Tag Archives: Disputed Waters

'Global Times' calls South China Sea a 'core interest'

The nationalist-leaning state-controlled newspaper Global Times on its English-language website Sunday made what might be a significant statement in the ongoing Chinese dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, in the South China Sea. In an unsigned opinion piece, the paper states:

As to China, it is not interested in being involved in frequent wrangles with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea, which is merely one of its core interests. As a great power, China has strategic concerns all over the Asia-Pacific region and even the world. But if Vietnam and the Philippines continue to provoke and go too far, they must be prepared to face strong countermeasures from China. (emphasis added)

The question of whether the South China Sea has been identified as one of China’s “core interests” is important to diplomats, because it puts the waters on the same level as Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Quoting the International Crisis Group‘s excellent recent report on the issue:

In early 2010, speculation arose that China had defined the South China Sea disputes as one of its “core interests”, a term traditionally reserved for matters of national sov- ereignty such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, where China is unwilling to compromise its position and would resort to force, if necessary. Reports first suggested that Chinese officials used this expression during a private meeting with U.S. officials in March 2010, and then cited U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as claiming that the sen- ior Chinese leader responsible for foreign policy repeated this declaration in May 2010. However, another senior U.S. official* has since asserted that the term “national priority” rather than “core interest” was used. Chinese researchers almost unanimously agree that the government has not made any conscious policy decision to rank the South China Sea as a core interest at the same level as an issue such as Taiwan.

What does something like this mean from the Global Times? First, it’s critical to note that this paper is not regarded as authoritative in the same way that observers take the People’s Daily as the vetted mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not even as strong a source as the official Xinhua News Service, which is the source of dependably “correct” political news for the broader Chinese media sphere.

What does this mean? One way to discount this statement would be to speculate that there has been a mistranslation, but the Chinese version of the editorial also uses “core interest” (核心利益). It seems unlikely to me that the paper, in an unsigned piece, would use this term lightly. What it indicates is that the consensus view of more hawkish voices in China is that the government and national defense establishment should be more protective of the country’s claims than compromising.

The headline of the piece claims that China is “patient, not reckless, over [the] islands,” and this suggests that the threat of “strong countermeasures” is meant as an “or else.”

On the face of it, the argument that joint development should be pursued as a way out of this dispute might seem relatively fair, but various accounts from the region suggest that Vietnamese and Philippine analysts view Chinese proposals of “joint development” as giving them little autonomy. Moreover, recall that some of the islands in question unquestionably lie within a 200-nautical mile distance of Vietnam—an area generally regarded as one country’s exclusive economic zone.

This issue is not likely to be resolved any time soon, but watch carefully for other uses of the term “core interest” from the Chinese side. If they start emerging from more authoritative sources, this may signal a significantly harder line than the current mixture of patrols, protests, and accommodations.

See today’s China Update for more South China Sea links for the last few days, or see previous updates.

*This refers to Jeffrey Bader, in his new tick-tock book on U.S. Asia policy during his time in the National Security Council during the early Obama administration: Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy

Daily Update, June 27, 2012 – more on South China Sea

Today’s links continue following the micro-developments in the South China Sea, as Vietnam and the Philippines both move to manipulate matters in each country’s ongoing island and territorial water dispute with China. The first four links fit into the Vietnam–China framework. The last two are on Philippines–China.

  • Vietnam Warns China to Halt Oil Bids in Area Awarded to Exxon – Bloomberg
    Vietnam’s state-run oil explorer warned China to halt efforts to develop disputed areas of the South China Sea that Hanoi’s leaders have already awarded to companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and OAO Gazprom.

    Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, also known as PetroVietnam, will ask China National Offshore Oil Corp., the government-owned parent of Cnooc Ltd. (883), to cancel an invitation for foreign companies to explore nine blocks, Chief Executive Officer Do Van Hau told reporters in Hanoi yesterday. PetroVietnam and its partners will continue exploring in the area and asked foreign companies not to bid for the nine blocks, he said.

  • Vietnam Calls on Cnooc Parent to Scrap Oil Exploration Bids – Bloomberg
    Cnooc deployed China’s first deep-water drilling rig last month near disputed islands to assert Beijing’s territorial claims. The company said the blocks, covering an area of 160,124 square kilometers, are available for exploration and development cooperation with foreign companies this year, according to a June 23 statement on its website.

    The area “lies entirely within Vietnam’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf,” Nghi said. “This is absolutely not a disputed area.”

    China’s oil exploration in the South China Sea is “normal corporate activity” and complies with international law, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular briefing in Beijing yesterday.

    The invitation for bids came as Vietnam’s parliament passed a law reasserting its sovereignty over the area. China summoned Vietnam’s ambassador June 21 to protest the move, with Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun saying Vietnam’s statement wasn’t “conducive to peace and stability.”

  • Sansha city set to protect marine environment – China Daily
    The country’s Sansha plan will help coordinate the three islands’ efforts to protect the marine environment and islands’ scientific development, said Zhao Zhongshe, director of the Hainan Department of Ocean and Fisheries, Hainan Daily reported during the weekend.

    The State Council has approved the establishment of the prefectural-level city of Sansha and decided that its government seat will be on Yongxing Island, which is part of the Xisha Islands, according to a statement released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs last week.

  • Google Maps aerial shot of “Yongxing Island” or “Woody Island” or “Phu Lam” Island
    Largest island in the Paracels.
  • Phl set to lift fish ban – The Philippine Star » News » Headlines
    CLARK FREEPORT, Pampanga, Philippines – The Philippines will lift on July 15 the fishing ban it imposed last May at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off the coast of Zambales, half a month earlier than the scheduled lifting of a similar ban imposed by China. …

    China was the first to announce the fishing ban in May, followed by the Philippines. …
    China’s fishing ban is until Aug. 1 and covers nearly the entire South China Sea. It is meant ostensibly to curb overfishing in waters China claims as its territory.

