Activities of the Claimants


China finds major gas hydrate reserve in South China Sea


China's Ministry of Land and Resources announced on December 17th it had found a gas hydrate reserve that spans 55 square kms (34 square miles) in the Pearl River Mouth basin with controlled reserve equivalent to 100-150 billion cubic metres (bcm) natural gas, according to a report carried on the ministry's website. There is currently no technology to commercially unlock the energy also known as "flammable ice", gas frozen in ice-like crystals buried deep under the oceans and experts say commercial, scaled development could be beyond 2030.

China confirms near miss with U.S. ship in South China Sea

China on December 18th confirmed an incident between a Chinese naval vessel and a U.S. warship in the South China Sea, after Washington said a U.S. guided missile cruiser had avoided a collision with a Chinese warship maneuvering nearby. China's Defense Ministry said the Chinese naval vessel was conducting "normal patrols" when the two vessels "met". "During the encounter, the Chinese naval vessel properly handled it in accordance with strict protocol," the ministry said on its website. "The two Defense departments were kept informed of the relevant situation through normal working channels and carried out effective communication."


New flagpole overlooking Hoang Sa Archipelago inaugurated

A national flagpole facing Hoang Sa (Spratly) Archipelago was inaugurated in Ly Son island district in the central province of Quang Nam during a ceremony on December 16th. The 20m flagpole was built at a cost of 850 million VND raised by the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) and the Bank for Investment and Development of Vietnam. Addressing the ceremony, Deputy Secretary of the Quang Ngai Youth Union Central Committee Nguyen Hoang Hiep said the flagpole not only contributes to confirming national sea sovereignty, but also helps educate youngsters on their engagement in protecting the nation’s sea and islands.

The Philippines

Philippine Coast Guard to get 10 more vessels with Japan loan


The Philippine Coast Guard will soon have 10 more vessels in its fleet in order to fulfill its mandate to protect the country’s territorial waters in the wake of a maritime row with China, President Aquino said on December 15th. Aquino made the disclosure when he arrived yesterday morning from a visit to Tokyo, where he attended the 40th Association of Southeast Asian Nations-Japan Commemorative Summit, along with other world leaders.

3 brand-new naval choppers commissioned to AFP service

Three brand-new naval helicopters seen to boost Philippine military patrol and territorial defense were commissioned to military service on December 19th. Blessing and commissioning rites were held at the Armed Forces of the Philippines Thanksgiving Day at Camp Aguinaldo, with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin as guest of honor. It was also attended by AFP chief General Emmanuel Bautista and other high-ranking officers. The choppers were also given their tail numbers – PNH (Philippine Navy Helicopters) 430, 431 and 432.

The U.S.

China behavior in South China Sea ship encounter 'irresponsible'


China's behavior in a narrowly averted naval collision in the South China Sea was both "unhelpful" and "irresponsible," U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on December 19th, warning against incidents could escalate existing U.S.-Chinese tensions. "That action by the Chinese, cutting their ship 100 yards out in front of the (USS) Cowpens, was not a responsible action. It was unhelpful; it was irresponsible," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.

US boosts support for Philippines’s security forces

The United States will provide the Philippines’s security forces with $40 million in new assistance in part to help the country protect its territorial waters amid rising tensions with China over disputes in the South China Sea, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on December 17th. The money, from a US program known as the Global Security Contingency Fund, will be spent over three years and will be split between improving the Philippines Coast Guard’s maritime-security abilities and boosting counterterrorism capacity for the Philippine National Police in the nation’s restive southern islands. Kerry announced the assistance during a news conference with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario shortly after the US official arrived in Manila. Secretary of State John Kerry also warned China against imposing an air defense zone over the South China Sea, similar to one it declared over disputed islands in the East China Sea. "The zone should not be implemented and China should refrain from taking similar, unilateral actions elsewhere in the region, and particularly over the South China Sea," Kerry told a news conference in Manila.

Regional Snapshots

British destroyer visits Da Nang city

The British Royal Navy ship HMS Daring on December 18th arrived at Tien Sa port in the central city of Da Nang , starting its four-day visit to Vietnam. As part of activities to mark the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam-UK diplomatic relations, the visit is a demonstration of the strength of bilateral cooperative ties, especially in national defence.

