South China Sea: Taiwan may deploy missile boats, Vietnam holds live fire drills, US comments

Updated On: Jun 13, 2011

Taiwan is planning to increase its military presence in the disputed region of the South China Sea with missile boats and tanks.

The Spratly Islands have been the focal point of recent tensions between China, Vietnam and the Philippines. The waters around the islands are valuable fishing grounds, and are also thought to contain oil and natural gas fields.

Taiwan, which also claims the Spratlys, now wants to increase its forces in the area. Taiwan currently has 130 coastguards stationed on Taiping, the largest island in the Spratlys chain. But Taiwanese defence ministry spokesman David Lo said the coastguards are "only armed with light weapons".

The missile boats Taiwan plans to send are 47-tonne vessels, each armed with two ship-to-ship missiles with a 40km range. Lo added that the final decision on whether to accept the heavier armament lies with the coastguard.

Report: Taiwan mulls sending missile boats to Spratlys [TODAY, 13 June 2011]

Separately, Vietnam is set to hold live-fire naval drills tonight.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said the exercises were part of routine annual training. But the move could be viewed as a response to Chinese demands that Vietnam halt oil exploration in the disputed waters.

Carlyle Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Vietnam was firing "a soft warning shot across the bow, rather than a real one."

But he noted that such drills are not unprecedented; Vietnam held an air-defence drill about two months ago.

Vietnamese officials say six hours of live-fire naval exercises will be held around Hon Ong island, about 40km off the coast of Vietnam.

Last week, a Chinese fishing vessel collided with cables attached to a Vietnamese oil survey ship. This echoes a similar incident last month, where another Vietnamese ship had its cables cut by Chinese vessels.

Vietnam claims last Thursday's incident was a premeditated attack. But China says the Chinese fishing vessel was the victim, and the fishing boat was dragged by the Vietnamese ship for over an hour before it was freed.

Yesterday, hundreds of Vietnamese held more anti-China rallies in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi for a second straight weekend. Mass protests are rare in Vietnam, but police seem inclined to allow these demonstrations.

Report and Analysis: Vietnam to hold live-fire drill amid China dispute [AFP, 12 June 2011]

Over the weekend, Vietnam's foreign ministry also said it would "welcome" efforts by the US and other nations to help resolve the maritime dispute.

Harsh rhetoric and occasional military stand-offs have always occurred over the South China Sea, but Vietnam and the Philippines are now taking a stronger stance. In the past, Southeast Asian countries have not been so assertive.

Although they cannot take on Beijing militarily, internationalising the dispute, including encouraging a United States presence in the area, is one way to protect their interests.

Last weekend, the US commented on the latest developments.

"We've been troubled by some of these reports about the South China Sea and believe they only serve to raise tensions and don't help with the peace and security of the region," said US state department spokesman Mark Toner.

"We support a collaborative diplomatic process... and call on all claimants to conform all of their claims, both land and maritime, to international law."

He said the United States and the international community at large share an interest in maintaining maritime security in the region, citing freedom of navigation, economic development and respect for international law.

Report and Analysis: Vietnam seeks US support in China dispute [Financial Times, 12 June 2011]

Though clashes between ships and military exercises have been the most prominent headlines, the Philippines' claim that China has put up poles, placed a buoy, and left building materials on a reef in the area is actually the most serious recent allegation from a legal perspective.

In effect, the Philippines is saying Beijing has breached the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) signed between China and involved ASEAN countries.

The non-binding agreement calls for peaceful resolution of disputes, but also says countries should avoid activities that might escalate tensions, including the occupation of uninhabited land. The Philippines says China has violated this.

China argues the building materials were for scientific purposes only. But according to Euan Graham, a senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, "Whether it is military or not... I think if there is new building on a previously unoccupied feature, that would be a fairly clear breach of the DOC."

Analysis: SE Asia wary of China as sea claim disputes intensify [Reuters, 12 June 2011]

The islands in the South China Sea are small and mostly uninhabitable, but ownership of the islands gives a country rights to the surrounding waters. These are important for fishing, and the area is also believed to contain oil and gas.

Although there are six countries that claim the Spratly Islands, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, the dispute is often seen as China (which has the largest claim) against the rest.

Proving ownership is difficult. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows coastal states to establish sovereignty over territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles (22.2km) from its coast, and also claim an Exclusive Economic Zone up to 200 nautical miles.

Vietnam and the Philippines say recent incidents have been inside their EEZs, but this is hard to determine due to overlapping sovereignty claims.

UNCLOS says such disputes should be resolved through ad-hoc arbitration or submission to international courts. But countries cannot agree on how to negotiate. China wants bilateral talks, but the Southeast Asian states favor going through ASEAN, and possibly involving the U.S.

However Tang Siew Mun, from Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies, notes that not all ASEAN countries have a stake in the dispute. He thinks it might be wise not to involve them.

"To do so may hamper progress as China may perceive this act as provocative with ASEAN "ganging up" on China," he said.

"Just as the ASEAN states frequently ask China to be sensitive to our positions, we too have to be attuned to Chinese sensitivities as well."

Timeline: Tensions increase over South China claims [Reuters, 12 June 2011]

Factbox: The South China Sea's disputed maritime borders [Reuters, 12 June 2011]

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