Friday, 17 June 2011 06:41 Hu Yan
QINGDAO, China - The photographs of Chinese warships speeding between Japanese islands in the Pacific for drills circulated quickly last week, raising what Japan’s defense minister called “serious concern.”
Vietnam, with little forewarning, then began live-fire naval exercises off its coast — a show of bravado in the face of rising tensions with China over rival claims to the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea. Protests against Chinese actions in the sea took place on the last two Sundays in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with at least the tacit approval of the government. On Monday, the Vietnamese prime minister signed a decree giving details on a possible military draft.
The separate events reflect a new and potentially volatile pattern. As the Chinese government and the fast-modernizing naval branch of the People’s Liberation Army extend the nation’s maritime reach, uneasy neighbors are tracking Chinese vessels, including military and surveillance boats, fisheries law enforcement ships and fishing skiffs, and pushing back hard over anything deemed aggressive.
In recent weeks Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan have voiced concerns or made formal complaints over Chinese nautical movements. Some nations have deployed ships or aircraft to disputed waters. The United States, the dominant military force in the Pacific, is watching closely and has sought to bolster its alliances in the region.
The growing confidence of the Chinese Navy is on open display. Here in the port of Qingdao, host to an impressive naval review in 2009, destroyers and a submarines are docked for public viewing at a seaside military museum that extols the navy’s might. At a coastal city farther north, Dalian, the navy has been rebuilding an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier, the Varyag, which is expected to be operational this year.
American officials have said that one of the Chinese Navy’s main goals in modernizing is to operate in an area where the United States currently has naval supremacy: the waters of the western Pacific that lie beyond Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, what is commonly known as the “first island chain.”
“At one level, this is the new ‘normal,’ ” Lyle Goldstein, a professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College, said in an e-mail. “This is especially true with respect to the group of Chinese P.L.A. navy ships going through the ‘first island chain’ to conduct a medium-sized exercise.” Such exercises will become much more regular and likely grander, he added, “especially once China adds a carrier to the mix.”
The Chinese Defense Ministry said last week that the Chinese ships spotted between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako were in compliance with international law. Their purpose was to conduct a “regular exercise” that was “in accordance with the annual plan” of the Chinese military, the ministry said.
The Japanese defense minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, said Friday that there had been a growing number of actions by Chinese vessels in the waters near Okinawa since 2008. “We should be concerned about whether they would go beyond that or not,” he said,according to Kyodo News. In April 2010, a large Chinese flotilla passed near Okinawa, and a Chinese helicopter flew within 300 feet of one of two Japanese destroyers that had begun following the Chinese vessels.
Last September, a diplomatic crisis erupted between China and Japan when the Japanese detained a Chinese fishing captain whom they accused of ramming two Japanese Coast Guard vessels patrolling disputed islands administered by Japan. There was no evidence of ties between the fisherman and the Chinese Navy, but analysts say Chinese civilian boats have been increasingly acting as proxies for the navy by trying to assert Chinese sovereignty in disputed waters.
Bernard D. Cole, a former United States Navy officer who teaches at the National War College, said he had heard the Chinese Navy was trying to expand operational control over the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command and other Coast Guard-like organizations.
Such boats have also been at the center of flare-ups in recent years in the South China Sea, which is claimed in part or in whole by China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian nations. Foreign officials and analysts say the skirmishes this year have great potential to devolve into military conflict. “The situation there seems to be escalating in dangerous ways,” Mr. Goldstein said.
On May 26 and June 9, Chinese boats cut cables from Vietnamese oil exploration ships, Vietnamese officials say. Vietnam formally protested, saying the ships were inside its exclusive economic zone, 200 nautical miles off its coast. China contends that the ships were outside the zone. In the second case, Chinese officials say, armed Vietnamese ships were chasing a Chinese fishing vessel from the area, and a fishing net accidentally snagged the cable.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, asserted on June 7 that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters.” Though China has not explicitly delineated its territorial claims, critics in the region say it is relying on a map, drawn up by the old Kuomintang government and supported by the current Communist government, that shows virtually the entire South China Sea under Chinese dominion. Mr. Hong said China’s position on the sea “has remained unchanged for centuries,” and has called on Vietnam and the Philippines to stop oil exploration there.
Philippine officials say China has provoked five to seven incidents with their country this year, said Carlyle A. Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy who studies the region. One of the most serious was on March 2, when two Chinese maritime surveillance ships ordered a Philippine survey boat to leave the area around Reed Bank and, according to the Philippines, threatened to ram the boat. The Philippines later sent military planes to the area. Mr. Hong said the Philippines should “stop unilateral actions that impair China’s sovereignty as well as maritime rights.”
But Mr. Thayer put the blame on China, saying “a series of unilateral actions by China have raised serious tensions and potentially set China on a collision course with Vietnam and the Philippines.”
Analysts say the tensions will be a test for the United States, since it is allied with the Philippines and has grown closer to Vietnam. Last year, the United States publicly sided with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations at a regional meeting when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of a “national interest” in the sea and urged a solution to the disputes.
The territorial issue remains the time bomb, Mr. Cole said. “Neither Beijing nor Hanoi has given any indication that they are willing to back off their claim to complete sovereignty over the land features,” he said. “That is the crux of the issue.”
Shao Heng contributed research from Beijing.
By EDWARD WONG