Sunday, December 16, 2012

China Hides Behind White Paint

 Strategy Page December 11, 2012

The recent Chinese announcement that it would begin enforcing new rules, starting January 1st, that will have Chinese naval patrols escorting, or expelling, foreign ships from most of the South China Sea has mobilized a lot of resistance. But the Chinese have been clever about how they will go about this. China is not planning on having grey painted navy ships do the intercepting and harassing but white painted coast guard vessels. White paint and vertical red stripes on the hull is an internationally recognized way to present coast guard ships. This is much less threatening than warships. China also calls in civilian vessels (owners of these privately owned ships understand that refusing to help is not an option) to get in the way of foreign ships the coast guard wants gone. Thus if foreign warships open fire to try and scare away these harassing vessels they become the bad guys.
China has three 1,500 ton coastal patrol ships ("cutters" in American parlance) being built simultaneously, next to each other as part of a 36 ship order. All these are for the China Marine Surveillance (CMS). Seven of the new ships are the size of corvettes (1,500 tons), while the rest are smaller (15 are 1,000 ton ships and 14 are 600 tons). For a long time coastal patrol was carried out by navy cast-offs. But in the last decade the coastal patrol force has been getting more and more new ships (as well as more retired navy small ships). Delivery of all 36 CMS ships is to be completed in the next two years. Meanwhile China is transferring more elderly navy small (corvette type) warships to the various law enforcement agencies responsible for coastal security. As of January 1st China will officially include the coasts of many uninhabited islets, rocks, and reefs in the South China Sea in that jurisdiction. This will make a lot of areas that the rest of the world considers international waters into Chinese coastal waters. China needs a lot more ships to patrol all this.
The CMS service is one of five Chinese organizations responsible for law enforcement along the coast. The others are the Coast Guard, which is a military force of white painted vessels that constantly patrols the coasts. The Maritime Safety Administration handles search and rescue along the coast. The Fisheries Law Enforcement Command polices fishing grounds. The Customs Service polices smuggling. China has multiple coastal patrol organizations because it is the custom in communist dictatorships to have more than one security organization doing the same task, so each outfit can keep an eye on the other.
CMS is the most recent of these agencies, having been established in 1998. It is actually the police force for the Chinese Oceanic Administration, which is responsible for surveying non-territorial waters that China has economic control over (the exclusive economic zones or EEZ) and for enforcing environmental laws in its coastal waters. The new ship building program will expand the CMS strength from 9,000 to 10,000 personnel. CMS already has 300 boats and ten aircraft.
In addition, CMS collects and coordinates data from marine surveillance activities in ten large coastal cities and 170 coastal counties. When there is an armed confrontation over contested islands in the South China Sea it's usually CMS patrol boats that are frequently described as "Chinese warships." The CMS and the four other “coast guard” forces have several hundred large ships (over 1,000 tons, including several that are over 3,000 tons) and thousands of smaller patrol boats. China is building small bases in the disputed islands that can serve as home port for the small patrol boats. It should be noted that many of these patrol vessels are designed to be equipped with heavier weapons (missiles, torpedoes) in wartime.
Thus the current expansion is mostly about the EEZ and patrolling it more frequently and aggressively. International law (the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty) recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land as under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. However, the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. China has already claimed that foreign ships have been conducting illegal espionage in their EEZ. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors or anyone venturing into what China considers areas under its control.
For the last two centuries China has been prevented from exercising its "traditional rights" in nearby waters because of the superior power of foreign navies (first the cannon armed European sailing ships, then, in the 19th century, newly built steel warships from Japan). However, since the communists took over China 60 years ago, there have been increasingly violent attempts to reassert Chinese control over areas that have long (for centuries) been considered part of the "Middle Kingdom" (or China, as in the "center of the world").
China is particularly concerned about the nearby Spratlys, a group of some 100 islets, atolls, and reefs that total only about 5 square kilometers of land but sprawl across some 410,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. Set amid some of the world's most productive fishing grounds, the islands are believed to have enormous underwater oil and gas reserves. Several nations have overlapping claims on the group. About 45 of the islands are currently occupied by small numbers of military personnel. China claims them all but occupies only 8, Vietnam has occupied or marked 25, the Philippines 8, Malaysia 6, and Taiwan one.
China prefers to use non-military or paramilitary ships (like those of the CMS) to harass foreign ships it wants out of the EEZ or disputed warfare. This approach is less likely to spark an armed conflict and makes it easier for the Chinese to claim they were the victims. These claims of being a victim come across as a bad joke to China’s neighbors. That’s because the new rules mean offshore areas of the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and Vietnam that international law does not recognize as Chinese are now formally claimed by China. India and the United States have both announced that they will not obey and that Indian and American warships expect to move unmolested through the South China Sea in 2013. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dispute Flares Over Energy in South China Sea

