Saturday under escort from at least four ships and was around 102 kilometers (63 miles) southeast of Vietnam’s Phu Quy island and 185 kilometers (115 miles) from the beaches of the southern city of Phan Thiet, according to data from Marine Traffic, a website that tracks vessel movements.

The Chinese vessel group was followed by at least two Vietnamese naval vessels, according to the data.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment.

A country’s EEZ typically extends up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers or 230 miles) from its coastline, according to an international UN treaty. That country has sovereign rights to exploit any natural resources within that area, according to the agreement.

Vietnam and China have for years been embroiled in a dispute over the potentially energy-rich stretch of waters and a busy shipping lane in the South China Sea.

China’s unilaterally declared “nine-dash line” marks a vast, U-shaped, expanse of the South China Sea that it claims, including large swathes of Vietnam’s continental shelf where it has awarded oil concessions.

On Friday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his Australian counterpart expressed their concern about China’s activities in the South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea.

Earlier in the week, the United States said it was deeply concerned about China’s interference in oil and gas activities in waters claimed by Vietnam, and that the deployment of the vessels was “an escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources in the South China Sea”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, in response to the U.S. statement, said Washington was “sowing division and had ulterior motives”.

The aim is to bring chaos to the situation in the South China Sea and damage regional peace and stability. China is resolutely opposed to this,” Geng told a daily news briefing on Friday.

Reporting by Khanh Vu; Editing by James Pearson; Editing by Shri Navaratnam

Source: Reuters “Chinese ship inches closer to Vietnam coastline amid South China Sea tensions”

Note: This is Reuters’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.

Failure of Pompeo’s Intervention with South China Sea Disputes

China’s survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 conducted geological survey in July in the disputed waters in the South China Sea that claimed by both China and Vietnam. Vietnam protested but China simply ignored that. I described it in my post “ Vietnam Merely Watched China’s Survey in Disputed Waters” on July 15.

On August 1, Reuters says in its report “Pompeo blasts Chinese ‘coercion’ in South China Sea”, “U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday criticized Chinese ‘coercion’ in the disputed South China Sea, highlighting a divide with Beijing at a meeting of Southeast Asian nations with world powers. “

China’s survey ship left the disputed area on August 7 and gave the impresion that Pompeo’s intervention worked.

However, Reuters says in its report “Vietnam demands Chinese ship leaves its exclusive economic zone” on August 16 that the survey ship has returned to the disputed area.

Pompeo’s intervention has simply been ignored.

Comment by Chan Kai Yee on Reuters reports full text of which can be viewed at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-asean-thailand-pompeo/pompeo-blasts-chinese-coercion-in-south-china-sea-idUSKCN1UR4D2 and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-china-southchinasea/vietnam-demands-chinese-ship-leaves-its-exclusive-economic-zone-idUSKCN1V61CO

China Keeps on Survey in South China Sea Despite Vietnam, US Protests

SCMP says in its report “Vietnam renews demand for ‘immediate withdrawal’ of Chinese ship in disputed South China Sea” on July 25, 2019 that Vietnam demanded again immediate withdrawal of Chinese survey ship in disputed area in the South China Sea.

Marine Geology 8 SCMP photo.

I said in my post “Vietnam Merely Watched China’s Survey in Disputed Waters” on July 13 that Vietnam merely protested without taking any action to drive away Chinese geological survey ship Marine Geology 8. Chinese ship simply remains there and ignores Vietnamese protest.

Why has Vietnam not driven away or even rounded up Chinese ship and boats like what the Philippines did in Scarborough Standoff. It knows that it may suffer like the Philippines in being banned of fishing in the disputed area.

For Vietnam, it may suffer much greater losses as it has been exploiting oil in disputed areas but China has not driven it away. If it takes any action similar to the Philippines’, China may dispel all the oil rigs there.

