The European Union is looking to play a more influential role in the western Pacific to help counter China’s rising power. Coming alongside recent and future deployments of naval vessels belonging to EU member-states into the region, has been a more assertive tone emanating from Brussels. Especially when it comes to recent Chinese action in the South China Sea. The EU has blamed China for endangering the peace and turning a blind eye to international law. The EU was talking specifically about the situation at Whitsun Reef, as well as the 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that rejected China’s claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea. More to the point, China’s refusal to accept the ruling. “Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region,” a EU spokesperson said in a statement released this past weekend.
China wasted little time in rejecting the EU accusation. The Chinese Mission to the EU reiterated that the reef is part of China’s Nansha Islands and that it is “reasonable and lawful” for Chinese fishing boats to operate there and shelter from the wind. The Philippines does not abide by the Chinese claim to Whitsun Reef. Manila claims the reef is located inside of its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), a position the EU supports.
The EU’s words and actions concerning the South China Sea are causing concern in Beijing that Europe, the United States and other Indo-Pacific nations are orchestrating a coordinated approach towards China. Some Chinese officials view this as the start of a largescale containment effort that could bring about difficulties for China down the road.
Brussels, though, is balancing its strong language and actions with dialogue on other tracks. As the economic ties between China and Europe continue to grow, diplomats are reluctant to close the door entirely on Beijing for fear of economic backlash. A geopolitical attempt by the EU to have its cake, as well as eat it too. Practically speaking, the consensus does not exist for bloc-wide sanctions to be put in place against China, should the need arise. Nor do EU nations have the ability to project military power in force around the western Pacific, leaving very little to support the strong language with. Beijing understands this, as well as the fact that Europe needs China far more than China needs Europe for the moment.
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.
The People’s Republic of China is continuing its buildup of military power on contested islands in the South China Sea. Today, Fox News reported that two batteries of the HQ-9 Surface-to-Air missile system, and accompanying radar sets have been placed on Woody Island, which is in the Parcel Island chain. The source Fox News used was imagery from a civilian satellite. The Parcels have been in the news of late. In January, 2015, a US destroyer sailed close to another contested island, prompting China to vow there would be “consequences” for the action. Taiwan and Vietnam also have a claim on the island.
The report comes as the US-ASEAN summit in Palm Springs comes to a close. The South China Sea was the priority issue at the summit. The Obama administration ideally wants ASEAN to call for the territorial disputes to be resolved through peaceful means. China continues to claim a historic right to virtually all of the South China Sea area and has ramped up its militarization of some islands in recent months. While the US strives to find ways to ease the tension, it has not taken a firm enough stance itself in the dispute.
The HQ-9 is a Chinese copy of the Russian Sa-10 (S-300) missile system. It is an effective missile with a range of 125 miles. Placing two batteries on Woody Island is probably intended to deter the US from flying patrol or combat aircraft in close proximity to the island. A US Defense official confirmed the authenticity of the photos that Fox News aired and posted on its website.
Although Syria, Oil Prices, Russia and Chinese economic difficulties have received the lion’s share of media attention this year, things are happening in the South China Sea. By all indications, the tempo of Chinese operations there is not going to slow down soon.
In the Western Pacific, the prospect of conflict between the People’s Republic of China and one of its neighbors is steadily moving from frightening scenario to reality. China’s rise in influence, economic and military strength, as well as its ability to project power, is causing heightened tensions in the WestPac. Recent PRC actions in the South China Sea have alarmed China’s neighbors and is helping to usher in a large scale Japanese military modernization and buildup. The Republic of the Philippines is following suit, albeit at a pace and level commensurate with the PI’s (Philippine Islands) economic capabilities.
The catalyst for these two buildups in particular, has been China’s assertion of control over a vast area of the South China Sea (SCS) and portions of the East China Sea. The Senkaku Island crisis continues to simmer. In January, 2014, on the heels of the creation of an ADIZ, China has passed a series of new fishing laws that require foreign fishermen to seek Beijing’s permission to fish a wide area of the South China Sea. The SCS is an area rife with intersecting territorial claims and disputes. The PRC’s latest move is lessening the stability and security of the region. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have territorial claims in the SCS.
In the absence of effective resistance, China’s moves are likely going to grow bolder. The Philippines and other SCS nations can do little on their own to counter PRC fishing incursions into what they consider to be sovereign territorial waters, for example. Their diplomatic influence and military capabilities are negligible and ineffective when compared to the PRC. The United States is the great equalizer. If the US fails to play a consistent role in the South China Sea crises, there is little to dissuade China from continuing on its current path. Thus far, the US has done just that.
The US response to the rise of PRC power has been undemonstrative, and at times contradictory. The pivot to Asia has not been an act of visible policy change and power projection. Instead, the pivot has been gradual and at times lacking direction. Certainly not an encouraging sign for America’s allies in the region. As much as the US tries to downplay or even minimize the situation in the WestPac and SCS, China’s actions say otherwise. It’s understandable why Washington does not want to do anything which could increase tensions between the US and PRC. Having said that, the United States needs to reassure friendly nations in the Western Pacific that if push comes to shove, the US will be there to support them because as time goes on, the possibility of an armed conflict in the SCS or East China Sea increases.