US offers new support for Vietnam maritime security


Secretary of State John Kerry said on December 16th the United States would help Vietnam and other countries police their seas better amid territorial disputes with China, as he met top leaders in Hanoi. Kerry, who arrived on Saturday on a trip aimed at shoring up ties with Southeast Asia, said the US would provide US$32.5 million to help regional nations including Vietnam patrol "territorial waters". "Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us," Kerry said, adding that "no region can be secure in the absence of effective law enforcement in territorial waters".

Commentaries & Analyses

China's aircraft carrier drills send political and military message

The drills off the coast of Hainan Island – with the participation of Liaoning - mark not only the first time Beijing has sent a carrier into the disputed South China Sea but the first time it has maneuvered with the kind of strike group of escort ships U.S. carriers deploy, regional military officers and analysts said. "This is about China's naval capabilities but it has a definite political edge, too," said Ross Babbage, a former Australian government strategic analyst and founder of the Kokoda Foundation think-tank in Canberra. "China is demonstrating its major power status to the region by sending its carrier into the South China Sea ... and the U.S. is signaling in return: 'Remember we are still here and we are still the biggest player'." The USS Cowpens narrowly avoided colliding with the Chinese warship while operating in international waters on December 5th, the U.S. Navy has said. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on December 19th called the Chinese ship's actions "irresponsible." In another perspective, foreign interest is focused on how well the Liaoning masters the core elements of a carrier program. That means not just the immensely difficult task of planes taking off and landing on its deck, but the naval strategy and doctrine required to operate, defend and supply a carrier. "Carriers are a very tough, complicated and expensive business," one U.S. officer told Reuters aboard the USS George Washington aircraft carrier as it exercised in the South China Sea last month. "It has taken us years and years and years to get it right--and we are still working at it. China's starting from scratch," added the officer, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. 

Three Cheers for China!

By Robert A. Manning


Beijing’s impertinent behavior is proving more effective than anything the State Department could ever dream at mobilizing an Asia-Pacific coalition centered on the United States. Concerns that Beijing will, for an encore, impose a similar ADIZ over disputed territories in the South China Sea are a factor animating current efforts by the United States and its allies and security partners in Southeast Asia to bolster their respective maritime capabilities. During his visit to the Philippines, Secretary Kerry reemphasized that the United States opposed the Chinese ADIZ and urged China to “refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere in the region, and particularly over the South China Sea.” Kerry pledged $40 million in maritime military aid to the Philippines, a treaty ally, to enhance Manila’s maritime defense capabilities. In addition, America is negotiating the establishment of a rotating military presence in the Philippines. The Philippines military aid followed a U.S. announcement of $32 million in maritime aid to help Southeast Asian nations increase their coastal patrol and surveillance capabilities, with $18 million going to Vietnam to buy fast patrol boats for its coast guard. At the same time, the Japanese cabinet approved a new national-security strategy and five-year defense plan that marks a turning point in Japan’s post-WWII regional role. It will move Tokyo toward becoming a more normal nation in pursuit of what the strategy calls a “proactive contribution to peace.” It most likely will also involve a controversial reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution to allow Tokyo to actively participate in collective defense. Taken together all this stream of events all over a fortnight, underscores the growing security dilemmas of East Asia. For more than two decades, the security dynamic in the Asia-Pacific region has been one of hedging against uncertainty. One the one hand, uncertainty about China’s intentions and long-term role; on the other, concern about the durability of the U.S. security presence which, together with its network of alliances and security partners has been a critical stabilizing force in the region. Why Beijing thinks its assertive efforts at creating new facts that alter the status quo serve its long-term interests is an intriguing question. It is clearly the opposite of just about everything the ancient sage strategist Sun Tzu advised. For the moment, however, China has galvanized the entire Indo-Pacific region to rise in opposition and bolster their respective defenses. Indeed, it is doing wonders for the administration’s rebalance in Asia as well as resulting in more capable security partners. Three cheers for China.

