Everything Is Not Well In The South China Sea

There are threats, war games and fishermen.

06/10/2016 11:49 AM AEDT | Updated 14/10/2016 2:34 PM AEDT
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The Chinese frigate 'Guangzhou' fires secondary guns during a China-Russia naval joint drill at sea off south China's Guangdong Province, on Sept. 18, 2016.

Quite a lot has happened in the heavily disputed South China sea over the past several weeks.

On July 12 the Hague ruled China had no legal claim to the disputed -- and trade heavy -- patch of ocean that skirts close to, among others, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Beijing has dismissed the ruling as it continues, controversially, to build artificial islands in the area.

In the months since, the South China Sea has become the scene war games and military drills, as China continues to pursue its claims amid shifting political sands.

In September the Chinese and Russian navies launched eight days of war games in the South China Sea, in a sign of growing cooperation between their armed forces against the backdrop of regional territorial disputes.

Military drills are happening, a lot of people are involved, and China isn't happy

This week New Zealand became the latest country to earn a rebuke from China, with the country's foreign affairs committee warning "outside involvement... interferences, can only complicate the differences and sometimes even add to the tension."

The comment came after New Zealand's defence minister told a Beijing security forum a particular cause of heightened tension in the region had been the reclamation of Islands.

Currently Australia is conducting annual military drills in the region with counterparts from Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, drills the Australian government says have nothing to do with Beijing.

The exercise, which is expected to include war games, is part of an annual gathering for the Five Powers Defence Arrangement (FPDA) nations, and is being hosted by Singapore this year.

Royal Australian Air Force Wing Commander Greg Jervis said the exercise is not designed to respond to recent Chinese expansion in the region.

"Absolutely not, the Australian position in the South China Sea has always been consistent and clear," Wing Commander Jervis told the ABC.

Czar Dancel / Reuters
Demonstrators burn a mock U.S. flag during a rally opposing the U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises outside the U.S. embassy in Manila, Philippines, on October 4

The U.S. and the Philippines are not ok

Not even slightly.

Relations between the U.S. and the Philippines Government have been strained since the U.S. cancelled a bilateral meeting when Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called President Barack Obama a 'son of a whore.'

The U.S. and the Philippines, longstanding allies, this week launched what could be their final joint military exercise.

The annual amphibious landing exercises between the Philippines military and U.S. Marines have been under way on the northern island of Luzon since Tuesday.

But on September 29, Duterte had a message for his nation's longstanding ally.

"I would serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise," he said two weeks ago.

"Jointly, Philippines-U.S, the last one."

"I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce and you are scheduled to hold war games again, which China does not want," he said.

(He later doubled down on the whore comment, telling Obama he could "go to hell" after the U.S. refused to sell his country weapons, weapons he said he could now get from China and Russia.)

In late September Duterte said he would visit Russia and China this year to chart an independent foreign policy and "open alliances" with two powers with historic rivalries with the United States.

The president also called for an end to Philippine patrols in the South China Sea, including an end to joint patrols with the U.S. in disputed waters beyond the 12 mile territorial limit.

The U.S. has responded to the tough talk, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest telling reporters the alliance is robust and benefits both countries.

"The diplomatic lines of communication between the United States and the Philippines remain open," he said.

"We have not yet received any sort of formal communication using those channels from the Filipino government about making substantial changes to our bilateral relationship."

Leandro Salvo Daval Jr / Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he wants military exercises with close ally the U.S. to cease

China arcs up as japan "plays with fire"

In September Japan said it will step up engagement in the disputed waters with joint training cruises with the U.S Navy, an announcement that saw Beijing issue a statement saying it was "disappointed to the point of despair."

Two weeks ago, China's military upped the rhetoric, declaring Japan is "playing with fire" with plans to step up activity.

Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun, responded to a question about Japan's plans, saying the country had constantly been trying to stir things up in the South China Sea for its own purposes.

"We must solemnly tell Japan this is a miscalculation. If Japan wants to have joint patrols or drills in waters under Chinese jurisdiction this really is playing with fire," Yang reportedly told a monthly news briefing.

"China's military will not sit idly by," he added, without elaborating.

Handout . / Reuters
Japan wants to step up joint patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea, a move that has raised Beijing's ire.

Indonesia held largest military exercise in South China Sea

Australia's largest neighbour is conducting its largest military exercises in the South China Sea.

The drills, which are expected to start on Thursday, will reportedly simulate an air raid and the seizure of a captured runway, on Pulau Natuna Besar island, which is close to Beijing's 'nine-dash' line of demarcation.

Indonesia has said its exercises are part of an annual drill.

While not part of the disputed South China Sea claims, Indonesia has objected to China's inclusion of waters around the Natuna Islands within its 'nine-dash line.'

Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
Chinese and Russian fleets fire main guns during a China-Russia naval joint drill at sea off south China's Guangdong Province, on September 18

Russia and China have their own thing going on

In early September the Chinese and Russian navies announced eight days of war games in the South China Sea, codenamed JointSea16. It was reportedly the fifth such exercise between the two navies since 2012.

Russia reportedly sent 18 ships, including submarines and amphibious vehicles, as well as 21 aircraft to the area, while 250 military personnel from both sides participated in the exercise.

Despite all the posturing, trouble could come from elsewhere

Two weeks ago, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters it wasn't the war ships that worried him, but instead the possibility of conflict between fishing boats or other civilian ships.

The issue was discussed at a recent meeting of Southeast Asian and U.S. defence ministers in Hawaii.

"It may have, in fact, very little to do with military ships" because of an agreed protocols in place for naval engagement, he said.

"But you may have incidents arising from fishing, you may have incidents arising from white ships."

"Whatever colour ships they are, they can precipitate incidents."

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