Archive for the 'South China Sea' Tag

“What is India’s role in the Indo-Pacific?” “Does India have a national interest at stake in the South China Sea?” “How should India shape its maritime relationship with China?”

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to India to take part in an engaging three-day conference on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, joining two other CIMSEC members in Chennai and Kochi. While the above questions of India’s maritime strategic future were not the theme of the conference (that being Sea Change: Evolving Maritime Geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific Region), they were frequent points of discussion, only natural given the event’s location and the preponderance of preeminent Indian minds. While I’ll focus here on these conversations, the conference’s top-notch organizers from the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Stimson Center are publishing a collection of the papers presented, on an array of topics, which should make for stimulating reading. I’m grateful to the organizers for inviting me, and the U.S. Consulate Chennai for sponsoring the event.1

I’m also grateful for the effort these organizations made to bring together scholars and practitioners from the United States, China, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, the Philippines, and India to consider the challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific from a variety of perspectives. These representatives from the fields of maritime shipping, offshore energy, geopolitics, international law, private maritime security, and fisheries and climate sciences had the chance to share and contest ideas in a cross-disciplinary approach. And contest they did. ju

Observers and attendees of similar events will be familiar with the contentious dynamic that can develop between Chinese and Japanese or Chinese and American representatives, as highlighted at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier in the month. In India, Dr. Liu Zongyi of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) carried China’s banner. Some of the feistiest exchanges involved his assertions that the United States had previously agreed to Chiang Kai-Shek’s claims to the South China Sea and that there were no maritime disputes in the South China Sea prior to U.S. involvement in the region in the 1960s-70s – the former rebuffed by a personal account of the post-War discussions with Chiang relayed by U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Director for Plans and Policy, W.J. Wesley. As for Liu’s latter argument, South China Sea claimants on all sides have produced a multitude of historical documents stretching back centuries, but if he was referring to the start of a more active phase of the disputes he may have the timing more accurate. Yet China’s seizure of the Paracels from South Vietnamese forces in 1974, killing 70, is probably not what he meant as an illustration of U.S. trouble-making.

In spite of these disagreements over China’s positions, the conference to its credit maintained a cordial atmosphere, with several presenters touting the benefits of establishing personal connections and dialogue over beers or cocktails – the benefits to which many CIMSEC chapters can attest. The organizers’ ringing of a concierge bell to mercilessly keep panelists to their allotted time also built a sense of shared sacrifice against a common enemy. Even by continuing to press his country’s positions Liu won some professional empathy for resoluteness in the face of near-universal criticism.

For it was near-universal. If anything surprised me at the conference it was that the Indian panelists and presenters also openly disparaged both Chinese claims and their actions in the South China Sea. The 9-dash line came in for particularly sharp treatment, with one analyst noting that by the same basis of drawing lines in the water Spain could claim all lands 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands – with a treaty to back it up. Yet a consensus on the merits of the issues doesn’t mean India will take action. Indian participants led a robust discussion and were of divided opinion as to whether India had a national interest in getting involved in these disputes on the eastern end of the Indo-Pacific.

To be fair, it was not only China that came in for criticism. During Q+A segments Indian audience members asked why the United States is focused on destabilizing China, whether it should be viewing the region through a Cold War lens, and whether the Rebalance to the Pacific is waning. None of these questions reflect the reality or the logic of U.S. goals in the region, but they do highlight some existing perceptions.

Dr. Liu’s view of India’s role was clearer, arguing “a swing state and hedge is the best choice,” and describing newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in The Global Times last month as having a chance to become “India’s Nixon,” and bring about closer ties with China. The outreach to India was oddly tinged with scare tactics, however, as Liu claimed “If China was crushed, India will become the target of the U.S.,” based on a remark former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made calling India an “emerging threat.” Even a Pakistani newspaper acknowledged this slip-up as a gaffe.

