The inaugural ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise, (AUMX) is underway in Southeast Asian waters this week. The exercise marks the first time that the US and navies from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states have formally worked together. AUMX is taking place on a large area of sea, from the Gulf of Thailand to the Gulf of Tonkin, and south to Singapore. Parts of the exercise are taking place in the South China Sea and this fact could likely worsen the simmering tensions in the region. US and ASEAN officials have stressed that the exercise is not directed at China. No matter if this is the case or not, China will likely regard AUMX as a message being sent its way.
The timing and locations of the exercise has raised some eyebrows. Vietnam and China are currently locked in a standoff over repeated intrusions by Chinese vessels at the energy-rich Vanguard Bank. The Philippines has also been complaining about Chinese intimidation tactics in Manila’s claimed sea areas. More significant, perhaps, are reports that Cambodia has given China an exclusive access agreement to its naval base at Ream on the Gulf of Thailand. If true, Chinese a naval facility could significantly affect the balance of power in the area. Thailand, Vietnam, and India are watching developments closely.
It cannot be said that China’s recent actions in the South China Sea have come as a surprise to the rest of the world. Indications of Beijing’s strategic objectives regarding this body of water have been detectable for years. From its territorial claims, to the construction of artificial islands, and their militarization, China has made clear its intention to dominate the South China Sea. What has yet to be determined is whether or not domination and conquest are interchangeable terms in Beijing’s strategic lexicon.
The potential benefits stemming from a Chinese conquest of the South China Sea are immeasurable. It would affirm China’s position as the preeminent power in Asia. The emerging geopolitical, and economic dictum of the 21st century is: ‘whoever controls the South China Sea controls the economies of Asia.’ The underlying logic that control of the sea lanes of communication through the South China Sea is crucial to the economic survival of Asia’s largest economies cannot be challenged. A brief glance at the South China Sea situation today leads people to believe that territorial claims, and assumptive natural resource deposits serve as the nucleus of the disputes. While these are important factors, it is the sea lanes, and their connection to the global economy that makes the South China Sea such a valuable body of blue real estate.
China claims “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters.” Action speaks louder than words, however. Unless China is compelled to support this declaration with the use of force, it’s a hollow statement. Commerce flows through the area with no interference from China. Warships and aircraft of the United States, and its allies conduct frequent freedom-of-navigation transits of the South China Sea and encounter minimal harassment by Peoples Liberation Army Navy forces. The encounters, while tense, remain peaceful. The one area where China has become more aggressive is fishery rights. More frequently, Chinese naval and coast guard ships have been challenging the fishing vessels belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South China Sea nations.
In May, 2019 this blog will be examining China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and how its drive to dominate and conquer these waters could play out in the coming months and years. New posts on this topic will appear every Monday next month.
The nations of the South China Sea region are looking for clarification on the chain of events that led to the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat last week near the Paracel Islands. The fishing boat sank on Wednesday after being rammed by a Chinese vessel according to a Vietnamese official. China claims otherwise. According to Beijing, its ship received a distress call from the fishing boat and arrived in the area as it was sinking. Subsequently, the Chinese ship sought aid for the fishing boat’s crew. China’s statement made no mention of a vessel ramming the Vietnamese boat, nor did it clarify who rescued the sailors.
If the offending vessel turned out to belong to the People’s Republic of China it would not come as a surprise to any Western Pacific nation-states. There have been several incidents of Chinese coast guard or maritime militia ships attacking Vietnamese fishing boats in recent years. The Chinese have made a routine habit out of driving non-Chinese fishing boats away from its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Normally, it is the coast guard, or maritime militia that performs these duties. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) stays out of these disputes and instead is used primarily when foreign warships sail in close proximity to China’s claims. Fishermen have been caught up in the South China Sea disputes often in recent years. The territorial claims made by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and a host of other nations have limited the areas where fishing can take place without harassment.
Western powers have increased their naval presence in the South China Sea to promote the freedom of navigation. Contrary to China’s claim that the waterway is solely its possession, the world views the South China Sea as international waters. The United States has taken a strong position in championing freedom of navigation rights. US warships make frequent transits of the sea, and purposely maneuver close to islands China has claimed, often inviting aggressive pushback from Beijing.
Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official, and the man who has become Pyongyang’s senior negotiator on denuclearization issues, is on his way to Washington DC today. He is expected to meet Friday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and possibly also hold a meeting with President Trump. Chol’s appearance in Washington is widely expected to mark the beginning of laying groundwork towards a second US-North Korean summit later in the year. Vietnam appears to be the most probable location for a summit. The United States has been cultivating closer ties with Hanoi over the last two years as the South China Sea has become an increasingly dangerous global flashpoint. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is rumored to have arranged a visit to Vietnam for February, though it is unclear if his trip is connected to any potential meeting with US officials.
There has been little progress made on denuclearization since the Singapore summit was held last June. Lately, diplomatic activity has picked up considerably, especially in the wake of Kim’s trip to Beijing earlier this month. As was the case in 2018, Kim’s attitude towards denuclearization, and a summit with President Trump was relatively casual until a trip to China brought on a quick change in tune. It appears that a similar cycle is underway now. The US calls for progress on denuclearization, North Korea prevaricates, Kim is summoned to Beijing, and a week later Chol is on his way to Washington for negotiations.
This time around a second summit will not be enough for the US. Trump will be looking for concrete signs that North Korea is moving towards denuclearization, not more of the empty promises and assurances that Kim has been dispensing regularly since Singapore. The flow of recent events also brings to the forefront the current level of influence that China holds over Kim. It’s very possible that the meeting in Beijing earlier this month came about because of the current state of US-China relations. The Chinese may feel that its nudging of North Korea down the path of denuclearization could help lead to an improvement in relations with Washington. The ongoing US-China trade war, as well as the slowdown of China’s economy, are two factors that would certainly prompt Beijing to act now.
Planning and preparation is underway for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s visit Da Nang in March. News of the potential visit broke when Secretary of Defense James Mattis was in Vietnam for talks with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. It’s almost certain now that the United States Navy will be returning to Vietnam in a very big way. Carl Vinson’s port call will mark the first time a US aircraft carrier has sailed in Vietnamese waters since Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of US citizens from Saigon in April, 1975.
Word of the port call comes at a time when tensions in the South China Sea region appear ready to flare up. China has claimed that earlier this month a US Navy destroyer violated its territorial waters when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal. There is speculation that Beijing is preparing to make a move in the region. On 30 December, 2017 Chinese state television broadcast video of Chinese military facilities on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. The broadcast highlighted the scale of China’s military buildup in the region. China may intend to use the transit as the reason for increasing its military presence in and around South China Sea.
Carl Vinson’s visit is symbolic of the growing defense relationship between the United States and Vietnam. Vietnam has been quite vocal with its opposition to Chinese moves in the area, joining India, Australia, Japan, and other regional powers that harbor misgivings about China’s long-term intentions. Those nations have followed the US lead and strengthened their defense relationships with Vietnam over the past five years. India has provided advanced training for Vietnamese fighter pilots, and its budding submarine force. Australia has provided equipment and advisors to a lesser degree.
The purpose that is fueling the relationship’s growth is clear. Vietnam represents the first line of defense against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The more capable its military becomes, the greater the possibility that it can slow down a potential Chinese military venture until US, Australian, and Japanese warships and aircraft arrive in force.