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China vs US: military conflict in the South China Sea

September 17, 2013   ·   9 Comments

South China sea

This article will examine how the South China Sea dispute between China and some of its immediate neighbours can help shed some light on both US-China conflicting maritime and security interests and the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region. 

Following several clashes in the South China Sea with the US such as the 2001 Hainan island incident which involved the collision of a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a PLA naval F-8 fighter and the 2009 Impeccable incident where Chinese vessels aggressively maneuvered in close proximity to the US Naval Ship Impeccable, serious concerns were raised over China’s prolific rise and it responses. Increased focus on Asia by the US could lead to confrontations in an environment where “every action has unintended consequences and second and third order effects”.

When former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton spoke at the East-West center in Hawaii in October 2010 she emphasized three key elements of the US engagement in Asia. The US’s relationship with its allies, their relations with partners across the Asia pacific region and US participation in the region’s multilateral institutions such as ASEAN, APEC and EAS.

There has been much talk of the US’s pivot to Asia, spurred on by President Obama referring to himself as “America’s first Pacific president.” Certainly it has a nice ring to it, however, in reality the US is not returning to Asia because they never truly left. They have maintained a forward military, political and economic presence in Asia as well as Europe since the Second World War. In short, they have pursued a political and economic open door policy underpinned by the ability to project force outside their own western hemisphere.

The South China Sea comes into play because of its suitability as one of the launch pads for the Chinese navy which has undergone a prioritised fast modernisation since the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, which illustrated the shortcomings of the Chinese capabilities. International relations play out in the intersection between politics and international law.

Certainly the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) has regulated many aspects of naval interstate behaviour, but it is silent on the matter of military operations in a foreign state’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone), leaving it to state practice and subsequent developments in customary law. This was clearly demonstrated in the two previous incidents where both interpretations conflict with China’s right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZ whereas the US does not.

Early this year China’s navy conducted operations inside US EEZ, however it is unclear if it was a mere one time indiscretion or an indication of a policy change. The South China Sea however is not only a matter of the US and China working it out, but of how the region reacts to their respective behaviors.

A brief recap of the US’s and China’s major interest include in the case of the US, an interest in freedom of navigation for civil and military vessels as well as obligations with regards to existing alliances and partnerships in the region since adherence to them relates to their state credibility in the future.

In the case of China there is an expectation that their growth and development in the economic sphere should be supported and safe guarded by a capability to project force, particular in terms of resource supply and maritime trade, which translate into a stronger naval presence. The South China Sea is central to cementing naval strength and move the first line of defense beyond the coast of mainland China.

In relation to US-China relations, the discussion of the South China Sea territorial dispute between China and the other claimant states; the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, is primarily a question of state security. Certainly the abundant oil, gas and fish stock in the area add to the complexity of the issue, but this is first and foremost a discussion of the US and China’s interests.

When looking at how their interests conflict, what stands out is the US’s historical presence in the region illustrated by alliances, partnerships and increased interest in regional multilateral organizations. China’s assertive and aggressive behaviour, especially in the South and East China Sea, has pushed their neighbours towards the US, while instilling fear amongst the Chinese that the US would seek an containment policy equal to it employed against the Soviet Union during the cold war. This does not necessarily correspond to a self fulfilling prophecy, but it highlights the complexity of the relationship.

As former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton once stated there is a need to “build trust and establish rules of the road as our militaries operate in greater proximity”, which mirrors and highlights that the 2002 code of conduct for the claimant states in the South China Sea dispute is still incomplete in the sense that it is unspecific and non binding.

As such the next few years will see the US’s and China’s interest interact in an unregulated and somewhat volatile environment of the South China Sea dispute, while the claimant nations will continue to push their individual agendas.

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

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Per Heiberg

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7 comments
Matthew Tran
Matthew Tran

Apparently, you are very proud of those submarines & jets the VCs have bought from Russia by spending billions of hard-earned dollars!!

What is the real purpose of the VCs’ acquisition of those items? To SHOW OFF to its innocent people? But the Vietnamese people want the VCs use them to REPELL the CHINESE INVADERS?

Those items have been bought for 3, 4 years now .. and have been idling, staying unused around !!

Why don’t the VCs use them as intended purposes? Probably they were just blind and couldn’t find the Chinese invaders ? Why don’t they just head East and there they are:

- Thousands of Chinese invaders on Hoang Sa & Truong Sa.

- Thousands of them on reefs with man-made islands in their vicinities.

- A Chinese oil rig standing nearby in our territorial water.

Every Vietnamese could see: with those weapons, by now, the VCs could proudly claim: Hoang Sa & Truong Sa and their vicinities should belong solely to Vietnam !!!

With those weapons, if the VC’s could not achieve the sole purpose is to reclaim TS & HS and their vicinities, LET’S SCRAP THEM!!

MT

Matthew Tran
Matthew Tran

What have the Vietnam communists been doing about the Chinese communist territorial aggression on South East Asia Sea? They have done nothing except running away with tail between their hind legs !!!!

mary hong
mary hong

@Matthew Tran Your knowledge is limited thus, the conclusion misguided. Here are few things Vietnam does:

. Execute diplomatic strategy of supports for the Philippines lawsuit, Vietnamese sovereignty claim and international exposure of Chinese lawlessness.

. Prepare to confront Chinese military aggressions with upgraded defensive parameters around Vietnamese islands and reefs while improving overall navy and air forces capabilities: purchases of 6 Kilos-Class submarines, 8 Gepard 3.9 frigates, 42 Su-30sjet fighters... while self-producing annually, 4 fast attack, missiles-equipped ships for asymmetric warfare.  

