China creates waves in naval show of force
SINGAPORE—On any given day, up to a thousand ships sail into Singapore’s harbor, arguably the busiest in Southeast Asia.
But on June 19, China’s maritime patrol ship, the Haixun-31, docked in Singapore after sailing through the disputed Paracel and Spratlys archipelagos in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), sending waves of anxieties throughout the region as far afield as Japan and the United States, the leading naval power in the Pacific.
The visit of Haixun-31 did not come unnoticed as it took place amid the acrimonious dispute between China and a number of Asian countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, over territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.
The visit came as the Philippines deployed its flagship, the Rajah Humabon, to protect the islands it has claimed in the Spratlys group from incursions by Chinese vessels.
The Spratlys and the Paracels are claimed in part or entirely by China and one or five other countries—the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The visit of Haixun-31 touched off a protest from Singapore, which has no claims in the disputed waters, and which demanded a clarification from China of the extent of its claims in the region. Singapore said China’s ambiguity was causing international concern.
The foreign ministry said that while Singapore had no claims of its own, it was a major trading nation whose interest could be affected by issues relating to freedom of navigation in the area.
The Philippines and Vietnam, of all the claimants, have expressed alarm over the increasing aggressiveness of Chinese incursions in areas claimed by Manila and Hanoi as part of their sovereign territories, and interventions in their explorations in the waters for oil and mineral resources.
Beijing refers to the body of water as the South China Sea, but Hanoi calls it the East Sea.
Singapore was forced to protest not over the aggressive actions of China in the West Philippine Sea but over the subterfuge with which the Chinese carried out the visit in the guise of an innocuous, long-arranged port of call by a civilian ship.
The visit by the Haixun-31, which belongs to China’s Maritime Safety Administration, annoyed Singapore over the fact that it took place amid rising tensions among countries with territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.
China has come under increasing international criticism over its willingness to use force to pressure rival claimants in the West Philippine Sea to stop them from exploration activities in their claimed areas.
Singapore has criticized China for the ambiguity of its claims which are marked as nine dotted lines covering almost the entire West Philippine Sea. Independent experts point out that it is this U-shaped line that the Singapore government wants Beijing to clarify.
At a conference two weeks ago, Singapore’s former senior minister S. Jakamura said China should clarify its “puzzling and disturbing” nine-dotted lines map of the West Philippine Sea. He said the map had no apparent basis under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Some academics say that according to maritime lawyers, the line is at odds with Unclos for which China proclaims its adherence to freedom of navigation but has not defined its claims under the UN convention.
When China’s Maritime Safety Administration requested a port of call, it presented the request as a routine visit. It was supposed to be part of existing technical exchanges on marine safety and environmental protection between the two countries.
The visit turned out to be provocative when the ship sailed through disputed waters in the Spratlys and Paracel archipelagos where it could have encountered activities of the Philippines and Vietnam, which have denounced the Chinese incursions in the United Nations.
The aggressive Chinese intentions were revealed by Chinese media representatives embedded in the voyage.
They reported that the trip was to reinforce China’s sovereignty claims in the West Philippine Sea and to keep watch on foreign oil rigs and ships “in Chinese waters.” A reporter for China National Radio reported from the vessel as it set out from Guangdong province on June 15 that the purpose of the journey was “to protect China’s maritime rights and sovereignty.”
The next day, the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, said the Haixun-31 had tasks “beside the usual inspections on routine navigation routes.” They included “checks on oil rigs, stationary ships’ operations in constructions and surveys, and sailors who are sailing close to Chinese waters.”
The report added: “The vessel will also conduct checks on foreign ships navigating, anchored and operating in Chinese waters.”
Sensing the potential for armed clashes posed by this maritime mission, which might encounter navigation activities and constructions in the West Philippine Sea, Singapore issued the statement:
“We think it is in China’s own interests to clarify its claims in the SCS (South China Sea) with more precision as the current ambiguity as to their extent has caused serious concerns in the international maritime community.
“Singapore is not a claimant state and takes no position on the merits or otherwise of the various claims in the SCS. But as a major trading nation, Singapore has a critical interest in anything affecting freedom of navigation in all international sea lanes, including those in the SCS.”
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