China’s major South China Sea drill: Threats to regional peace and stability

Chinas major South China Sea drill Threats to regional peace and stabilityKyodo News (Japan) on 11 May 2020 reported that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was planning to conduct a large-scale landing drill off Hainan Island in the South China Sea in August to simulate the possible seizure of the Taiwanese-held Pratas Island. According to the U.S Star and Stripes on 27 May, China will deploy two aircraft carriers (Shandong and Liaoning) for this exercise in the South China Sea.

Some sources also revealed that on the way to the exercise site, the aircraft carrier strike group will pass through the Pratas Islands on its way to the southeast of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea while other parts of the naval flotilla would be involved in landing exercises at a site near Hainan, about 600km southwest of the Pratas Islands.

‘India-China border clash may reverberate in South China Sea’

India ChinaThe medical experts at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) have been at the forefront of the global fight against Covid-19 both as a seat of medical research, and as a reliable soundboard for policy interventions. What most don’t know, however, is that the strategic affairs and diplomacy experts at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), specialising in the East Asia and Indo-Pacific, have also been busy during this period pondering on how the post-Covid-19 geo-political dynamics emerges in that region, where the United States, China, Taiwan, Asean countries and Quad partners are increasingly appearing to be closing ranks. Additionally, the recent moves by India to collaborate further and deeper with the countries of that region gain significance, as New Delhi gets embroiled in an active conflict with Beijing at the Line of Actual Control.

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The “Notes Verbale Debate” on sovereignty in the South China Sea “reactivates” the PCA award

MalaysiaOn December 12th 2019, Malaysia submitted a new Note Verbale to the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (CLCS) of the United Nations (UN) to assert its claim about extended continental shelf based on the final award issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) dated July 12th 2016. The PCA’s award concludes that China’s “nine-dash line” has no validity and no feature in the Spratly Islands generates any maritime entitlements. Through its Note Verbale on the extended continental shelf, Malaysia has sparked the “Notes Verbale Debate” among claimants in the South China Sea sovereignty dispute.

It is called the “Debate of Notes Verbale” because after the Malaysian submission of Note Verbale to the UN, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and recently Indonesia followed suit, either to object the Malaysian and related nations’ claims or to protect their national sovereignty, or both. Some states even submitted two or three Notes Verbale. Some submitted theirs in response to others’. This has been the second “Debate of Note Verbale” on the South China Sea since the 2000s.

What’s new in the US South China Sea policy?

Whats newAt escalating Chinese aggressive behaviors in the South China Sea in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, US South China Sea policy has undergone drastic changes, confirming the US’ commitment to the region. Recent US policy adjustments on the South China Sea are as follows:

First, top US officials, including the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and other members of Congress, have condemned China, one after the other, for taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to push forth their acts of encroachment, coercion and bullying towards neighboring countries in the South China Sea. To prove their point, the US has since dispatched its powerful naval forces (amphibious ships, destroyers, missile defense ships, frigates, submarines...), as well as its air force (long range strategic bombers), to the South China Sea.

In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, such intense and rapid activities of the US navy and air forces are meant to convey a tough message to Beijing, clearly demonstrating Washington's intention of siding with coastal countries in the South China Sea, supporting their rights to exploit energy resources in their lawful waters, while condemning China of pressuring and bullying its neighbors.

Should China be permitted to “rewrite” the international law?

Should China be permittedThat is the question that experts, academics and the international public raised before the event of April 18, 2020 when China blatantly announced the establishment of the new two administrative divisions under the so-called “Sansha City” to govern Paracel and Spratly Islands. With this action, China continues to disregard international law and the fact that Vietnam has repeatedly affirmed that Vietnam has sufficient historical evidence and legal basis to assert sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands. China’s perverse attitude in the South China Sea did not stop there, but a day later (April 19, 2020), China's Natural Resources Ministry and Civil Affairs Ministry released “standard names” for 80 geographical features in the South China Sea. Most of these features locate in the western part of the South China Sea, some of which are along the "nine-dash line" that Beijing unilaterally declared and is very close to the mainland of Vietnam.

Immediately after those Chinese actions many international experts and scholars have in recent days expressed their frustration at Beijing’s “unethical” and “unreasonable” actions.

Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea amidst the pandemic

South China Sea amidst the pandemicEver since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Wuhan, China in late 2019 and early 2020, researchers have warned that Beijing authorities would increase their belligerent activities in the South China Sea for the post-COVID-19 period. Such warning has come true, as Beijing has repeatedly committed aggressive actions in the South China Sea in the last month, while the pandemic rages on all over the world.

Beginning a series of recent activities, Chinese maritime vessels had sunken Vietnamese fishing boats in the Paracel Islands, causing public outcry. In spite of the focus on combatting the COVID-19 epidemic, the US State Department, the Department of Defense, and Senators, have strongly protested against Chinese maritime vessels’ such aggressive actions against Vietnamese fishing boats. The Philippines also strongly condemns such inhumane actions by Chinese maritime vessels, despite the need to enlist China’s support.