For their part, many of the Indian representatives saw opportunities to increase already growing maritime cooperation in the region while weighing the risks of increased Chinese activity in the Indo-Pacific. Inspector General Satya Sharma, of the Indian Navy, touted India’s sustained and close cooperation with several counter-piracy efforts from East Africa to Singapore and room for closer Coast Guard collaboration in the near abroad. ORF’s Manoj Joshi and Madras Christian College’s Dr. Lawrence Prabhakar explored ways India could build its own deterrent power in the context of increased risk from increased contact with China at sea. Prabhakar further stated that India would continue to focus primarily on bilateral relationships with regional powers, but noted several instances of developing trilateral engagements, including the upcoming Malabar exercise with the United States and Japan. At the same time, ORF’s Dr. P.K. Ghosh cautioned against expecting India to “play the role of headmaster” in setting the agendas of its neighbors at the west end of the Indo-Pacific.

article-0-1EC45E6C00000578-448_966x490Taken as a whole, the workshop was more productive than most with its focus on presenting not only challenges but also the potential means to mitigate them. By the time I presented my paper on U.S. Maritime Security Relationships and Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific I had coalesced some ideas around a concept raised by retired Vice Admiral Hideaki Kaneda earlier in the day on “webs of maritime collaboration,” specifically creating linkages between such structures as maritime domain awareness and info-sharing agreements for counter-piracy and EEZ enforcement. For despite the focus of this article on some of the more contentious issues in the conference2 there were in fact large areas of agreement and mutual concern – from the need to protect sea lanes to the projected impacts of climate change on coastal regions and ports to the benefits of collaborative humanitarian assistance / disaster response (HA/DR). As noted yesterday at The Diplomat, there’s a real need for workshops such as these, where participants talk with each other and not just at each other, to bring productive dialogue to the region.3

This post appeared in its original form at CIMSEC’s NextWar blog.


  1. Fittingly, it was held as Monsoon rains began to lash southern India during the 5th anniversary of the precursor article to Robert Kaplan’s book of the same name, discussing India’s role in the region. 

  2. In addition to the more academic debates over the scope and history of the term “Indo-Pacific.” 

  3. And well worth cramming one’s 6’3″ frame into 40+ hours of coach flight. 



Well, we had to deal with Vietnam’s Buddhist monks a few decades ago … I guess now it is China’s turn.

Vietnam said earlier this week that six Buddhist monks will soon take up residence on one of the Spratlys. The monks, who reportedly will stay for the next year, belong to the government-sanctioned wing of the Buddhist church.

In all seriousness though, this has all the ingredients; oil, sea lines of communication – and overlapping claims that adds fuel to it all.

…to re-establish abandoned temples on islands that are the subject of a bitter territorial dispute with China.

The temples were last inhabited in 1975, but were recently renovated as part of efforts to assert Vietnamese sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.

The monks’ delegation is being organised by the local authorities in the southern province of Khanh Hoa, which exercises administrative responsibility for the islands on behalf of Vietnam.

It has also paid for the refurbishment of the island shrines. They include three larger temples and several smaller ones.

The monks have been appointed abbots of the island temples for a six-month period.

Along with China and Vietnam, parts of the islands are claimed by the the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

To get the Monks there takes just a boat – to keep them there or to kick them off takes the ability to project naval power ashore.

Is this a provocation? Of course. The billion dollar question is; what national security concern is this of ours? If it isn’t, when does it become one, if at all?



When Russia planted a flag on the Arctic Ocean seabed in August 2007, it was in part, political theater meant to cement its claim to the region’s vast natural resources (especially mineral). Of course, such action served as a shot across the bow of the other states bordering the region, leading, among other actions, to a 2008 joint Canadadian-Danish geologic study that supports Canada’s claim to the Lomonosov Ridge as a natural extension of the North American continent and as such, a significant portion of the Arctic seabed. While the five nations with competing claims have agreed to work under UNCLOS through the aegis of the Arctic Council (founded in 1996), there has been an increase in military presence (primarily Russian) in recent months and something of an information campaign as well.

All of this is pretext to an event in the South China Sea that occurred earlier this summer – but only recently announced:

A Chinese submarine planted a national flag deep on the floor of the South China Sea during a test dive last month to reinforce China’s territorial claim, the boat’s designer said yesterday.

