Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Second Thomas Shoal Likely the Next Flashpoint in the South China Sea

Second Thomas Shoal, a low tide coral reef located 105 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Palawan Island, is likely to become the next flashpoint in the South China Sea. The shoal—which is 15 kilometers long and five kilometers wide and is known as Ayungin in the Philippines and Ren’ai Reef in China—is a strategic gateway to deposits of coveted oil and natural gas in Reed Bank and is claimed by the Philippines to be within its 200 mile exclusive economic zone (Taipei Times, May 30).

In early May, Manila lodged an official protest over the patrols around Second Thomas Shoal of two Chinese surveillance ships and a naval frigate that it charged were blocking Philippine ships from delivering supplies to troops deployed at the shoal (Manila Times, June 2). In 1999, the Philippines deliberately ran aground the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era landing transport ship, on the shoal to establish a presence on the island; the ship has served as a Philippine base hosting approximately 10 marines since that time. Manila claims that ships sent to the shoal carry provisions for the troops and that it has no intention to build further infrastructure on the shoal (Malaya, June 5; Philippine Star, May 22; May 17).

The former World War II vessel, however, has begun to rust out, prompting President Aquino to instruct it be repaired so that the Philippines can maintain its presence. The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs has stated it considers Second Thomas Shoal an “integral part” of the Philippines, and that “China should pull out of the area because under international law, they do not have the right to be there” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 28). Philippine Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin has declared his country “will fight for what is ours up to the last soldier standing” (Philippine Star, May 24).

The Chinese government, however, maintains that is has “indisputable sovereignty” over the shoal and that any Philippine attempts to send supply ships to “intensify its illegal presence and occupation of the Ren’ai Reef” are in violation of theDeclaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC). Additionally, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei asserted that the right of Chinese ships to protect China’s national sovereignty by carrying out patrols around the shoal is “beyond reproach” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 30; May 22).

These events come in the wake of heightened tensions last year between the Philippines and China over a standoff at Scarborough Shoal. The episode was triggered in early April 2012 when the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a navy frigate acquired by the Philippines from the United States, discovered eight Chinese fishing vessels illegally poaching in the shoal. After the Philippine Navy inspected the Chinese vessels, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships appeared in the shoal and positioned themselves between the Chinese fishing boats and the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar. In the subsequent days and weeks, a small number of Philippine vessels stood at an impasse with a much larger fleet of Chinese ships. At one point, the Philippine Navy had two ships facing off against 90 Chinese vessels. After quiet negotiations that were brokered by the United States, Manila and Beijing reached an oral agreement to withdraw their vessels from the area. In early June, the Philippines complied. The Chinese, however, reneged on the agreement, and Chinese government vessels have remained in the area, maintaining a continued presence around the shoal and preventing Philippine fishermen from returning. Recent reports suggest that China is building a permanent structure on the shoal (InterAksyon, June 6; Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 3).

After successfully seizing control of Scarborough Shoal, Chinese experts praised the operation as an adroit exercise of Chinese power to defend Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. In recent weeks, some voices have called for the application of the successful strategy to Second Thomas Shoal. Chinese Air Force Major General Zhang Zhaozhong, a nationalistic pundit who regularly appears on Chinese television talk shows, proposed a “cabbage” strategy to deal with Second Thomas Shoal in which the Chinese would surround the shoal in layers of Chinese ships, with fishing vessels in the inner layers, surrounded by civilian maritime vessels and navy ships in the outer layers. The goal of such a strategy would be to compel the Philippine marines deployed on the Shoal to abandon the grounded vessel for lack of sustenance (Malaya, June 5). If such an approach fails, other experts have asserted China should consider towing the BRP Sierra Madre away from the shoal—an action that carries potential for conflict considering the presence of armed Philippine marines (CCTV-4, May 31).
Although Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also assert claims in the South China Sea, this particular feature is only contested by China, the Philippines and Taiwan. Manila filed a case with the United Nations in January to bring its territorial dispute with China to an United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitration tribunal—an action that has drawn support from the United States, the European Parliament, Japan and Vietnam, but anger from China that strongly opposes multilateral discussions on territorial issues (Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 28).

