South China Sea tensions – The irony of it all!

Yulin (2)The International Maritime Security Conference (IMSC) 2015 took place at IMDEX Asia on 20 May with keynote addresses from regional navy chiefs. Lurking in the background were unsettling territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Yet unusually few dared to highlight it.

VAdm Timothy Barrett, chief of the Royal Australian Navy, was most direct in pinpointing the issue when he stated, ‘In concert with these changes in influence in our region, Australia remains concerned about the developments in the South and East China Seas. We are concerned that land reclamation activity by any claimant raises tensions in the region, and Australia opposes the use of intimidation, aggression or coercion by any claimant state.’

Considerable publicity has been given to China’s sizeable South China Sea land reclamations, although it is not the only country to engage in such activities.

At IMDEX, Adm Michelle Howard, the US Navy (USN) vice chief of naval operations, told media: ‘In terms of reclamation, I think it’s time now for China to talk about what reclamation means… When I look at it, it’s a couple of thousand acres, and from my perspective no one’s saying they’re putting a resort out there… There’s a purpose to it, so I think in terms of helping everyone who lives in this part of the world understand why, it would be helpful for China to explain that.’

So a country from far away demanded answers, while those nearby remained silent.

Many were thus interested in what RAdm Shen Jinlong, commander of the South Sea Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), had to say when he addressed the IMSC. Shen asserted, ‘China will continuously persist in the spirit of openness, pragmatism and cooperation, work together with other navies and take the intention of cooperation into action, and make positive contribution to maintain regional and world maritime security, and build a peaceful and harmonious maritime environment.’

However, amidst phrases like ‘reduce suspicion’, ‘win-win philosophy’ and ‘abandon the Cold War mentality’ (stock communist party lexicon), many in the audience were disappointed China did not acknowledge its role in rising tensions.

Listening to Shen’s speech, it seemed no problem exists in the South China Sea, and that China was a model maritime citizen – ironical considering the alarm Beijing’s actions are engendering! Amidst typical Chinese verbal manoeuvring, China deflected any responsibility for the current state of affairs.

In yet another dose of irony, on the same day as Shen was addressing IMSC delegates, a PLAN radio despatcher demanded eight times that a USN P-8A maritime patrol aircraft flying over the South China Sea turn away. As part of a deft PR blitz, the recording from the USN aircraft is available on YouTube, including US refusal to comply. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei characterised the US overflight as ‘irresponsible, dangerous and detrimental to regional peace and stability’.

Things are certainly heating up. Earlier this month, USS Fort Worth conducted a freedom of navigation passage near the Spratly Islands. The USN vessel encountered several PLAN warships, which allowed practice of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).

Referring to the P-8A incident, Hong added, ‘China will keep a close watch on the situation and take proper measures to protect the security of its territory.’ He called on the US ‘to act in strict accordance with international law’. Somewhat ironic, since all aircraft are entitled to use airspace over the South China Sea.

The following day, on 21 May, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft transited over the Miyako Strait (between Okinawa and Miyako Island) for an aerial exercise. PLAAF spokesman Shen Jinke said the drill was carried out ‘in accordance with relevant international laws and practices, demonstrating China as a responsible big country before the world’. He insisted all countries are entitled to the freedom of navigation and overflight in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

From China’s perspective, it seems UNCLOS does not apply to the South China Sea, however. The US recognises UNCLOS but has not ratified it – this too is an irony.

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