During the third quarter, the efforts of the United States and its Western allies in keeping the South China Sea open to navigation continued, as China continued to assert its sovereign rights over its claimed territories in the disputed waters. Another development which could have greater implications occurred when a Philippine Navy vessel ran aground a shoal in the South China Sea.
Countries Persist with Efforts to Keep SCS Open
As part of Japan’s efforts toward a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, it announced at the beginning of June that it would send its helicopter carrier Kaga on a tour of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Kaga was dispatched on August 26 and was to sail until October 30, visiting Southeast Asian countries, India and Sri Lanka. Last year, Japan sent the Izumo on a similar mission.
Australia and Britain in July also discussed plans for the HMS Queen Elizabeth to return to the Pacific to conduct joint naval operations with Australian vessels in the South China Sea. Australian defence minister Marise Payne said during a press conference that there are clear threats to the rules-based international order which justify the greater cooperation between the two countries. In late September, during a joint Australia-France defense industry symposium, France signified that it looked forward to joining a multi-flag operation to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea .
Britain sent the warship HMS Albion close to the Paracel Islands on August 31, prompting a strong rebuke from China. China sent a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the sail-by, but both sides remained calm during the encounter.
More and more countries are also voicing out their stand over China’s increasing activities. On August 5, the ASEAN foreign ministers issued a Joint Communique reflecting a tough stance over land reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea, in reference to China’s deployment of military weapons on its claimed islands. The ASEAN foreign ministers “took note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and other activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” It added that the Ministers “emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states.”
Malaysia’s Mahathir and the government of Vietnam also issued statements stressing their position over the issue. In an interview, Mahathir said “We are all for ships, even warships, passing through, but not stationed here.” He added that “It is a warning to everyone. Don’t create tension unnecessarily.”
On the other hand, Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang made the following remarks on August 13 in response to China’s installation of wave monitoring devices on Phu Nam Island and the conduct of scientific surveys on Hoang Sa or Paracel Islands - “Vietnam resolutely opposes these actions and demands China immediately stop the aforementioned activities; respect Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes; seriously implement the agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of sea-related issues between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China, along with the DOC; not continue actions that complicate the situation; and practically and actively contribute to developing the friendship and comprehensive co-operation between Vietnam and China for the sake of peace, stability, and co-operation in the East Sea and the region.”
Intensifying US and China military flexing in the South China Sea
China continued its assertive stance in the South China Sea during the third quarter. Beginning on July 1, the command of the Chinese Coast Guard was transferred from State Oceanic Administration to China’s Central Military Commission. According to a military expert Song Shongping, this meant that Chinese coast guard ships would be armed with more powerful weapons and coast guard personnel will also be authorized to carry firearms.
Two US Navy destroyers, USS Mustin and USS Benfold, sailed through the Taiwan Strait on July 7, in what the Pacific Fleet called “routine transit”. The US vessels were the first American warships to sail through the strait since July 2017.
On August 2, China announced that it would permanently station one of its best search and rescue ships to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. It is the first time a Chinese civilian rescue ship has been stationed in the Spratlys. The Pentagon also warned in August that China might bring in a nuclear element to its outposts in the SCS, issuing a report that Beijing had begun fielding a road-mobile, nuclear and conventional capable intermediate-range ballistic missile or IRBM. The Pentagon report also stated that China is investing to maintain and modernize a "limited, but survivable" nuclear force.
News erupted on August 13 about a video recording by London-based network BBC showing the Chinese military warning off Philippine military aircraft patrolling near artificial islands in the South China Sea. This led President Duterte to call on China to “temper its behavior” in the South China Sea – the strongest comment of the Philippine President on the issue since he assumed the presidency.
On August 14, in a move deemed the toughest toward China by some lawmakers, Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act 2019. The Act strengthens the military by increasing the active duty forces, modernizing as well as acquiring new military weapons. China blasted the Act which contains negative China-related contents. It urged the US to “abandon its Cold War mentality and the concept of a zero-sum game, and objectively view its relations with China.” On August 28, US sent bomber planes to areas in the East China Sea where China had declared an Air Defense Identification Zone, and on August 31 the Ronald Reagan Strike Group conducted a bilateral training with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the South China Sea.
On September 26, China cancelled a port visit by the US warship USS Wasp which was supposed to dock in Hong Kong in October. The event was not the first time China prevented a port visit by a US vessel. In 2016, China denied the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis access to Hong Kong.