Washington does not take an official position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, but it is a treaty ally of the Philippines and, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “stands firmly against any coercive attempts to alter the status quo.” While recently attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Hagel spoke with his Filipino counterpart Voltaire Gazmin on the U.S.–Philippines relationship, reaffirming the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty between the nations. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the two “discussed deepening bilateral defense cooperation including work toward increasing rotational presence of U.S. forces in [the] Philippines to address common challenges” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 1). The United States also is helping the Philippine military to increase its maritime domain awareness in its coastal waters, including the South China Sea.

Although Washington recently has increased military assistance to the Philippines, it is less clear whether the United States is required to come to the aid of the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) in the case of aggression in the Second Thomas Shoal (New York Times, June 6). The MDT states in the case of an attack on either party, the other is obligated to “meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes,” but the U.S. Government has been careful to not state whether this includes an attack on marine features such as Second Thomas Shoal. In the case of Scarborough Shoal tension last year, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the region in a signal of support for Manila and to deter Chinese coercion and aggression, but it did not intervene (New York Times, May 1, 2012) [1].

The failed negotiations to defuse tensions at the Scarborough Shoal last year and return the situation to the status quo ante have had significant consequences. Beijing evidently is applying lessons learned from that incident to the Second Thomas Shoal. From China’s perspective, the Philippines’ attempt to repair its vessel that was grounded on the shoal over a decade ago constitutes a provocation. As in the case of Scarborough Shoal, Beijing is poised to exploit any perceived provocation with the goal of creating a new status quo that favors China. This strategy also was applied by China in the East China Sea in September 2012, when the Japanese government purchased three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from a private Japanese citizen. Regular Chinese patrols around those islands—including within the 12-mile territorial waters—have contested Japanese administrative control effectively, establishing a new status quo that is to Beijing’s advantage. Repeated U.S. declarations that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are covered under the scope of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty have not deterred Beijing from conducting almost daily sea patrols to assert Chinese sovereignty.

China is betting that the United States will be unwilling to intervene to preserve Manila’s presence on Second Thomas Shoal. That calculus probably is correct. Washington will continue to speak out against the use of coercion to change the status quo unilaterally, but it is unlikely that U.S. Navy ships will engage directly with Chinese government maritime vessels or the Chinese Navy over rocks and shoals in the South China Sea. That does not mean, however, that there are no risks in the current standoff.

The Philippine Navy is substantially inferior to the emerging blue-water Chinese navy and lacks the capability to defend its presence on Second Thomas Shoal in the event that China is determined to dislodge its marines. Nevertheless, Manila may put up a fight. The potential for a military skirmish between the two sides will increase under either of the following scenarios:

(1)   if China blocks provisions from being delivered to the Philippine forces on the shoal, Manila could seek to air drop supplies from a helicopter. Chinese interference in the operation could result in an exchange of fire and potential loss of life;

(2)   if the Philippines were to attempt to erect structures, as China is reportedly doing on Scarborough Shoal, the Chinese would likely seize the opportunity to publicly accuse the Philippines of provocation and commence their “cabbage” strategy or even attempt to tow away the rusting vessel.
Either scenario could escalate to military conflict. Even if conflict is avoided, heightened tensions could deal a blow to efforts to launch early talks on negotiation of a Code of Conduct between China and the members of ASEAN (“The South China Sea Dispute (Part One): Negative Trends Continue in 2013,” China Brief, June 7).

China’s employment of civilian maritime surveillance vessels in the South China Sea and East China Sea to alter the status quo in its favor poses a serious challenge to the Obama administration and its strategy of “rebalancing” foreign policy priorities toward the Asia-Pacific. U.S. credibility as a guarantor of peace and stability in the region is as stake, especially with U.S. treaty allies Japan and the Philippines. To date, Washington lacks an effective strategy to deter Chinese coercion against its neighbors and its efforts to change the status quo unilaterally over disputed islands, reefs and shoals.-Asian Studies Multimedia

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Taiwan military drill stages China attack scenario

Taiwan started a computerised military drill on Monday, set against an imagined scenario in which China invades the island in 2017.

