The People’s Republic of China has launched its second aircraft carrier in the port city of Dalian. This ship will be the first domestically built carrier, however, it will not likely enter service until 2020. At present the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) has one aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning, an ex-Soviet Kuznetsov class ship. When Liaoning became operational it was suspected that the ship was serving as a testbed of sorts for China’s aircraft carrier program. Judging by the first photos of the new carrier, which show its design has borrowed heavily from the Liaoning, the suspicion is reasonable. The flight deck layout and island structure is nearly identical to the Liaoning and its displacement of 50,000 tons is on par with the earlier carrier.
This is a big step for China. It has been over twenty years since the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis when two US carrier battlegroups were rushed to Taiwan in a traditional show-of-force that deterred Beijing from taking aggressive action against the island nation. The crisis forced China to acknowledge the threat posed to them by US aircraft carriers and accelerate its military buildup, and begin to consider building or purchasing aircraft carriers of its own.
The PLAN has taken on a more prominent role in China’s foreign policy as the South China Sea and Senkaku situations moved to the forefront of national priorities and international scrutiny. Large scale naval exercises and Chinese warships appearing at far-flung locations around the world were common in 2016 and act as the vanguard of China’s growing ability to project power and influence events with its own maritime forces. The ongoing buildup of US naval forces in the Sea of Japan serves both as a mirror of what the PLAN is striving to become, as well as an illustration of the sort of US involvement in regional matters that China wishes to deter.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial comments in Beijing last week have cast clouds of anxiety and uncertainty across the globe. Diplomats, government officials and analysts from Washington DC to Manila are attempting to decode the meaning behind Duterte’s proclamation that the Philippines would be severing its military and economic relationship with the United States and pursue friendly ties with Beijing. In the aftermath of the trip, Philippine government officials appeared to be taken aback by the comments as well and began damage control and attempts to clarify. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said that Duterte was reiterating his wish for a foreign policy independent of Washington’s meddling and influence. Another cabinet official stressed that the Mutual Defense Treaty would not be abrogated and that the Philippines still consider the United States an ally.
Washington’s reaction to Duterte’s words has been to seek clarification from Manila about its intentions and the future of the US-Philippine relationship. On the surface Washington is projecting an air of calm as diplomats from the State Department arrive in Manila for talks with their Filipino counterparts. While this goes on, the White House is attempting to assure an increasingly anxious world that its relationship with the Philippines will continue and any attempts by Duterte to realign his country with China and Russia will not come at the expense of the United States. The Obama administration will have a short period of time to determine what Duterte’s real intentions are and begin formulating a response. Once the transition period begins after Election Day in the US, the problem will shift to the incoming administration.
The next administration in Washington is going to have to face the matter head on. The situation in the South China Sea could look radically different by January 20th, 2017 and the Asian Pivot, once the centerpiece of the Obama foreign policy, might be a shattered wreck.
After a long wait the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has delivered its ruling on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The PCA has ruled that there is no legal basis to the claims and no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control over the South China Sea (SCS) waters or resources. From an international law vantage point, the ruling invalidates China’s nine-dash line, the geographic boundary line that Beijing affixed to its SCS claims back in 1949. The PCA announced that it has also found that China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines’ in the SCS by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration.
As expected, Beijing has labeled the ruling as ‘ill-founded’ and claimed that China will not be bound by it. “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way,” Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated.
The reaction from other nations in the region has been more measured. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called the decision ‘legally binding’ and urged all parties to comply. Vietnam is pleased with the PCA’s decision and has publicly said so, while also reasserting its own territorial claims. Manila has been strangely quiet, with the Philippine government welcoming the decision as ‘significant’ while also urging ‘all those concerned’ to ‘exercise restraint and sobriety.’ Many Filipinos believe that President Duterte may have received assurances of Chinese investment in exchange for a muted response from Manila.
The United States has reacted by urging all parties to avoid inflammatory and provocative statements or action to the ruling.
The predominant question at the moment is: How will China respond? Despite Beijing’s lack of interest in the PCA’s decision, the ruling is seen as humiliating and a loss of face. China lost on every point in the ruling and it will be difficult, if not impossible for China to do nothing. In September, the G20 summit meeting will be held in China. Does Beijing have the composure to wait until after the summit before taking action in the SCS?
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to hand down its ruling in the Philippines case against the People’s Republic of China regarding the PRC’s claims in the South China Sea any day now. Regardless of which way the decision goes, it will have far reaching consequences for the entire region. It can potentially resolve some of the key issues at the center of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, or bring about an increase of tensions between the US and China. Ahead of the decision, Beijing, and Washington have been jockeying for position.
China refuses to recognize the court proceedings and has stated it will not be bound by any decision the court makes. China has been amassing support for its position, claiming to have the backing of sixty nations. Beijing is also continuing to assert itself at sea while the court finalizes its ruling. On Friday, Chinese fishing boats violated Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off of the Natuna Islands. Indonesian naval vessels fired warning shots and held the crew of one of the fishing boats. China claims the boats were in its traditional fishing grounds. It is the third such incident between China and Indonesia since March.
The United States has been on its own diplomatic offensive in the region, establishing the foundation for what it hopes will be a unified international response to the court’s decision. Washington’s intent is to render the “nine-dash” line invalid. Beijing has used the obscure marker to claim the bulk of the South China Sea as territorial waters. US actions in the region have not been confined to the diplomatic arena. Over the past weekend, a joint training operation including two carrier strike groups was conducted in the Philippine Sea. The arrival and presence of a large number of US warships in the area served as reassurance for America’s allies in the region and a message of deterrence for any nation intent on destabilizing the area.
Clearly, the exercise served as a warning shot across Beijing’s bow. An unsubtle reminder there will be consequences for any action it takes following the ruling in The Hague.
The militarization of the South China Sea is an issue that has been slowly gaining momentum in recent months. With global eyes centered on events in Syria for so long, the scope and significance of what is happening in the South China Sea is only now sinking in. The US has been warning China for years now about the ramifications that could result from their buildup of military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea. ASEAN member nations are quite concerned about China’s intentions and the US has made diplomatic efforts to address and resolve the issue with China and receiving nothing in return. The buildup has continued. The US upped the ante with Show of Force demonstrations with limited numbers of warships and aircraft around some of the islands. China responded by moving surface-to-air missiles and fighters to the disputed area. Beijing simply has not gotten the message. The United States is resorting to an old, but reliable tool to try and persuade China that its actions in the South China Sea should be reconsidered, if not abandoned entirely: Gunboat Diplomacy.
At the present time, the USS. John C. Stennis and her escorts are operating in the South China Sea, flexing muscle in an area that is rapidly becoming China’s armed backyard. China continues to deny that it is militarizing the area in spite of evidence to the contrary. As the standoff between the two nations continues, the presence of Stennis and her strike group in the contested waters is a clear indication that the US making a determined effort to send a clear message through power projection. How it will be received remains to be seen.
PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) and US Navy forces are operating in close proximity at sea and in the air. Both sides have to exercise caution and be prudent while carrying out their respective missions. As we’ve seen with Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian fighter-bomber, it does not take much for a serious incident to come about. Considering that the Western Pacific is a powder keg already, it would not require much to unleash a conflagration across the whole region.