Following the sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels, China sent the Liaoning carrier strike group into the South China Sea to conduct military exercises and to scare off neighboring countries. Afterwards, China brought in the Haiyang Dizhi 08 geological survey ship as well as other maritime and militia vessels (which have invaded Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in 2019) so as to operate within the waters of countries along the South China Sea.

New Air Bases, Baby Cabbage Key to Chinese Long-Term Claims in South China Sea

New Air BasesChina is tightening its grip on disputed claims in the South China Sea by beefing up its military capability and planting the seeds of long-term habitability on the artificial islands at the core of its regional economic influence strategy.

Last week, Taiwanese officials warned of the threat posed by a Chinese air defense identification zone (ADIZ), according to press reports, including an account in the South China Morning Post. China is likely years away from being able to control the region, but the leadership in Beijing continues working to establish a framework that would be necessary to eventually assert control of its claims.

As the U.S. Navy runs freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, China’s strategy for backing its claims to expand its regional economic influence is taking shape in the air and on the ground.

China’s Inopportune Pandemic Assertiveness

For a state just beginning to recover from Covid-19, China has been remarkably active in pressing its sovereignty claims. Chinese forces have been involved in a spate of incidents around its borders, most recently a series of tense encounters with India. Foreign media have seized on this as another example of Chinese opportunism, in which Beijing shamelessly presses its territorial agenda against weaker rivals still in the throes of the disease. However, China’s actions also constitute a strategic blunder, sacrificing the propaganda value of its contributions to regional pandemic responses and weakening its long-running attempts to dilute US influence. This gives Washington a second chance at drawing a contrast with China and demonstrating concrete leadership for a region still reeling from Covid-19’s effects.

Untimely Bellicosity

South China Sea: US Joins the Battle of Diplomatic Notes

US Joins the Battle of Diplomatic NotesOn June 1, 2020, Ambassador Kelly Craft, the United States’ representative to the United Nations, sent a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations regarding Note Verbale No. CML/14/2019. Issued by the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China on December 12, 2019, the Note Verbale was a response to Malaysia’s same-day submission of its extended continental shelf (beyond 200 nautical miles) to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

By this act, the United States, a non-claimant country that is further away from the immediate South China Sea region, has involved itself in the legal battle of diplomatic note exchanges between China and Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, dating back to December 2019.

Historical records: China never has sovereignty over Spratly and Paracel Islands

Historical records China never has sovereignty over Spratly and Paracel IslandsAs its "sovereignty" claim with the "nine-dash line" was rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) due to lack of legal and practical grounds, China has changed its tactics by releasing the concept of "Four Shas" that covers more than 90% of the South China Sea and includes the two archipelagos of Paracel and Spratly. In a latest bid to "realize" this claim, China explicitly announced the establishment of two districts called "Xisha" and "Nansha", which govern both Paracel and Spratly Islands, under the so-called "Sansha City”.

Beijing then invented the "standard naming" procedure for 80 geographical features in the South China Sea, along with their longitudes and latitudes. It is worth noting that, of these entities, there are shoals located deep within the Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and only about 50 nm from the Vietnamese baseline. These actions constitute an illegal and blind escalation in Beijing's "monopolization" scheme of the South China Sea. Such actions could never give Beijing a cover to exercise its so-called "historic rights," because throughout history, China itself has never had sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

There a plenty of literature, documents or statements uncovering China's illegality and blindness in their unreasonable sovereignty claim in the South China Sea, all of which outlined and culminated in the 2016 PCA ruling of the Philippines vs. China case, and the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982). It is a known fact that the two archipelagos of Paracel and Spratly are for long under Vietnam's sovereignty. But it remains relatively unknown that from a historical perspective, Chinese dynasties had declared both Paracels and Spratlys outside of Chinese jurisdiction, while denying the responsibility for enforcing sovereignty over these two archipelagos, as shown in the following historical evidence:

Beijing’s plans for South China Sea air defence identification zone

Beijing plans for South China Sea air defence identification zone cover Pratas Paracel and Spratly islandsBeijing has been making plans for an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea since 2010, the same year it said it was considering the introduction of similar airspace controls over the East China Sea in a move that was widely criticised around the world, a military insider said.

The proposed ADIZ encompasses the Pratas, Paracel and Spratly island chains in the disputed waterway, according to a source from the People’s Liberation Army, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The plans for the zone were as old as those for the East China Sea ADIZ – which Beijing said it was considering in 2010 and introduced in 2013 – the source said, adding that Chinese authorities were waiting for the right time to announce them.

While Beijing might have been reticent on the subject, Taiwan’s defence ministry said on May 4 that it was aware of the mainland’s plans.

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