Archive for the ‘South China Sea’ Category


How the US Lost the Naval War of 2015

April 9, 2014

That is the title of a 2010 journal article by James Kraska:

By 2015, U.S. command of the global commons could no longer be taken for granted. The oceans and the airspace above them had been the exclusive domain of the U.S. Navy and the nation’s edifice of military power for seventy-five years. During the age of U.S. supremacy, the Navy used the oceans as the world’s largest maneuver space to outflank its enemies. Maritime mobility on the surface of the ocean, in the air and under the water was the cornerstone of U.S. military power. The United States was able to utilize its maritime dominance to envelop and topple rogue regimes, as it demonstrated in Grenada and Panama, and use the maritime commons to ferry huge ground armies to the other side of the world and sustain them indefinitely, as it did in Vietnam and twice in Iraq. The unique capability to project decisive power rapidly in any corner of the world gave the United States deterrent power and unrivalled military influence.

All that changed in 2015, when the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, sunk to the bottom of the East China Sea. More than 4,000 sailors and airmen died and the Navy lost eighty aircraft. A ship that would take seven years and $ 9 billion to replace slipped into the waves. The incident upset not just the balance of naval power in Asia, but ushered in a new epoch of international order in which Beijing emerged to displace the United States.

If you have never read Kraska’s article, read it now.  If you have, read it again.  And ponder it while listening to senior US and Chinese officials trade tough talk over maritime disputes in the Western Pacific.


Analysis of the geopolitical struggle for control of the South China Sea

January 30, 2014

Dr. Christopher Yung has been examining the various tactics utilized by the numerous claimants to sovereignty over the South China Sea.  Last year, he published a short power point summary of his research to date.  Earlier this week, he presented more detailed findings at the East West Center in Washington, DC.  Dr. Yung has found that China has been by far the most aggressive claimant in the region, issuing hundreds of claims and utilizing multiple tactics and forums for presentation.  The other claimants are neither organized or nearly as aggressive in meeting this concerted Chinese diplomatic push.   Dr. Yung does not state as much, but China’s aggressiveness in making vast claims over the area may end up creating a virtual fait accompli in the eyes of the rest of the world.  China is attempting something akin to an anschluss – a reclamation of what they consider ancestral territory and a re-incorporation of said into China proper, at the expense of her weaker neighbors.  And the other world powers are responding not unlike they did in the 1930s.

Dr. Yung’s Map of Competing Territorial Claims in the South China Sea


Chinese/Filipino tensions and pretzel #geopolitics

January 15, 2014

The China Daily Mail has published a translation from a Chinese newspaper which claims that the Chinese military is prepping for military action to reclaim Zhongye Island from the Philippines (who call it Thitu Island).   There is no indication in the article whether the invasion is imminent, nor even whether it will occur this year.

The Filipino government has artificially extended the tiny island over the years, building a short runway on the island, which is part of the Spratly Islands which are claimed in whole or in part by China, The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam and which sit atop large, untapped oil and gas fields.

In response to ongoing Chinese threats (which did not begin with this most recent report), the Philippine Navy has begun an expansion.  After having purchased two retired US Navy frigates over the last two years, the Filipino Chief of Staff revealed that they are about to purchase two more frigates this year and as many as six in the near future.  The funds to acquire the new warships will come from a $40 million assistance package that the US has pledged.  In essence, the US is borrowing money from China to give to the Philippines so that they can purchase US military equipment designated to deter and possibly fight the Chinese.

That’s geopolitics.

Thitu (Zhongye) Island

Thitu (Zhongye) Island




China threatens “counterstrike” at Philippines

July 2, 2013

The foreign ministers of the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held an annual meeting last weekend, during which the Filipino FM issued a statement deploring Chinese intransigence on sovereignty issues in the South China Sea.  China asserts sovereignty over nearly the entire body of water, including areas that are within internationally recognized waters of several other nations.  The Filipino statement called on the other 9 ASEAN nations to stand up in solidarity to Chinese threats and military challenges.  In response, China’s own foreign ministry called the Filipino communique a “provocation” and threatened an unspecified “counterstrike” might be targeted at the Philippines.

This falls right in line with yesterday’s post about increased Chinese aggressiveness throughout the region.



Geopolitical flashpoint: Scarborough Shoal

February 20, 2013

Scarborough Shoal is rocky outcropping in the South China Sea that is not even visible at high tide.  It sits within the Filipino exclusive economic zone as established by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas), but China claims sovereignty over the rocks as an “historic cultural fact.”

The waters surrounding Scarborough Shoal are thought to be rich with oil and gas deposits, but they would be an object of contention even if this was not the case.   Despite its position as  the second largest nation on the Eurasian land mass, China is nonetheless highly dependent on maritime traffic for its economic health.  It’s export based economy ships most of its products by sea, and at the same time it imports most of its raw materials by the same routes.  Most of those shipping routes move through the South China Sea, and establishing dominance over that body of water is a pressing matter of national security for China.    China is years, perhaps decades, from being able to dominate its sea approaches  militarily, so it must pursue its geopolitical goals by other means.  It’s legal claims and attempts at intimidating its smaller neighbors are the convenient weapons at hand.

A detailed background on the history of Scarborough Shoal and the conflicting claims of sovereignty can be found here.



China’s infamous “9 dash line” map

November 26, 2012

In 2009, China submitted a map to the United Nations claiming sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, ignoring legitimate claims well within the rights of other nations bordering the sea.  In essence, China seeks to turn the major international shipping region into a virtual internal lake.

Every other nation in the region immediately protested the Chinese submission, but China has been using a version of the map in official claims ever since.  Last week, they raised the stakes even further, issuing a new official passport that prominently features the “9 dash line” map.  As Reuters notes, this puts neighboring countries in a very difficult position – they will be forced to stamp the passports of Chinese visitors, which China could someday claim gives official recognition by those governments of Chinese claims.

In the map below, you can see the contrast between the Chinese claim (yellow line) and what a negotiated line based on the 200 mile limit (the purple shape in the middle) could look like.

The US backs the smaller nations in this dispute . . . but whether we will have the resources to do anything about it when it comes to a head remains to be seen.



Australia in the Asian Century: Gov’t releases new White Paper

October 30, 2012

The Australian Government has released an optimistic new White Paper assessing the ongoing economic rise of East Asia and the ability of Australia to benefit from it.  The paper almost reads like a product from the neo-liberal hey day of the early 1990s, extolling the virtues of free market and trade to enhance everything from economic growth to democratic reform to expansion of human rights.   At the same time, the paper downplays the security threats in the region.  Now, this may be well justified, as most of the nations in the region certainly prize economic prosperity over territorial gains.  However, the overlapping claims of sovereignty in the South China and East China seas cannot be overlooked and will remain possible flashpoints for conflict in both the near and medium terms.

Conflicting territorial claims in the East China (above) and South China (below) Seas

Christian Le Miere of the International Institute for Strategic Studies sees reason for optimism in the recent dispute over the Senkaku Islands – the fact that China deliberately sent fishing vessels rather than armed naval craft indicates to him that the preference is for a peaceful, negotiated settlement.  Counter to this analysis, however, is today’s report that China is refusing to join its South China Seas neighbors in negotiations for a multi-lateral “code of conduct” in the waters.   China does not want to be bound by a group treaty, preferring to negotiate separate deals with each individual nation.   In one-on-one negotiations, China can overawe each of her negotiating partners, something that is much harder to achieve when they band together.