The State Oceanic Administration and Ministry of Science and Technology jointly announced yesterday that a Chinese scientific submarine with three civilian crew members had explored unknown terrain at a depth of more than 3,700 metres at the heart of the South China Sea. Before resurfacing, they planted a Chinese flag on the ocean floor.

The motivation of such as pretty clear:

“We were inspired by the Russians, who put a flag on the floor of the North Pole with their MIR [deep sea submarine],” said Zhao, an engineer at the China Ship Scientific Research Centre, who designed the hull of the submarine. “It might provoke some countries, but we’ll be all right. The South China Sea belongs to China. Let’s see who dares to challenge that.”

Brave words indeed from an engineer associated with the project (but one presumes they would not have made it into circulation without the tacit approval of the Chinese government) – but it doesn’t end there. Being as how there was nowhere near the Chinese coast to test the deep sea submersible’s operating depth of up to 7,000 meters (greater than the Russian Mir and similar Western subs, as claimed by the Chinese maker), it was tested close to the Philippines:

“The closer to Philippines, the deeper the sea. We will put down national flags all the way until we reach their border,” Zhao said. “And then we will go beyond and aim for the Mariana Trench.”

Oh yes — and one other “small” item all the way at the end of the article:

The Sea Dragon needs the support of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, according to Zhao. “The navy has escorted all our previous missions and I think they will continue to do so,” he said. “The further we go, the more we need guns to protect ourselves.”

Which itself, brings to mind something we noted in an earlier post

The timing of the announcement and subsequent revelation in the open press (e.g., South China Morning Post – 27 August 2010 (registration/subscription may be required to read)) obviously follows on the heels of China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea. The rub of it is, however, that in so doing their goal of keeping the US marginalized and the other nations bordering the SCS divided becomes harder to obtain. The US has already stated that the competing clams over the resources in the sea and on the seabed of the SCS should be handled in a multi-lateral forum – one thinks something similar to the afore-mentioned Arctic Council, which would be anathema to the Chinese who, ironically enough, have obtained observer status on the Arctic Council. And that item, brings us back to the Arctic where China has asserted a right for access to the mineral wealth on par with the perimeter nations. Giving substance to the claim is a research station established in Norway and deployment of a Russian-built, nuclear-powered icebreaker on a semi-permanent basis.

So, here’s an observation — Russia has laid clam to a vast amount of the Arctic and may well end up with a majority share of said resources. Claim, however, is one thing, the ability to access and exploit another — and the current state of Russian industry and technology to exploit the mineral resources of the region is questionable. The US and Canada have the technological capability, but one wonders about the commitment of the US and the capacity of Canada – which leads us to look at a possible Russo-Chinese joint venture — hard currency for Russia from sales abroad of liquid and mineral resources and guaranteed access to same by a resource hungry China. All without any expectation of China stepping back from its increasingly aggressive posture in the SCS.

…things that make you go, hmmm…

Update; See also Eagle1 and ‘Phib posts this subject as well as this weekend’s blogtalk radio’s coverage of the same.



At its root it is all about resources — protein to supplement meager domestic harvests and oil to drive economies that governments push to unnatural and unsustainable annual growth. It is about an emergent regional power, poised on the brink of asserting itself as something more, flexing new found muscle in new domains and deepening suspicion of others in the region. . . “It” is a body of water, bounded to the west by Indochina, to the south by Indonesia and the east by the Philippine Islands. A marginal sea, it is the largest body of water after the world’s five oceans, measuring some 3.5 million square kilometers. Bordered by nearby home for over 270 million people.

Through its passages at Malacca and Taiwan, pass great streams of commerce — more than half the world’s supertankers and almost half of the world’s tonnage by most counts. Outward-bound to distant lands with finished products, inbound with the raw wealth drilled, mined, scraped and otherwise pulled from the earth, grist for the shore-bound industries. From crowded, stinking cities and wave-swept shore, fishermen set to sea to bring its bounty back to a waiting family, village or hungry nation. They set sail in everything from small boat to vast maritime industrial fleets, so efficient at harvesting but with so little thought of sustainment. At day’s end, visitor and native alike pause to consider the marvels of a watercolor sky, brushed in deep shades of vermilion and azure from above met by molten gold and dark sapphire from below – merging on the horizon.