The five-day exercise is part of the island's biggest annual military manoeuvre which is this year codenamed “Han Kuang 29” (Han Glory 29), officials at the defence ministry said Monday.

The drill simulates a surprise attack by the Chinese in 2017, followed by a large-scale invasion, the ministry said, without explaining why the scenario is being staged in that particular year.

But analysts said the time-frame was reasonable, given China's continued military development and its territorial disputes with neighbouring countries.

"Looking ahead, we can expect China to put into service -- to name just a few -- its first carrier battle group, stealth planes and Type 081 amphibious assault ships," Kevin Cheng, editor-in-chief of the Taipei-based Asia-Pacific Defence Magazine, told AFP.

"China's landing capabilities would be significantly lifted once its forces are armed with the amphibious assault ships, designed to carry transport, anti-submarine and attack helicopters," he said.

The amphibious assault ships could be used in its disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, Cheng added.

He also warned of the threat from China's deployment of more than 1,500 ballistic and cruise missiles targeting Taiwan, as their accuracy has been enhanced.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have eased since Ma Ying-jeou's China-friendly administration came to power in 2008 on a platform of beefing up trade and tourism links. He was re-elected in January 2012.

But Beijing has still not ruled out the use of force against the island should it declare independence, even though Taiwan has ruled itself for more than six decades since their split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.

"Over the past few years, ties across the Strait have improved and civil exchanges have been on the rise, but military threat from the mainland has not accordingly diminished," Taiwanese army major-general Tseng Fu-hsin told reporters last week.

The People's Liberation Army launched ballistic missiles into waters near Taiwan during a series of live-fire drills in 1995 and 1996, aiming to deter the Taiwanese from voting for Lee Teng-hui, the independence-minded president then seeking another four-year term.

China halted its sabre-rattling only after the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near the island.-Channel News Asia

Monday, July 15, 2013

No quick dousing of haze woes despite early ASEAN meet

Southeast Asian nations gathering to discuss the annual shroud of hazardous smog that blights the region are unlikely to find any immediate solutions, despite a meeting to address the issue being brought forward by a month to Monday.

Officials from five ASEAN member countries that form the so-called "haze" committee are scheduled to hold two-day talks over Indonesian forest fires that sent clouds of smoke into Malaysia and Singapore last month before environment ministers head into a showdown Wednesday.

But leaders of the two affected nations, which said they were subjected to life-threatening levels of pollution, hold little hope of a significant outcome.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted in early July the forest fires in Indonesia would take "a very long time" to eradicate because of Indonesia's vast size.

"I know that there will be a spirit of cooperation but I think solving the haze issue will take a very long time, with the best will in the world," he said.

Malaysia's environment minister Palanivel Govindasamy refused to be drawn on immediate solutions to the haze which sent pollution levels to a 16-year high, forcing a state of emergency in two southern districts.

"Our job is to work closely with Indonesia and our ASEAN partners on the haze meeting. Once an agreement is reached we can go forward," he told AFP after stressing "long-term solutions" would be the focus of the meeting.

Formally known as the Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) Meeting on Transboundary Haze Pollution, the three nations along with Brunei and Thailand have met on 14 previous occasions since 2006, but have little to show for it.

The main obstacle appears to be internal Indonesian politics, as slash-and-burn remains the cheapest -- albeit illegal -- way to clear land for agriculture.

The government has sought parliament's approval to ratify a 2002 pact on haze pollution which has been signed by all its ASEAN partners but the proposal was rejected in 2008.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in June the treaty had been resubmitted to the current legislature, although no timeline for ratification was given.

Singapore and Malaysia have demanded Indonesia punish those behind the blazes, but Jakarta has hit back, saying fires have also been set in plantations owned by their neighbours, especially Malaysian palm oil firms.

Indonesian police said Friday they were investigating fires found in a concession held by the local subsidiary of Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur Kepong, which last month denied allegations of using slash-and-burn methods.