BEIJING — China and two of its neighbors, Vietnam and India, were locked in a new dispute on Tuesday over energy exploration in the South China Sea, a signal that Beijing plans to continue its hard line in the increasingly contentious waterway.
Vietnam accused a Chinese fishing boat of cutting a seismic cable attached to one of its vessels exploring for oil and gas near the Gulf of Tonkin, an act apparently intended to inhibit Vietnam from pursuing energy deposits.
Vietnam said Tuesday that in retaliation, it would send out new patrols, which would include the marine police, to guard against increasing encroachment by Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea. India, which operates several joint ventures with Vietnam’s national energy company, Petro Vietnam, said it would consider sending navy vessels to protect its interests in the South China Sea.
The latest episode followed an announcement by Hainan Province in southern China last week that Chinese vessels would board and search ships in contested areas of the waterway, which includes vital shipping lanes through which more than a third of global trade moves.
The new tensions among China, Vietnam and India illustrate in stark terms the competition in the South China Sea for what are believed to be sizable deposits of oil and gas.
Some energy experts in China see the sea as an important new energy frontier close to home that could make China less dependent on its huge oil imports from the Middle East.
On Monday, China’s National Energy Administration named the South China Sea as the main offshore site for natural gas production. Within two years, China aims to produce 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas from fields in the sea, a significant increase from the 20 billion cubic meters produced so far, the agency said.
Earlier this year, China’s third-largest energy company, the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation, began drilling with a rig in deep water in nondisputed waters off the southern coast of China.
The escalation in the South China Sea comes less than a month after Xi Jinping took office as China’s leader. Mr. Xi appears to have taken a particular interest in the South China Sea and the serious dispute between China and Japan over the islands known as Diaoyu in China and as Senkaku in Japan. Whether any of China’s most recent actions in the South China Sea were associated with Mr. Xi was not clear.
But Mr. Xi does lead a small group of policy makers clustered in the Maritime Rights Office, which serves to coordinate agencies within China, according to Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, and other Chinese experts. The unit is part of the office of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, Mr. Zhu said. The leading small group, now headed by Mr. Xi, is widely believed to be China’s central policy-making group.
China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated on Tuesday that China opposed oil and gas development by other countries in disputed waters of the sea. China maintains that it has “undisputed” sovereignty over the South China Sea, and that only China is allowed to develop the energy resources.
“We hope that concerned countries respect China’s position and rights,” said the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei.
Vietnam, which has long been wary of China but enjoys a relationship through its governing Communist Party, summoned the Chinese ambassador on Monday to protest the cutting of the seismic cable, the Vietnamese news media reported.
A Web site run by Petro Vietnam, the oil company, reported that the company’s exploration vessel Binh Minh 02 had its seismic cable severed by a Chinese fishing vessel on Friday. In May 2011, the Vietnamese authorities said a similar cable of the Binh Minh 02 was cut by three Chinese surveillance ships, resulting in weeks of anti-China protests in Hanoi.
In its decree on the new patrols, Vietnam said that civilian ships, supported by the marine police and a border force, would be deployed starting next month to stop foreign vessels that violate fishing laws in waters claimed by Vietnam.
A senior official of Petro Vietnam, Pham Viet Dung, was quoted in the Vietnamese news media as saying that large numbers of Chinese fishing boats, many of them substantial vessels, had recently entered waters claimed by Vietnam. The fishing vessels interfered with the operations of the oil company, he said.
India, whose state-run oil company, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, has a 45 percent interest in exploration with Petro Vietnam, also reacted strongly.
The head of the Indian Navy, Adm. D. K. Joshi, said that India was prepared to send navy vessels to protect its interests in the sea. “Now, are we preparing for it? Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is ‘yes,’ ” Admiral Joshi told reporters in India.
The most recent moves by China in the South China Sea have not won total support at home. Mr. Zhu, the professor, said he did not believe that China had become more assertive in the South China Sea.
But, he said, “the cable cutting is really unfriendly.”
Bree Feng contributed reporting.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Philippines attacks Chinese maritime law

Finacial Times Decb.2,2012

The Philippines has criticised China for expanding the powers of its maritime police, in a move that has further inflamed tensions over the South China Sea.
Manila urged Beijing to “immediately clarify” its plan to allow Chinese maritime police to intercept ships in the South China Sea, where China, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia have conflicting territorial claims.
The Philippines foreign ministry on Saturday said the new powers – if accurately reported – would constitute a “gross violation” of legal agreements on the South China Sea and a “direct threat to the international community”.
Tensions over the South China Sea, which is believed to hold vast oil and gas resources and is home to a third of the world’s shipping activity, have risen steadily this year. Last week, Surin Pitsuwan, outgoing secretary-general of the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations, warned that the area risks becoming “Asia’s Palestine”.
The new Chinese regulations, which were summarised in state-run media and come into force on January 1, allow maritime police in Hainan province to board and detain ships that are carrying out “illegal activities”, such as entering Chinese waters without permission and carrying out “publicity campaigns”.
The Chinese navy already had the right under Chinese law to board foreign vessels in Chinese waters. But the new law extends this power to domestic maritime police vessels as well, said Li Jinming, a professor at Xiamen University’s Maritime Studies Center. “Previously China has always used its navy, not its maritime police, for these types of activities,” he said.
Taiwan and India also voiced concern, with Taipei calling on Beijing to exercise more “self-restraint” after the new rules were published.
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a China expert at the International Crisis Group, said the law was “part of an overall strategy by Beijing to more forcefully defend its sovereignty claims through legal, economic and operational means”.
She said the measure appeared to apply mainly “to the activities of foreign ships within Hainan’s 12-nautical mile territorial seas”, but vague language in the summaries suggested that it may extend beyond that.
The statement from Manila is the latest irritant in increasingly strained relations between China and the Philippines, which figured in a prolonged maritime stand-off in April over the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground in the South China Sea.
Last week, the Philippines, Vietnam and India protested at Beijing’s decision to include the controversial nine-dash line map it uses to demark its maritime claims in new Chinese passports.
Manila said it will no longer stamp its visas on the Chinese passport but will instead stamp it on a separate visa application form.

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