Marvelous beauty, marvelous bounty – but alas, one that has seen mighty conflict in its time. From the early days of vessels powered by muscles and fear, to sail and later, plied by great grey hulking beasts that sought out like kind for battle or hurl anger ashore, it has seen war in all its stark, naked rage.

The South China Sea. Nán Hǎi. Dagat Timog Tsina. Laut China Selatan. Biển Đông.

Click on image to expand

The resources – living and mineral, have been a source of strife among the major regional actors and a look at the multitude of claim/counter-claim lines drawn on a chart, of overlapping claimed sovereignty is to behold a modern Gordian-knot. The modern day Alexander in the region, China, has sought to quietly, relentlessly snip away at that knot through bi-lateral negotiations, playing nations off one another and using new found bluster to attempt to quash any semblance of emergent multi-lateral dialogue. A 2002 declaration of conduct between ASEAN nations and China wherein all would exercise restraint over claims in the region has begun to unravel. ASEAN members claim it is meaningless in the face of Chinese naval assertiveness in the region and growing conflicts between fishing fleets and naval forces. The US, no stranger to these waters from the late-19th century forward, is still a relative new comer but underscoring its resurgent presence in SE Asia, asserted through SecState Clinton’s surprising (to the Chinese) statement last month at a forum on maritime matters hosted in Hanoi, that a leading diplomatic priority for the US would be a multilateral approach to resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea while challenging China’s claims to the entirety of the sea.

China’s response wasn’t long in coming.

The Chinese military declared Friday that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea but insisted it would continue to allow others to freely navigate one of the busiest waterways in the world.

The statement by the People’s Liberation Army seemed designed to reiterate China’s claims to the entire 1.3 million-square-mile waterway while calming concerns in Washington and Asian capitals that its policy toward the region had suddenly become significantly more aggressive.

“China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea, and China has sufficient historical and legal backing” to support its claims, Senior Col. Geng Yansheng, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, told reporters Friday during a visit to an engineering unit on the outskirts of Beijing.

But he added, “We will, in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of the passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries.”

Coming on the heels of competing naval exercises off the Korean peninsula and in the Yellow Sea in July by China (which also began a major round of air exercises today), the US remarks raised hopes of nations in the region who have expressed increasing concern over China’s growing naval presence. At home, the Chinese press whipped itself into a veritable froth, taking every opportunity to highlight the naval exercises and declare China’s emergence, something the MoD spokesman quoted above noted later in the same press conference as “not helpful.”

Make no mistake about it — if the US chooses to press ahead in the region militarily and diplomatically there will be substantive challenges and an increased likelihood of a confrontation on the high seas. China has made no bones about using sharp elbows where it feels its sovereignty is being impinged and with increased capacity and capabilities, will undoubtedly feel it is in a position of greater strength to exercise the same. On the part of the US, it is the opening act of what a number of writers and strategists are coming to see as at least one major feature of a post-Iraq/Afghanistan world – one that requires a naval presence for persistent presence, able to flow forces on short notice that are able to conduct sustained operations from the seabase. It is the core of the maritime strategy and naval operations concept.

It is also one that demands a navy with wide-ranging capabilities across the spectrum of war and which will not be found in a dwindling force of undermanned ships, aging aircraft and neglected weapons systems. It will require small combatants, big-deck amphibs, multi-mission destroyers and cruisers, submarines for hunting and deterrence and carriers that bring a revitalized mission of sea control back into a portfolio too-long dominated by strike warfare. Grey hulls, white hulls. Sailor, Marine, Coast Guardsman. The need is there — the question – can we afford to build and sustain the necessary force structure to put “paid” to the diplomatic checks being written?

Can we afford not to?

The guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) maneuvers with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy Luyang-class destroyer Guangzhou (DDGHM 168) off the coast of North Sulawesi, Indonesia

crossposted at steeljawscribe.com



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