As China backs up its territorial claims along the East Asian coast and in the seas of the West Pacific with the progressive deployment of heavy weapons and construction of artificial islands, other East Asian countries are pushing back.
On July 12, a UN arbitration process initiated by the Philippines three years ago ended in a ruling at the Hague denying China’s “nine-dash-line” claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
China, which has built up tiny islets and reefs in Philippine waters into artificial islands with ports and airfields, was quick to repudiate the ruling and intensify its saber-rattling, not just in the South China Sea but also in a simmering dispute with Japan.
Beijing’s neighbors have reinforced their positions and in some cases begun expanding their defense capabilities, a contrast from the relatively non-confrontational measures of the past. Japan has made motions towards aiding the Philippines, while Vietnam and Indonesia have stepped up arms procurement and training.
On Aug. 18, France’s AFP reported that Japan delivered the first of ten 44-meter-long vessels for use by the Philippine Coast Guard, and that the two countries were in the process of negotiating a deal whereby the Japanese would lease surveillance aircraft to the Philippines.
A week earlier, the United States sent all three types of its strategic bomber aircraft to the island airbase of Guam, the first such American deployment in the Pacific, the Jane’s military news site reported Aug. 11. The same day, China’s official military publication dismissed this, saying that the U.S. action in fact “reflected its military weaknesses.”
Vietnam, a communist state and historically an active enemy of the United States, has shifted to a more pro-American stance as it arms itself against increasing Chinese belligerence in the region.
Towards the end of July, Vietnamese forces carried out amphibious exercises simulating the recapture of islands—which might come to pass in a conflict with China, Jane’s reported. In 1974, Chinese vessels and marines drove forces from what was then South Vietnam out of the Paracel Islands, an archipelago that Vietnam still claims. On Aug. 16 the Vietnamese military broadcast footage showing that it could deploy advanced Russian-built anti-ship missiles to the disputed Spratly Islands, of which Vietnam occupies 24.
Indonesia, which has no formal stance against or in favor of Beijing’s claims, has moved aircraft, radar, anti-aircraft missiles, and other equipment to its northwestern Natuna islands, while steadily building up a fleet of new ships and submarines.
These islands do not lie in China’s claimed territory, but Indonesia’s economic exclusion zone does. Despite the country’s minimal diplomatic posturing, Indonesian coast guard ships have in previous confrontations destroyed or captured intruding Chinese fishing ships in the waters around Natuna.
To the northeast, the Japanese government published its 2016 defense white paper on Aug. 2, expressing concerns about the hundreds of airspace violations the Chinese air force has made over Japan’s waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands. It also called upon China to accept the July 12 ruling over the South China Sea.
The white paper came about the same time that fleets of Chinese coast guard vessels intruded in Japan’s exclusive economic zone around the islands to board fishing boats, as reported in multiple articles by the Nikkei, Japan’s financial paper, and other media.
Faced with growing threats from the Chinese military, Japan’s leadership has become more obstinate. On Aug. 3, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed right-wing nationalist Tomomi Inada to become defense minister, a move protested by Beijing.
On Aug. 14, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Japan will develop a new anti-ship missile that allows its forces to target intruding Chinese ships from islands in the Okinawa Prefecture.
Article 9 of Japan’s post-World War II constitution currently does not allow deployment of troops in combat situations beyond the country’s borders—or for the construction of “offensive” weapons—but this could change as Abe pushes for broader interpretations of the article, or even changes it entirely.
Admiral Wu Shengli, head of the Chinese navy, told Admiral John Richardson, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, that Beijing would “never give up halfway” in constructing islands and occupying South China Sea territories, the state-run China Daily reported.
On July 18, the same day as Wu made his comments, the Chinese air force posted photos on social media sites of a H-6K nuclear jet bomber flying above the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed area within the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone that the Chinese regime recently began calling Huangyan Island. Authorities in southern China also announced that part of the sea was being closed off for military exercises.
That was only the start of a flurry of activity, including another war game, called “Joint Sea 2016,” to be held in cooperation with Russian forces in September, which Beijing announced July 29. Less abstract signs that China intends to throw out the Hague’s legal ruling through illegal action can be seen in the construction and deployment of multiple combat and resupply vessels to the disputed region.
On Aug. 6, the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, reported that nuclear bombers were joined by jet fighters and reconnaissance aircraft for a patrol mission over the Scarborough Shoal and other Philippine islands.
Two days after the July 12 arbitration, the naval arm of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed one of its four new Type 052D Luyang III destroyers to its South China Sea fleet, the military news site Jane’s reported. In August, this 7,500-ton ship was joined by the older but freshly upgraded Shenzhen, a Type 051B destroyer.
On July 15, the China Military Online website reported that two resupply ships, displacing a combined 20,000 tons, were commissioned in the naval port of Zhanjiang and promptly assigned to the PLA navy’s South Sea Fleet.
According to a recent Congressional report, the Chinese navy intends to become the world’s largest with over 350 oceangoing ships by 2020. It currently operates a Soviet-designed aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which is undergoing extensive trials. A locally-built carrier is nearing completion.