More trouble brewing in Asian waters?

US navy ships in the South China Sea. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Abbate/Released

By Christian Le Miere, Research Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

There surely can’t be anything aggressive about military exercises dubbed Naval Cooperation 2012, can there? And yet this month’s Sino-Russian exercises, involving a substantial fleet of Chinese vessels (five destroyers, five frigates, four Type 022 fast attack craft and two Song-class submarines), has highlighted the increasingly fractious relationships between naval powers in the region.

Naval Cooperation, which involves air defence, escort, hijack rescue and sea-lane protection, began on 22 April, just six days after the Indian-US Malabar exercises finished in the Bay of Bengal. It will end at the same time as this year’s Balikatan exercises between the US and Philippines in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, US-Vietnamese non-combat exercises began on 23 April, only the third set of joint naval manoeuvres between the two countries.

All of these exercises are ostentatious displays of both intent and capabilities, with China able to showcase some of its newest vessels, while the US demonstrates its commitment to regional allies, new and old alike.

A tense stand-off between China and the Philippines two weeks ago also puts these exercises into context. The incident occurred near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, as the Philippines’ flagship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar (formerly the USCGC Hamilton and only donated last year), attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen in eight vessels. Chinese maritime paramilitary vessels intervened, Gregorio del Pilar was replaced by a coastguard vessel and eventually the Chinese fishing vessels slipped away. As of Monday, China had withdrawn two vessels, leaving one still patrolling.

Against this backdrop, the symbolism of the current exercises is evident. But in case anyone was left in any doubt, the Liberation Army Daily clarified matters for its readership: ‘Anyone with clear eyes saw long ago that behind these drills is reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation and resolution through armed force.’

The recent exercises and stand-off have continued two trends described in detail in Survival last year: the increasing frequency of gunboat diplomacy, and the growing use of maritime paramilitaries to enforce sovereignty claims. Both trends suggest a desire to avoid conflict, but they also reflect the intractability of the disputes and the growing willingness to use limited force to support those claims. As an article in the forthcoming Survival will describe, the US ‘pivot’ to Asia may only reinforce the drift towards naval competition and suggest a continuation of these developments.

The next issue of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, including Christian Le Miere’s article on America’s pivot to East Asia: the Naval Dimension, will be out in mid-May.


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