Maritime disputes intensify in South China Sea

Long-standing maritime disputes between China and its neighbours intensify. Afghan President Hamai Karzai visits Islamabad. Departing US Defence Secretary Gates criticizes European reluctance to contribute to Nato efforts and Syrian troops move forward as the number of refugees to Turkey increases. All in today's security briefing.
Radu Nikolaus Botez
15 June 2011

On Monday, Vietnam held live-fire drills in the South China Sea. The exercise took place after weeks of increasing tension in the long-standing dispute with China over the maritime border between the two countries. On 27 May, Vietnam accused Chinese patrol boats of cutting the exploration cables of a ship searching for oil in the South China Sea. Last Thursday, Vietnam protested against a similar incident while China claimed that Vietnam had illegally entered its waters and endangered Chinese fishermen’s lives. A second day of anti-China protest in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi took place on Sunday.

Vietnam has also called on the US to help resolve territorial disputes in the region. In what is seen as a response to the Vietnamese demand for support, China said it ‘opposes any country unrelated to the South China Sea issue meddling in disputes, and it opposes internationalization of the South China Sea issue’. However, Beijing also stated it would not use force to settle these disputes. China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan claim all or parts of the disputed territory of the South China Sea.

Earlier this month, the Philippines accused China of erecting poles, placing a buoy and leaving building materials on disputed waters in the South China Sea. This was seen as a breach of the 2002 Declaration of the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), a non-binding agreement between China and Asean that calls for restraint and calls upon countries to avoid activities that might escalate tensions over territorial claims.

On Monday, United States Senator Jim Webb, head of the Senate’s Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, called for stronger US engagement in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The openSecurity verdict: Disputes over contested territories in the South and East Asian Sea, at the heart of which is a mix of historical grievances, geopolitical interests and the desire to secure what are believed to be large deposits of oil and natural gas, have been recurring for decades. However, according to commentators, incidents have become more frequent, with complaints that China is responding more aggressively than in the past heightened by concern over its rapid naval expansion. China’s way of addressing territorial disputes is widely regarded as an indication of whether its rise will be a peaceful one or not.

Though claimed to be “routine annual training”, Vietnam’s military drill comes at a critical moment and represents an unusually robust response to Chinese actions. No official statement on the event itself has been issued by the Chinese authorities but a newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, Global Times, said the naval drill is ‘seen as a military show of force to defy Beijing’.

Some countries, such as Vietnam, have moved closer to the US as China has become more assertive in their eyes. Others, such as Japan, have traditionally been close to the US. However, most of the Southeast Asian states benefit from not having to chose between the US and China who are both interested in the region’s peace and prosperity. They have followed strategies of ‘omni-enmeshment’ by building multilateral regional institutions that would include great powers, institutionalize cooperation among them and ‘socialize’ China while also balancing

Chinese and US influence in the region.    

The US has traditionally taken a neutral position vis-à-vis territorial disputes in the region. However, last June, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton offered to mediate in disputes before asking the East Asia Summit (EAS), a forum of 16 states, to address the issue – much to the displeasure of Beijing who prefers to deal with this issue bilaterally. Adding to this, Defence Secretary Robert Gates declared at the height of the Diaoyu/Senkaku island chain dispute between China and Japan last year that the US will fulfil “our alliance responsibilities”, suggesting that the Senkaku islands were considered to fall under the US-Japan security pact.

It is unlikely that such disputes will escalate in the near future but the tensions they create in the region will not help China to convince its neighbours of its peaceful rise. At the same time, such disputes may at times become an irritant in US-China relations as the former seeks to back partners in the region.

Leaving Defence Secretary Gates criticizes European reluctance to contribute to Nato efforts

Last Friday, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who will leave office at the end of the month, voiced American dissatisfaction with European contributions to defence efforts. In a speech delivered at a think tank in Brussels, Gates stated that the US will soon refuse “to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources ... to be serious and capable partners in their own defence”, pointing out that the operations in Afghanistan and Libya had highlighted significant shortcomings in military capabilities which forced the US to step in.

Today, the US accounts for 75 percent of Nato members’ defence spending. Only five countries – the US, Great Britain, France, Greece and Albania – adhere to the Nato target of spending two percent of their GDP on defence. While many commentators seem to agree that Europe should spend more on defence, others point out that Europeans “have had genuine reservations about getting involved with another mission they have seen mutate away from its original purpose into an exercise in regime change.”

Afghan President visits Islamabad

During a two-day visit to Pakistan last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called upon its eastern neighbour to help end the Taliban insurgency. Pakistan is believed to have ties to Taliban insurgent groups, many of which are operating from North Waziristan, a tribal region on the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan, alongside the US and others, supported Mujahadeen groups during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, some of whom were later to join the Taliban, which Pakistan continued to support during the Afghan civil war. In recent years, the United States and other powers have expressed increasing concern that Pakistan is playing a double game with regard to insurgents. The circumstances of Osama bin Laden’s killing have reinforced suspicions.    

While Pakistan is interested in a stable Afghanistan, it also wants to make sure that India does not gain influence in Kabul. New Delhi has opened several consulates all over Afghanistan, some of which are located in the sensitive border area with Pakistan, seen by the defence establishment in Islamabad as aiming at spying on Pakistan. India has also provided funding for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and used its soft power, most notably television series and movies, to gain support amongst the population, giving rise to fears of encirclement among Pakistanis.

Syrian troops advance as number of refugees fleeing to Turkey increases

Yesterday, Syrian government troops moved forward towards the town of Maarat al-Numaan in Northern Syria and into the eastern part of the country where Syria’s oil production is situated. According to reports, the number of Syrians fleeing into Turkey now exceeds 8,500. The real number, however, is believed to be much higher as many cross the border unnoticed. Others have fled south to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

On Thursday, the UK and France presented a draft UN Security Council resolution that would condemn human rights abuses taking place in Syria as government forces crackdown on protesters. A group of countries including the veto powers China and Russia is expected to vote against such a resolution, especially after what they see as the misinterpretation of the UN mandate for action on Libya. Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has called upon Syria to end violence.

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