Matthew Tran
Matthew Tran

@mary hong @Matthew Tran 


I can guaranty to the whole world that VC (Vietnamese communist) would never dare to challenge the Chinese communists for Vietnamese rights on any front such as Hoang Sa & Trương Sa islands or on fishing rights area.


History showed:

-  When Vietnamese fishing boats harvested around Hoang Sa & Truong Sa, the Chinese communists boats intentionally crash against Vietnamese fishing boats to sink. The VC authority did not dare to protest the culprit: Chinese communist by name but merely said: The Vietnamese fishing boats was sunk by "UNKNOWN" boats !!

-  Not too long ago, VC Navy approached their Hoang Sa & Truong Sa islands, VC Navy boats suddenly became "target practice" for the Chinese sailors: they used machine guns to gun down almost 50 VC sailors !!! It's a shame !!

- That was in contrast to the picture when the Vietnamese people took into account about the 1974 sea battle between the South Vietnamese Navy against the Chinese navy on the same area: What happened then? The South Vietnamese Navy opened fire FIRST against the Chinese Navy and sunk one Chinese destroyer with a boatful of Chinese BIG SHOTS w/o any assistance from the US 7th Fleet !!

At the present time, off and on the Vietnamese people -IN VIETNAM- still gather by thousands to glorify the South Vietnamese Navy past action !!

If you want, I will send those articles in question for your consideration.


- About those VC submarines, frigates & jet fighters VC acquired from Russia you mentioned above, they are second class, out dated weapons, no other countries want to touch.


Matthew Tran


mary hong
mary hong

@Matthew Tran @mary hong You don't need to send me any articles that I perhaps, haven't read and/or known about: typical glorified South Vietnam and lambasted current communist Vietnam despite facts.

. You can't guarantee such a complex Vietnamese response to Chinese aggressions as they involve where China and Vietnam are today but where they will be when and how China dares to pull the trigger. Numerous players are entering the picture such as Australia, Japan, India, the US as well as ASEAN countries. Vietnam never will act alone and is not alone!

. Yes, Vietnamese authorities used to avoid confrontation by the careful words of  "unknown boats" but, that changed in the last year and official protests happen more often.

. Your recount of Chinese attack in 1988 against Vietnamese navy is incorrect: 64 lightly armed construction screws were murdered by Chinese gunboats because they were in transport ships with no heavy arms to return fires. Yes, it was a shame but subsequently, Vietnam learned and expanded from 2 Spratly features (inherited from south Vietnam) to now 21 locations with over 2,000 heavily, armed defenders.

. Your story of the 1974 Hoang Sa battle also is inaccurate as the 3 south Vietnamese destroyers were more advanced than the 6 smaller Chinese gunships. Yes, they fired 1st but, lost the total control of Hoang Sa to China without staging either an air forces or naval retaliation when they had clear military advantages over China, during that time. It's childish to debate the merit who were more heroic except, recognizing all their deaths are in the hand of Chinese invaders thus, need to be recognized by Vietnamese. I'm glad that finally, Vietnam knows that now and when do overseas Vietnamese accept and appreciate the deaths of 64 Vietnamese at Spratly?

. Again, bashing Vietnam with absurd statement such as" second class, out dated weapons, no other countries want to touch." simply, proves your misguided viewpoint and lack of concern for Vietnam. Remember, the same Kilos submarines and Su-30's are also ordered by Indonesia and Malaysia, accordingly. No country expects to take China on alone or win the lopsided fight. Vietnam can, however deter and make Chinese expansionism more difficult and costly. 

Matthew Tran
Matthew Tran

@mary hong @Matthew Tran 


Apparently, you are very proud of those submarines & jets the VCs have bought from Russia by spending billions of hard-earned dollars!!


What is the real purpose of the VCs’ acquisition of those items? To SHOW OFF to its innocent people? But the Vietnamese people want the VCs use them to REPELL the CHINESE INVADERS?


Those items have been bought for 3, 4 years now .. and have been idling, staying unused around !!


Why don’t the VCs use them as intended purposes? Probably they were just blind and couldn’t find the Chinese invaders ? Why don’t they just head East and there they are:


- Thousands of Chinese invaders on Hoang Sa & Truong Sa.


- Thousands of them on reefs with man-made islands in their vicinities.


- A Chinese oil rig standing nearby in our territorial water.



Every Vietnamese could see: with those weapons, by now, the VCs could proudly claim: Hoang Sa & Truong Sa and their vicinities should belong solely to Vietnam !!!



With those weapons, if the VC’s could not achieve the sole purpose is to reclaim TS & HS and their vicinities, LET’S SCRAP THEM!!



MT


mary hong
mary hong

The US can't continue to skirt the issues presented by Chinese illegal claim of the entire South China Sea and their criminal enforcement of that claim by chasing survey ships and shooting at neighbor's fishermen. China does not only try to define the UNCLOS based application of EEZ's, they clearly use it to their advantage while arrogantly denies all neighbors of the same legal rights with their 9 dash map ( now 10 dashes ). By dancing around with declaration of being neutral in sovereignty disputes but interested in freedom of navigation ( Filipino and Vietnamese have no freedom of navigation ), the US is confusing South East Asian countries of what its commitment is and send mixed messages that China is cleverly taking full advantage of in its successful territorial expansionist campaign. It's time that South East Asians must throw the slogan back at the US, made famous by G.W. Bush:  " You are either with us or your are not ".