A People's Liberation Army (PLA) amphibious task force has appeared close to the southernmost border of China's claims to the South China Sea. The development comes amid a fresh Sino-Vietnamese spat in which Vietnam accused Chinese ships of firing on a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel islands.
Chinese display of force near Malaysia amid incident with Vietnam
Earlier on Monday, Vietnam said that a Chinese boat had fired a flare upon one of its fishing boats in disputed waters, causing a fire onboard. Vietnam's foreign ministry lodged a protest over the alleged incident and called on China to compensate the Vietnamese fishermen involved.
However, the Chinese foreign ministry said the Vietnamese boat had illegally entered Chinese waters and that actions taken by Chinese authorities were "legitimate and reasonable", without further elaboration. The Chinese Defence Ministry further said that Chinese navy ships pursued and fired two flares at four Vietnamese boats that had earlier failed to respond to calls to leave the area, but denied that any weapons were fired or that any boat was damaged.
At the same time, a Chinese fleet reached James Shoal, 1,800 kilometres from the Chinese mainland but 80 km from the Malaysian coast and 200 km from Brunei. A Xinhua report had described marines and crew assembling on the deck of one of the landing ships - considered among the most advanced vessels in the Chinese Navy - to pledge, among other things, to "defend the South China Sea and maintain national sovereignty".
Observers expressed mixed views about this development. One called the PLA Navy's reach towards the southernmost part of its claimed waters a remarkable show of force, which points towards Chinese determination to uphold the sovereignty of all its claimed territorial waters. Such a large and sophisticated fleet, which includes a crack amphibious landing ship and fighter jets, has not been seen this far south. But another expert said the move was more symbolic of China's determination to uphold its sovereignty, but is militarily not as significant as it appears as China's navy had previously visited the area and does not intend to base forces close to the Shoal. Yet another analyst cautioned that the move indicates that the US pivot to Asia is bearing few results for its allies, which China would have interpreted as an opportunity to press further in the region.
Such a move by China, even if symbolic, could have implications for ASEAN's relations with China and the US. It remains to be seen how Malaysia would respond to such a show of force so close to its shores, and how this would affect Brunei, given its ASEAN chairmanship this year.
Analysis: PLA Navy amphibious task force reaches Malaysia 'to defend South China sea' [South China Morning Post, 27 Mar 2013]
Analysis: Chinese navy makes waves in South China Sea [USA Today, 27 Mar 2013]
Report: China holds landing exercises in disputed seas [Associated Press, 27 MAr 2013]
Report: China says its flares didn't hit Vietnamese boats [Associated Press, 27 Mar 2013]