The Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC hosted the 13th Annual Conference on the South China Sea on June 28, 2023.
The meeting discussed and analyzed developments in the East Sea in the past year and potential developments in the future. Speakers mentioned the situation in the South China Sea, legal developments and disputes, the growing network of alliances in the region, and the role of countries outside the South China Sea such as the Quad (US) , Japan, India, Australia), AUKUS nuclear submarine project development group (USA, UK, Australia) and Europe.
The asymmetry of US-China forces in the East Sea
In her opening remarks to the conference, Representative Jennifer Kiggans, a member of the US House Armed Services Committee, said that the US currently has 300 warships, of which only a third, or about 100, are currently operating. on standby ready to be deployed around the world.
Meanwhile, if in the early 2000s, China had about 37 warships, today there are 350 warships.
Congressman Jennifer emphasized that China has developed technical infrastructure for the manufacturing and repairing industry of warships and commercial ships. Along with the development of economic and technological capabilities, China has become more and more aggressive, and expanded its expansion, first in the vicinity including the South China Sea and then in further areas such as the South China Sea and the South China Sea. America and Africa.
At the conference, an audience member asked Congressman Jennifer Kiggans about the US strategy to handle the issue of asymmetry of power between the US and China in the South China Sea. The United States has fewer warships, and has to coordinate ships around the world, while China has more warships than the United States can focus mainly on the South China Sea area.
Congresswoman Jennifer said the United States must both develop new naval capabilities and implement a strategic alliance with allies to ensure peace in the South China Sea and Asia.
The U.S. Congress is debating the problem that the United States has more retired warships than it builds, and more and more ships are serving longer than their standard service life. On the other hand, if you look at the map of technical infrastructure for China’s shipbuilding industry, it is clear that their infrastructure is larger than that of the United States. So the United States cannot compete with China, but must join forces with allies and like-minded countries, as it did during World War II. The United States will invest financially in that direction, finding ways to build more ships, help allies, and find more sources of supplies for this industry.
Vietnam expands islands and coordinates forces of all parties in the East Sea
Mr. Harrison Prétat, a researcher with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, CSIS, said that the Philippines and Vietnam are both trying to strengthen their power in the South China Sea. The Philippines has developed a coast guard and several military bases in the coastal area, overlooking the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Vietnam has taken decisive steps to expand its artificial islands and military force.
“On the other side of the East Sea, unlike the Philippines, Vietnam has different steps. Vietnam has reclaimed the artificial islands it controls on a larger scale than it has done in the past 10 years combined. The total area of new accretion in Vietnam this year is about 180 hectares. This is a very remarkable number.
If we put this activity of Vietnam in the context that China has built about 1200 hectares of artificial islands between 2013 and 2016, we see that the area of land reclamation on the Vietnamese side is smaller, but still very impressive.
Some of the features they are expanding appear to be larger than the Spratly Islands, the largest feature that Vietnam has practically controlled to date and the only feature Vietnam has built an airstrip.
It is very interesting if we observe in the future what facilities Vietnam will place on these newly built features. We can predict that Vietnamese ships will be more present in the Spratlys. Chinese ships have been more present in the Spratlys after they expanded the artificial islands there.”
Responding to RFA’s question about the coordination of forces of the parties in the East Sea, Mr. Harrison said:
“What we see is China has deployed military forces all over the South China Sea. In terms of the number of ships at sea, China completely dominates. China sends coast guard ships to most of the important corners inside its nine-dash line almost every day.”
Regarding Vietnam, according to Mr. Harrison, the number of ships and the size of ships, China also prevails over Vietnam. As for the comparison of US and Chinese forces in the region, China also prevails. The United States coordinates its forces around the globe. However, the comparison of the ultimate synergy between the United States and China around the South China Sea is not an issue for me. I don’t have the exact data. The United States has forces in Japan, Guam, quite close to the South China Sea. The US bases under construction in the Philippines will bring US forces closer to the South China Sea and better respond in the event of a crisis.
Vietnam benefits from US strategy in the East Sea
Mr. Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, US Department of State, presented on the latest security challenges in the East Sea and the region.
According to Daniel Kritenbrink, the United States places the East Sea issue in its Free and Open Asia-Pacific strategy in general, on the basis of compliance with international law. Stability and peace in the South China Sea are extremely important for the world, including for the world economy.
In addition to the annual volume of boats passing through the East Sea, Mr. Daniel Kritenbrink also said that the East Sea provides 12% of the world’s annual fish production and is the source of life for about 3.7 million people.
The Assistant Secretary of State reiterated the US position on the exercise of the right of free passage at sea. He also emphasized that the United States does not take a position on sovereignty disputes over geographical features located in the “high seas” area in the East Sea (RFA notes: that is, beyond 200 nautical miles from baselines of countries surrounding the South China Sea).
To achieve the goal of mastering the entire South China Sea within the nine-dash line, China has clearly defined its strategy and tactics. China’s general strategy is the gray zone strategy (not using hot war, total war, but only combining military and non-military forces as well as paramilitary forces to gradually control the area). They also have specific tactics to implement the gray zone strategy such as economic coercion, the strategy of sending survey ships to penetrate the exclusive economic zones of countries in the region. RFA asked Mr. Daniel Kritenbrink whether it is right or wrong to say that China has goals, strategies, tactics and the United States has no strategy at all. except to practice freedom of navigation? And if the United States does not yet have a strategy, how will countries around the South China Sea face China’s ambitions? Mr. Daniel Kritenbrink replied:
“I have heard similar complaints from colleagues in Southeast Asia. They also say that the United States does not face the problems of a Free and Open Asia-Pacific, that practicing freedom of navigation is the only thing the United States does and why you have not done better. again.
We believe that we have implemented a range of strategies in the South China Sea, not just practicing freedom of navigation.
The first strategy that the United States implements is our diplomatic activities with ASEAN countries and outside as with the EU to protect the rules-based order in the region, protect the application in practice. 2016 rulings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the East Sea. Accordingly, countries in the region to claim their sovereignty and sovereign rights in the East Sea are based on the International Law of the Sea. And we want to make sure we all do that peacefully.
Second, the United States implements the strategy of building and developing maritime capabilities for countries in the region. Over the past 5 years, we have spent $1.6 billion building and developing maritime law enforcement forces for Southeast Asian nations. In the five years 2012 – 2017, the United States provided Vietnam with $450 million in a program to develop maritime law enforcement capacity.
Third, we believe that the best way to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea is to enhance the maritime law enforcement capacity of Southeast Asian countries so that they can protect their national interests. Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea and partner countries have not yet made impressive investments in maritime law enforcement capabilities, but it certainly helps to that end. We believe that exercising a regular presence in the region with a strategy of exercising freedom of navigation, as well as enhancing maritime law enforcement capabilities and practicing such law enforcement for these countries is not militarizing the issue, not destabilizing the issue, but helping to stabilize the region.
We have not only practiced freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, we have done more than that.”
Source : rfa.org