A three-week patrol by a Chinese naval flotilla in Southeast Asian waters has drawn conflicting responses from regional governments, exposing confusion over how to react to China’s rising maritime power.
Torn between offending a key trading partner and standing up for their countries’ sovereignty, some regional officials have denied that Chinese ships sailed close to their territory at all, despite Chinese government statements and state media reports to the contrary.
That unusually wide geographic range led analysts to believe the mission was something more than a routine training exercise, as China’s Ministry of Defense has claimed, and instead was designed as a demonstration of China’s increasingly expansive naval reach.
China’s Ministry of Defense said the training it conducted during the mission “was not directed at any country or region, and had no relation to the regional situation,” adding, “China has freedom of navigation and other legitimate rights in the relevant waters.”
Indeed, there is no suggestion that the flotilla’s actions transgressed international law. “China is well within its rights to conduct military exercises at sea, and that includes passage through international straits,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
The U.S. has refrained from commenting specifically on the Chinese patrol. On Feb. 5, Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, expressed concern during congressional testimony about a “pattern of behavior in the South China Sea” whereby China was seeking to assert control over disputed areas in ways that were “inconsistent with international law.” Secretary of State John Kerry, during a five-day trip to Asia this month, cautioned China against taking steps at sea that could increase tensions with its neighbors, warning that misunderstandings could inadvertently lead to conflict, officials said.
And last week, Capt. James Fanell, director of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the Chinese military has been told to prepare for a “short sharp war” with Japan that could allow it to seize a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea at the forefront of the two nations’ territorial grievances.
Regardless of the Chinese mission’s intent, the flotilla highlighted the growing reach of the People’s Liberation Army Navy—and the dilemma that poses for China’s neighbors.
While viewing China’s military modernization as a legitimate process, Southeast Asian governments are concerned about its implications, said Mr. Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, and they fear China will assert its military power to secure its claims.
But at the same time, Southeast Asian officials have shown little appetite for questioning China openly about the flotilla. The Vietnamese government didn’t respond to requests for comment and has remained silent on the patrol of the Paracel Islands, though it has strongly criticized such activities in the past.
Similarly, when China sent a flotilla to James Shoal in March 2013, it prompted open objections from Kuala Lumpur.
This time, Malaysian officials were initially vague about the Chinese flotilla, with Foreign Minister Anifah Aman telling reporters on Feb. 17 that he didn’t have “any confirmation on the presence of Chinese vessels or ships in that region.”
Indonesian officials also initially appeared reluctant to broach the subject of the Chinese flotilla. However, on Feb. 19 Indonesia’s Navy spokesman said maritime security forces were aware of four Chinese warships passing through Indonesian sea lanes in recent weeks. The Chinese ships “conducted an innocent passage” in Indonesia waters, with all four routing through the Strait of Malacca—which wasn’t on the flotilla’s route, according to Chinese reports—and three also routed through the Lombok Strait.
…Australian security analysts widely believe the fleet was on a mission to flex China’s growing naval muscle despite strains with the new conservative government in Canberra, which has been critical of Beijing’s decision to establish an air-defense zone in the East China Sea late last year. - (Chinese Naval Patrol Prompts Conflicting Regional Response WSJ)