The Issues between China and the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding the vessels of the countries operating in the now contested regions of the South China Sea have heated considerably and now involve the United States.
As I reported last week, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs sent a message to the Chinese embassy on June 2, 2011, protesting activities of Chinese vessels, citing repeated incidents of Chinese aircraft and naval vessels entering Philippine territory and taking provocative acts, including the use of naval gunfire, against unarmed fishing vessels.
Then, on Sunday, June 05, Vietnamese students and other young people demonstrated near the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi carrying signs reading, “Stop Chinese Invasion of Vietnam’s Islands.” Demonstrators sang the Vietnamese national anthem as they marched through the streets of the Vietnamese capital city. The specific charge, that on May 26, China destroyed a cable on a Vietnamese state owned boat, representing PetroVietnam, and doing seismic research.
On June 9, in the second incident involving ship cables, a net from a Chinese fishing boat became entangled in the cables of a Vietnamese oil exploring vessel. That vessel dragged the Chinese fishermen for in excess of one hour, until the Chinese cut the net. Prior to the entanglement, according to the crew of the Vietnamese vessel, the fishing boat “intentionally rammed” the Vietnamese ship in a premeditated and carefully calculated attack.
China saw the incident differently; the Chinese accused Vietnam of “gravely violating” its sovereignty, and endangering Chinese lives. China went on to warn Vietnam to stop all “invasive activities”.
In recent months China has complained about activities of U.S. military vessels in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), defined as a seazone extending out to 200 miles from a national coast or continental shelf. It is a zone wherein the state has special rights over exploration and the use of marine resources. China, on the currently escalating issue of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea region, has expressed anger about U.S.vessel activity which, China says, is by no means innocent of violating rules regulating such behavior. Sovereignty is an important issue involving anticipated deposits of oil and gas.
According to the Singapore Defense Ministry, the Unites States is expected to deploy one or two Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), each with a crew of about 25. Those ships will call on ports in the region and initiate exercises and exchanges with the various navies. The waters near Australia are also included in the U.S.area of oversight.
On June 4, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates vowed that the U.S. would maintain a “robust presence” across Asia, that presence to include new shallow water high-tech LCS weaponry. Gates states that the United States is dedicated to the protection of
American allies, and to the safety of shipping lanes. The shipping lanes near U.S. ally Singapore are among the busiest in the world. China is loudly complaining of “encirclement and interference” by the U.S. in matters that “do not concern it”.
The Chinese Embassy has been quite outspoken. A report from that embassy on March 13 had to do with protests from the United States White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon, that on March 9, China’s ships harassed a U.S. Navy Surveillance vessel, The Impeccable, in international waters in the South China Sea. China called the report untrue and unacceptable. They cite the premises of the EEZ and charged that The Impeccable of engaging in activities within the 200 mile limit off China’s coast without permission. They urged the U.S. to take effective measure to prevent recurrence of similar incidents.
In August of 2010, Indonesia’s Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, mentioned that the ASEAN is aware of the “Inherent promises and dangers” that China presents and believes the best course in dealing with China is to “engage and integrate it fully into the regional order.” In an odd switch and exchange, Jakarta is the chair of ASEAN this year.