  • Philippines opens school on disputed South China Sea island
    Filipino troops guard Pag-asa, the largest of nine islands, sandbars and reefs held by the Philippines under a municipality led by Bito-onon. The Philippine government established the far-flung municipality in 1978 to reinforce its claim to the Spratly archipelago.

Daily Update, June 26, 2012

  • How to Defuse South China Sea Conflicts –Taylor Fravel in WSJ
    To neutralize such standoffs, the focus should first be on reducing proximate causes. For example, even though it would not address the underlying dispute, a joint or multilateral fishing agreement could remove one major source of friction in the South China Sea. …

    Finally, Scarborough shows us how Washington handles these disputes. The Obama administration walked a fine line between supporting its ally and maintaining neutrality (as it repeatedly emphasized) in the sovereignty debate. The U.S. pledged to honor the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines but didn’t specify whether the treaty covered the shoal. Washington urged the claimants to pursue their claims peacefully while quietly supporting the drafting of a broader and more robust code of conduct for preventing future confrontations.

  • China, U.S. Sign $3.4 Billion in Deals – WSJ.com
    “Companies from China and the U.S. on Saturday signed a total of $3.4 billion in bilateral investment projects.” Present at The U.S.-China Cities Forum on Economic Cooperation and Investment in Nanjing: Chinese finance minister Xie Xuren, Asst. U.S. Treasury Secretary Marisa Lago. “They signed contracts on 42 bilateral investment projects in areas including manufacturing, new energy, property, logistics and entertainment.”
  • China urges Philippines not to exacerbate South China Sea situation
    Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei made the remark at a regular press briefing while commenting on the establishment of a Philippine kindergarten on Zhongye Island in the South China Sea.
  • Aquino says government to support Recto Bank gas exploration
  • North Korea Tests the Patience of Its Ally, China – NYTimes.com
  • China urges ASEAN to be independent – Xinhua | English.news.cn
  • U.S. submarine in Philippines for resupply
    MANILA: The US embassy on Monday reported that another American nuclear-powered fast attack submarine docked in the Philippines amid reports of the ramming by a Chinese vessel of a Filipino fishing boat that killed a crewman at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
  • China sends patrol ships to South China Sea
    ABOARD HAIJIAN 83, June 26 (Xinhua) — A patrol team consisting of four China Marine Surveillance (CMS) ships on Tuesday sailed from south China’s coastal city of Sanya to the South China Sea to conduct regular patrols.

Chinese Official: Sino-Japanese Relations 'Back on Track'

Huang Xinyuan says Sino-Japanese relations have recovered. That’s after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo‘s second meeting with President Hu Jintao this weekend at the APEC summit in Hanoi, and after five years of stilted relations during Koizumi Junichiro’s leadership in Japan.

“Since Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China,” Huang Xingyuan, Councilor with China’s Foreign Ministry, said today in Hanoi, “China-Japan relations have improved dramatically and are now back on track.”

The two leaders met today.

“The talks today were constructive and positive and will definitely improve China-Japan relations,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing Saturday. …

“This is a sign that both countries relations are improving and developing, and that progress is being made,” Hu told Abe, according to a pool statement released to reporters today. “China-Japan relations will be at this important juncture for some time and it is important that both countries’ leaders work toward developing relations in the right direction.” …

“We will continue to talk about the East China Sea,” Huang said, “and we’ll make the East China Sea an area of peace.”

Japan has urged China to stop exploration in the area until the two energy-hungry nations can set up a system for joint use of the reserves.

Japan earlier this month filed a protest with Beijing about Chinese activity in the area after detecting flames from an apparent burn-off of oil or gas — a possible sign that China was advancing its development of the disputed reserves.

The contentious issue of the Yasukuni Shrine was not discussed among the two leaders today, a Japanese government official told reporters on the condition he not be named.

Trilateral + Trilateral = Quadrilateral?

Just as I set out to open this blog as an ongoing discussion of the international relationship between China, Japan, and the United States, I am reminded by current news that there is another important trilateral relationship: China-Japan-Russia.

(Russian border guards shot a Japanese fisherman in waters surrounding disputed islands called the Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. Russia claims the sailor and his mates were poaching and had illegally crossed a border. Japan insists that Russia release the prisoners and the dead sailor’s body.)

The recent conventional wisdom is that Russia became less important to the East Asian equation since the fall of the Soviet Union. Before 1989, the argument goes, Japan couldn’t afford to alienate China, lest the CCP ally closer with the Kremlin. Since Japan fell solidly on the U.S. side of the Cold War divisions, this was a global strategic problem.

Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro of Japan enflamed Chinese sensibilities with his visit to Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II. One possible reason that he made no later visits is the strategic importance of strong ties with China. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro faces no such concerns, and has publicly alienated China with his six yearly shrine visits—even if on the whole economic relations were healthy.

Given the history of Japan-China-Russia trilateral ties and Japan-China-United States relations, it is reasonable to discuss implications of a Russo-Japanese dispute for Chinese and U.S. relations with others in the region. So here we have a quadrilateral relationship. Add the Koreas and that’s hexagonal. Toss in ASEAN‘s 10 members and, well, that’s a region! At any rate, I have a lot of reading to do.

Also: An interesting question on the Kurils/Northern Territories incident is what if any implications will this have for the China-Japan Pinnacle Islands dispute or the Korea-Japan Tokto/Takeshima dispute.