The haze has been a bone of contention in ASEAN for nearly two decades, with the worst haze crisis in 1997-1998 estimated to have cost the region US$9 billion. - Channel News Asia

Philippines and MILF rebels in wealth-sharing deal

The Philippines has reached a deal with the country's largest Muslim rebel group to share wealth generated from Mindanao's natural resources.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will receive 75% of the gold, copper and other resources mined from the southern island.

It follows lengthy negotiations aimed at ending a 40-year conflict that has cost an estimated 120,000 lives.

But a rebel group not at the talks has continued attacks on the national army.

Two soldiers and five guerrillas died in an ambush by the violent break-away faction Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) on Saturday.

Disarming rebels
Sunday's agreement was reached after six days of talks in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur.

It adds details to an outline agreement - the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) - signed last October in which the Philippine government agreed to give Muslims on Mindanao more autonomy in the southern region where Muslims represent a majority in the mainly Catholic nation.

"The Parties believe that the Annex, which forms part of the FAB, will provide sufficient guidance for the crafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law's provisions on wealth sharing and revenue generation for the Bangsamoro as envisioned by the FAB," said the government and MILF representatives in a joint statement.

Under the terms of the FAB:

  • The new autonomous region would be named Bangsamoro, after the Moros - or Moors, which was how the Spanish used to refer to the followers of Islam - living there
  • Bangsamoro's leaders would have more political and economic powers
  • Law enforcement would be transferred from the army to the Bangsamoro police in a "phased and gradual manner"
  • The needs of the region's poverty-stricken communities would be addressed
  • The deal makes it more likely the two sides will reach a final peace agreement to end a decades-old conflict, says BBC Asia analyst Michael Bristow.

But other aspects of a final peace agreement still need to be worked out, such as how to disarm the rebels and exactly how much autonomy the will get, he adds.

As well as the 75%-25% agreement on sharing the wealth from natural resources, the two sides agreed to split earnings from energy resources equally.

The government in Manila says a failure to bring about a binding agreement could give other groups a reason to continue fighting.

The government's chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told AFP a final peace deal could be signed after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends later this month.

The MILF, created after a split with another rebel group in 1977, originally wanted an independent Muslim state, but dropped this demand.

The Philippines has faced separatist movements for decades in Mindanao, where the MILF is based, and in Jolo, home to the radical Islamist Abu Sayyaf group, which is reputedly linked to al-Qaeda.

Communist rebels have also waged a guerrilla conflict over parts of the country from 1969.-Birtish Broadcasting Corporation

Myanmar signs treaty with Wa ethnic group


Burma's government and rebels from the ethnic Wa guerrilla group have reached a peace deal, state media has reported.

A delegation was sent to the remote Wa region in Shan state, which borders China, said the Kyemon Daily newspaper.

The military and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) agreed to hold regular meetings and withdraw to positions they occupied before a recent stand-off.

The move came as part of a government effort to reach agreements with all the country's ethnic groups.

For decades, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has faced rebellions from several minority groups, seeking autonomy.

The UWSA is believed to be the largest, with a fighting force numbering as many as 30,000.

It reached an agreement once before with the former military regime in 1989, but recently tensions flared after the Burmese military surrounded Wa territory.

Opium trade

The UWSA is said to be equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry. China reportedly supplied combat helicopters to the group, a report by UK-based intelligence monitor Jane's Information Group said last May.

The Wa region was singled out by the international community for its involvement in huge drug problems in the region.

Under intense international pressure, especially from China, the UWSA banned opium cultivation in 2005.

Burma is the second largest opium grower in the world after Afghanistan, according to UN reports. Almost all of the opium it produces is grown in Shan and Kachin states.

President Thein Sein's government has embarked on a series of reforms to find a solution to the problem,

Ceasefires and political opening up mean international organisations such as the UN will have better access to areas that were previously considered no-go areas.

Burma signed ceasefire agreements with the Karen and Kachin rebel groups earlier this year.-British Broadacasting Corporation