As World Watches Kim, China Quietly Builds South China Sea Clout
By Jason Koutsoukis and Dan Murtaugh / September 6, 2017 / Bloomberg
As Kim Jong Un’s antics in North Korea capture global attention, China is quietly moving to bolster its grip on disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Last month, a Philippine lawmaker released photos he said showed Chinese fishing, coast guard and navy vessels surrounding a Philippine-occupied isle in the Spratly island chain, preventing planned repairs to a runway. Vietnam in July halted drilling in an area leased to Spain’s Repsol S.A, amid reports it did so under Chinese duress.
The incidents suggest China is taking advantage of a perceived U.S. vacuum on Southeast Asia under President Donald Trump, whose administration has focused on Chinese trade tensions and North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests.
While the U.S. is still doing what it calls “freedom of navigation” naval operations in the South China Sea, testing China’s claims to exclusive access — it plans to conduct two to three such maneuvers in the next few months, according to the Wall Street Journal — and a rear admiral publicly chiding Beijing for its behavior, the intensity of its actions and statements on the waters has faded since Trump took office.
Doubts over the future of U.S. commitment could leave some Southeast Asian states reluctant to publicly challenge China on their own. The risk is that while the U.S. is occupied further north, China expands its presence in the South China Sea in a way that becomes impossible to unwind, giving it the strategic advantage over time.
“China knows that Trump is very focused on North Korea, and not too worried about Southeast Asia,” said Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines. “There is a willingness on their part to push things as far as they can.”
The recent actions are a far cry from the clashes at sea that occurred in mid-2014 when China dragged an oil rig into waters also claimed by Vietnam. After an international outcry, Beijing withdrew the rig several months later.
When a 2005 agreement to share the area’s resources expired in 2008, the Philippines and Vietnam opposed China’s so-called nine-dash line — marks on a map covering more than 80 percent of the South China Sea — as a basis for joint exploration.
Now, under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Beijing and Manila are negotiating a deal for the Sampaguita gas field at Reed Bank as a starting point. Without strong support from the U.S. or Southeast Asian nations, Vietnam could find itself less able to push back against China’s efforts to drill in other areas.
Vietnam is concerned about the potential of a U.S. pullback in the region. “We are watching them with worry,” said Tran Viet Thai, a deputy director general at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Hanoi, where the country’s diplomats are trained. “We want to see the positive contribution of the U.S. to regional stability and international security.” Read more…