How the US Lost the South China Sea Standoff

By James R. Holmes

So who won the December 5th encounter between the Aegis cruiser USS Cowpens and the ships escorting aircraft carrier Liaoning? Sad to say, methinks this round goes to China’s navy. So, evidently, does Beijing, which has struck an upbeat note since the press disclosed the near-collision. Magnanimity bespeaks comfort with the outcome. Nevertheless, can you really win an engagement in which no rounds leave the barrel, the rail, or the vertical launcher? How do you know whether you won, lost, or fought to a draw? In short, whoever observers think would’ve won in wartime wins in peacetime. This is a point familiar to readers of Edward Luttwak’s Political Uses of Sea Power a work composed in the bad old days when U.S.-Soviet high-seas run-ins resembling that between Cowpens and Liaoning were commonplace. It matters little who the stronger navy might be. Spin doctors can skew the verdict one way or the other. Understanding that is the first step toward counteracting the spin. Some other recommendations. One, confer with Chinese leaders about the rules of engagement when Chinese and American forces operate in proximity to each other. Consult privately if possible. There’s precedent for such low-key diplomacy. For instance, Teddy Roosevelt deployed virtually the entire U.S. Navy battle fleet off Venezuela in 1902 to deter a European fleet from seizing territory there. So circumspect was TR that historians argued for a century about whether Admiral Dewey’s cruise actually took place. (It did. I think.) He deterred without humiliating excitable authoritarian leaders like Wilhelm II. One hopes such behind-the-scenes outreach explains the week’s delay between the Cowpens incident and the time the news broke. One can hope. Two, film all close encounters with the PLA Navy from as many angles as possible. Facts are disinfectants. If Beijing insists on waging a war of public perceptions — as well it may — then report the facts and let important audiences judge where the truth lies. Three, give no ground on matters of principle. It’s harder to restore freedoms once lost than to preserve them in the first place. Surrendering maritime rights — by increments, for momentary amity — is no way to run an Asia policy. And finally, prepare for a protracted struggle. This battle of narratives will not end soon. That the United States and its navy must return to history, after a two-decade strategic holiday is a hard message to accept. But accept it we must. China wins by default if America declines to compete.

Malaysia’s New Engagement on the South China Sea

By Phoebe De Padua


Malaysia has had few serious run-ins with China in its dispute in the South China Sea compared to its fellow ASEAN claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam. Malaysia has not seen the dispute as a major national security concern in recent years, and its reactions to tensions between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors has been largely muted. But an evolving security landscape seems to be propelling Kuala Lumpur to adopt a more nuanced strategy, courting China while also preparing for the worst. China’s first ever naval exercise near James Shoal earlier this year did not go unnoticed in Malaysia. The small bank off the Malaysian coast is the southernmost feature in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing. Malaysian defense minister Hishamuddin Hussein announced in October that his country would create a marine corps and establish a new naval base in Bintulu, which lies off the coast of Sarawak State about 60 miles from James Shoal. According to Hishamuddin, the new marine corps and base are designed to protect neighboring Sabah State from incursions by militants from the Philippines, as occurred earlier this year, and not a response to the Chinese Navy’s exercise. Plans for their creation certainly predate the Chinese exercise, but it is difficult to believe that Malaysian military planners did not have both the Sulu and South China seas in mind. The base will be well located to respond to incidents in the Spratly Islands. Malaysia also continues to follow its traditional belief that a closer relationship with Beijing can deter tensions and avoid crises in the South China Sea. But alongside closer ties with China, Malaysia is also pursuing greater defense cooperation with fellow claimant Vietnam. The two governments in October agreed to establish a maritime cable link between Malaysia’s Naval Sea Region 1, based on mainland Malaysia’s South China Sea coast, and Vietnam’s Southern Command. Malaysia is entering a new phase of engagement on South China Sea issues with its neighbors. China’s actions at James Shoal and its aggressiveness in the East China Sea will keep South China Sea worries on Kuala Lumpur’s radar. It will also ensure that Malaysia continues engaging with its ASEAN counterparts on the South China Sea, though at its own pace.