US resolve in the disputed waters intensified as the warship USS Wasp conducted an integrated Defense of the Amphibious Task Force (DATF) drill at sea on September 27.
These continued actions by China and US led to the near-collision incident between the USS Decatur and a Chinese Luyang destroyer on September 30. The Chinese vessel reportedly came within 45 yards of the Decatur in what US sources described as an “unsafe” and “unprofessional” manner.
China and Philippines Engagement
The Philippines and China continued to have interactions in the maritime domain. On July 16, the Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang 3 docked in Davao City which was followed by the September 1 docking of the research vessel Yuan Wang 7 for replenishment in the same city. These followed the landing of Chinese military planes in June. In a Facebook post by maritime expert Atty. Jay Batongbacal, he mentioned that the Yuan Wang 3 was not an ordinary research vessel. He added that “it is also often referred to as a "spy ship" used to collect electronic and signals intelligence. Further, Batongbacal says “any research it (the Yuan Wang 3) does is most likely for military purposes. Its passengers are military personnel; and when they visit ‘various tourist spots in Davao’ they are not covered by any visiting forces agreement to determine jurisdiction in cases of breach of discipline.”
Atty. Jay Batongbacal, he mentioned that the Yuan Wang 3 was not an ordinary research vessel. He added that “it is also often referred to as a "spy ship" used to collect electronic and signals intelligence. The radar arrays immediately give it away. Any research it does is most likely for military purposes. Its passengers are military personnel; and when they visit "various tourist spots in Davao" they are not covered by any visiting forces agreement to determine jurisdiction in cases of breach of discipline.
Before July ended, the country received a donation from China of four 12-meter-long boats and 30 rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. Last year, the Chinese had donated about 6,000 assault rifles, hundreds of sniper rifles, small arms, and ammunitions to help the Philippines battle terrorists during the Marawi siege.
On August 2, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan announced that diplomats from China and ASEAN had agreed on an initial draft for the Code of Conduct that would be the basis for future negotiations. China and ASEAN have agreed to keep details of the negotiations confidential, which would prevent outside parties like the U.S. and Japan from intervening.
The biggest news in the third quarter between the the Philippines and China on the maritime front was the August 31 incident, when the Philippine navy ship BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which has more than 100 crewmembers on board, ran aground Half Moon Shoal or Hasa-Hasa Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. Chinese vessels arrived in the area prepared to help in retrieving the Philippine vessel but Manila refused the offer. On September 4, the Philippine Navy successfully extricated the warship, using tugboats to pull the BRP Gregorio del Pilar away from the shallow parts of the shoal.
That the United States and some Western allies continue to send vessels to the South China Sea demonstrates their response to the inadequacy and slow formulation of a US South China Sea policy, on the one hand, and the continued assertive stance of China over its claimed territorial waters on the other hand. As well, middle powers continue to talk to each other, including on how to keep China’s excessive maritime claims in check. Even countries in Southeast Asia are starting to respond, as shown by Mahathir’s interview and the unexpectedly strong statement by Duterte for China to “temper its behavior.” Whether this is the beginning of a wave of countries pushing back against China is yet to be seen.
With more countries becoming involved in the South China Sea to exercise freedom of navigation, there is a higher possibility of encounters with Chinese vessels, particularly those patrolling near their artificial islands. And with these encounters, there is always the possibility of misunderstanding and miscalculation which could lead to an altercation. China strongly responded when British warship HMS Albion conducted a sail-by near the Paracel islands, reminding Britain of the economic deals being hammered out between the two countries with the impending withdrawal of UK from the European Union. Tensions between US and China are already high across various dimensions. More recently, it went to new heights when their respective Navy vessels almost collided in an encounter, with the US condemning China over the unsafe and unprofessional maneuvers.
During this quarter, China also showed signs of elevating its level of militarization with the transfer of command of Chinese Coast Guard to the Military Commission; permanent deployment of a search and rescue ship in the Spratlys; and the incorporation of nuclear elements in defence of its outposts. These developments are potential game-changers in the on-the-ground dynamics of military and civilian vessels passing in the South China Sea and therefore must be carefully monitored and addressed with the appropriate policy and strategy.
Lastly, the Philippines must continue defining and assessing its interests and relationships with relevant parties. Chinese research vessels continue docking in the city of Davao, which merit close examination of the purpose and agenda behind this docking of research vessels. The Philippines handling of the situation when China offered to help recover the stranded BRP Gregorio del Pilar in Hasa-Hasa Shoal was a prime example of proper assessment and weighing of options and of the larger implications of such incidents on the larger region.