The US protested and accused China of bully but dare not take any action. Anyway, Vietnam may be happy for the oral suppor since the US is not Vietnam’s ally. However, Vietnam knows very clear that the US will not help it in a military conflict between it and China.

Comment by Chan Kai Yee on SCMP’s article, full text of which can be viewed at https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3020124/vietnam-renews-demand-immediate-withdrawal-chinese-ship

Vietnam Merely Watched China’s Survey in Disputed Waters

SCMP says in its article “China and Vietnam in stand-off over Chinese survey ship mission to disputed reef in South China Sea” on July 12 that China’s geological survey ship Marine Geology 8 conducted a seismic survey from 3 to 11 July in an area of the South China Sea that Vietnam and China both claim. Vietnam only sent its coast guard ships to watch Chinese operation without conducting an provoking activities.

Marine Geology 8 SCMP photo.

Survey map. provided by SCMP

The report says, “Six heavily armed coastguards vessels – two Chinese and four Vietnamese – have been eyeing each other in patrols around Vanguard Bank in the Spratly group of islands” but no actual conflicts had taken place.

“In May, Chinese Minister of National Defence General Wei Fenghe visited Hanoi, pledging with his Vietnamese counterpart that both nations would maintain stability in the South China Sea.” It seems the visit was effective in easing tension between the two countries so that there had been no actual conflicts.

Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe (left) and Vietnamese counterpart General Ngo Xuan Lich discussed the South China Sea during talks in Hanoi in May. Photo: Handout

US hopes that the Philippines and Vietnam may cause some troubles to China due to their disputes with China over the South China Sea, but now the Philippines, though a US ally, has switched to China side while Vietnam did not interfere with China’s seismic survey in disputed waters. What can the US do? Only to conduct a few freedom of navigation operations.

Comment by Chan Kai Yee on SCMP’s article, full text of which can be viewed at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3018332/beijing-and-hanoi-stand-over-chinese-survey-ship-mission.

US Media Ignores Beijing Treating Vietnam in South China Sea Same as Philippines

In its article “South China Sea: Beijing Shouldn’t Treat Vietnam Like The Philippines” Forbes seems to forget that China disallows Vietnam’s drilling for energy resources in the South China Sea without cooperation with China just as it has been doing to the Philippines.

China has successfully stopped Vietnam’s drilling there while making arrangement for cooperation with the Philippines in surveying and exploiting energy in disputed area.

The difference lies in Vietnam and the Philippines. China is also willing to cooperate with Vietnam in that respect. Only Vietnam is not willing to at present. However, it cannot do so alone without China’s consent.

Beijing shouldn’t treat Vietnam like the Philippines? Beijing treats the two countries precisely the same on exploitation of energy resources.

It is also the same with regard to fishing. Like the Philippines, Vietnam and China both fish in the disputed areas. Only the Philippines tried to ban Chinese fishing but caused China’s response of banning Philippine fishing there. The ban was lifted when Duterte sought friendship with China. The US though an ally of the Philippines did not help the Philippines when Chinese navy banned Philippine fishing there. That was why Duterte switched to seek friendship with China.

Vietnam and China both fish in the disputed areas. When a Vietnamese fishing boat did something not allowed by China, it was sunk by a Chinese one. Vietnam simply could do nothing while the US simply ignored that.

China is treating Vietnam just the same as it does the Philippines. Why? China has declared that its rights and interests in the South China Sea are China’s core interests. It will fight a war to defend its interests.

Will US Navy join Vietnam when there is a military conflict between Vietnam and China due the dispute? It doesn’t seem that the US will fight a war with China for Philippines’ let alone Vietnam’s interests there. The US is not Vietnam’s ally! That is why there is peace there.

Comment by Chan Kai Yee on Forbes’ article, full text of which can be viewed at https://www.forbes.com/sites/panosmourdoukoutas/2019/07/13/south-china-sea-beijing-shouldnt-treat-vietnam-like-the-philippines/#26eed89b5ff4.