OPED By Amb. Gurjit Singh
On Sunday, March 20, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Fleet Commander Admiral John C. Aquilino flew a P8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft over the South China Sea (SCS) accompanied of members of the media.
This was a flight to test and challenge China’s control over the SCS, including through the militarization of several artificially erected islands.
The US commander said it was China’s most serious and aggressive military development in the past two decades. He added that previous soothing statements by Chinese leaders were only aimed at allaying the feeling in the region that China means no harm.
A Chinese spokesperson responded and said: A sovereign country naturally has the right to deploy necessary defense installations on its territory. It is in accordance with international law and beyond reproach for China to do so.
However, in reality, China has taken over all of the SCS which, according to its definition, is in the Nine Dash line. Intersecting claims by five different ASEAN countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and non-territorial claims in the Natuna Sea by Indonesia were rejected.
Global media attention is focused on the war in Europe. Countries like India have consistently pointed out that the main threat to global peace and stability lies in the Indo-Pacific, where the Chinese remain the biggest problem.
For this reason, India has continuously referred to China’s aggressive intent in its joint statements during the 14th India-Japan Summit between Prime Ministers Modi and Kishida and the virtual summit with Australia between Prime Ministers Modi and Morrison. in March 2022.
With ASEAN too, India has kept the stability of the Indian Ocean including the MCS at the center of its concerns. At the last India-ASEAN Summit in October 2021, a separate ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook Collaboration (AOIP) agreement was signed.
Through this agreement, AOIP and IPOI of India will work together on maritime security.
Despite the world’s attention on Ukraine, what is troubling is the consolidation of Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Four major trends can be noted which have acquired a more serious tenor over the past five years.
First, Chinese control over the SCS is established. China now claims all areas inside the nine-dash line as its waters. In addition, he supports the claim, with physical action if necessary.
The new Chinese law
It is now backed by the new 2021 Coast Guard (CG) Act which allows Chinese CG vessels to fire on any vessels that do not follow their instructions in areas the Chinese perceive to be theirs.
Thus, the harmless passage of ships from riparian countries, or passing ships may all be subject to the aggressive action of the Chinese CG. These CG ships are almost always supported by PLAN (Navy) ships, in case a greater threat emerges.
The Japanese Defense Document 2021 documented the number of Chinese ship intrusions into the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Such documentation is not meticulously available in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei or Malaysia.
However, the frequency of Chinese CG vessels testing their littoral waters regardless of their EEZ or territorial waters is noted. Reports occur sporadically.
Some ASEAN countries prefer not to raise the issue frequently, or like Malaysia, rarely. This lack of reporting played down the rise of aggressive Chinese intentions.
Second, by using their national laws and implementing them within the SCS, China now pursues aggressive fishing through its fleets in the SCS wherever Chinese fleets want to go. This also led to friction in the Natuna Sea with Indonesia. These fishing fleets are supported by CG ships to protect them.
These fishing fleets operate as if they were Chinese waters, hunt local fishermen, do not respect international UNCLOS law and do not particularly care about IUU fishing.
The third major example is that Chinese SCS ships no longer play a deterrent role or only show the flag. They clearly intend to keep others out and enforce their will.
This means that their ships, be it the CG or the fishing trawlers, can challenge other ships in the area. Cases of ramming of Philippine Coast Guard vessels, fishing vessels of other countries, offshore platforms of Vietnam, etc., have been reported.
This indicates that the CG Law and support for fishing fleets are fully implemented in what China considers to be its jurisdiction covering almost all of the MCS.
As the US Fleet Commander pointed out, the fourth major problem is the militarization of at least three of the islands that China has developed primarily in Vietnam’s Spratly Islands. Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross are those developed for military purposes.
New military outposts with full militarization
Recovering beyond small rocks and shoals, China has developed them by spending lavishly to achieve their goals. These new islands, according to UNCLOS, do not command the same rights as the existing islands of 1982; but China is not trying to claim jurisdiction over them because it has claimed the whole SCS. These islands are now powerful military outposts with militarization in their own right.
Previously, they were considered places where border outposts could be located. Slowly they began to acquire missile and artillery batteries to challenge the intruders. Now the docks, ports and airfields have been completed, allowing the permanent stationing of military bases in these areas.
In addition to several batteries of military, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, smaller ships are permanently stationed there from the CG, and PLAN ships visit more frequently.
The American flyby of these islands revealed that “some appeared to house multi-storey buildings, warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways, and radar.” Near Fiery Cross, more than 40 ships could be seen anchored.
Over the past year, China has operated its two aircraft carriers simultaneously and deployed them for operational tasks around Taiwan. A Chinese aircraft carrier in the past year rarely enters the SCS mainly due to the operationalization of these military bases with multiple types of aircraft.
There are fighter planes, mainly used to protect surveillance planes. Surveillance aircraft are the mainstay of these bases and they provide long-range surveillance.
China has built 9,000ft runways on the three islands to accommodate all aircraft in its fleet, including nuclear-capable H-6 bombers. PLA KJ-500 airborne warning and control aircraft, Y-9 transport aircraft and Z-8 helicopters have been seen at these bases along with more recent deployments of J8 fighters.
Aerostats capable of observing even in bad weather and deployed on China’s borders with North Korea and the Taiwan Strait are also visible above Mischief Reef.
They are also how China exercises control over what it considers its jurisdiction in the SCS. Once the spotter plane has spotted some unidentified vessels, it uses its radar and communications facilities to call out the affected vessels to challenge the “intruder” vessel.
These long-haul aircraft are mostly unarmed but are escorted by combat aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles. These fighter jets have shorter range radar primarily intended to watch for incoming aircraft and missiles. Reconnaissance aircraft are more intended for surveillance and are therefore the mainstay of this operation.
While the United States occasionally disputes these claims by China, most ASEAN countries do so near their shores. India, Australia and Japan continue their usual activities.
The issue that can be anticipated is if China is encouraged to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the SCS as it did over the East China Sea in 2013.
This will deeply complicate matters for all interested countries, as China will expect everyone to take its permission to fly over the SCS. An ADIZ will impose identification requirements on civil and military aircraft, regardless of their destination, verify its flight path and must be effectively challenged.
- The author is the former Ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, ASEAN and the African Union. He is Chair of the CII Working Group on Trilateral Cooperation in Africa and Professor at IIT Indore.
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