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South China Sea 2014: China’s Military Provocations Continue Relentlessly

Paper No. 5854                                Dated 06-Jan-2015

By Dr Subhash Kapila

China’s military provocations and brinkmanship in the South China Sea maritime expanse continued relentlessly in2014 belying the belief of those who claim that China is a responsible power and a stakeholder in Asia Pacific stability.

China imperiously continued with her strategies of attempting to reinforce her unilateral assertions that China has full sovereignty over the South China Sea and that the South China Sea region is a “Core Interest” of China to be defended by force if challenged.

Each year China’s military adventurism is aimed at what I have pointed out in international conferences is the “Full Spectrum Dominance” of the South China Sea maritime expanse.

In the pursuance of this strategic objective in 2014, major military provocations and brinkmanship in the South China Sea against Vietnam and the Philippines encompassed the move of a Chinese deep sea oil drilling rig in the vicinity of the Paracel Island in waters under Vietnamese sovereignty. Alarmingly also was Chin’s activities to construct “artificial islands” in Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands area and similar designs on other shoals and reefs in the area disputed both by Vietnam and the Philippines.

China’s move of a deep sea oil drilling rig in May 2014 into Vietnamese waters in vicinity of Paracel Island was militarily provocative and unprecedented. So far military provocations by China which resulted in confrontations in this area between China and Vietnam were restricted to survey ships of both countries. The Chinese provocative move first time of moving a Chinese deep sea oil drilling rig into the South China Sea in Vietnamese waters resulted in a highly explosive military confrontation with Chinese and Vietnamese ships ramming into each other.

Under intense international pressure and outcry within the ASEAN community, China finally withdrew the oil drilling rig in August 2014 maintaining that China had finished oil drilling exploration activities.

While the crisis may have been defused by China’s withdrawal of the oil rig but it was a foretaste of the pattern that was likely to be followed by China henceforth to reinforce her sovereignty claims over the South China Sea.

The creation of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands region also needs to be viewed in the same vein as China’s aim is to dot the South China Sea region with artificial islands to be developed as naval and air force bases facilitating China’s more effective projection of military force for effective control of the South China Sea.

Besides these two major militarily significant Chinese provocations, the intensity of China’s naval patrolling of the South China Sea along with naval exercises is also reported to have been at an all-time high. Also reported was an increase in the strength of Chinese maritime escorts of Chinese fishing fleets operating in the South China Sea.

Related to the increasing Chinese military provocations and conflict escalation in the South China Sea was the United States assertion in 2014 for the first time that the United Sates does not recognise China’s unilateral assertive so-called Nine Dash Line enclosing virtually the whole of the South China Sea Region.

United States displeasure and concerns over China’s highly provocative and brinkmanship activities in the South China Sea were also visible in the sharp criticism levelled by US Defense Secretary at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in mid-2014.

Noticeably, for the first time, ASEAN Nations made a ‘stand-alone’ statement expressing their concerns at the ASEAN Summit in Myanmar in2014.

China on the other hand in 2014 continued with its rigid stand that it was not open to any multilateral ASEAN efforts for dialogue on the South China Sea disputes and that it could have only a bilateral dialogue with the disputant nations.

Such a rigid stand by China, continuing in 2014, indicates that China is not open to nor has any inclinations for conflict resolution on the South China Sea issues.

So what are the perspectives that present themselves as 2015 dawns? Regrettably, no optimistic indicators are available to suggest that China in recognition of the emerging strategic realities is even remotely open for any conflict resolution initiatives. It is China’s-way or the highway.

With such Chinese intransigent stances the South China Sea is likely to witness continued military tension well into the short-term future. Vietnam and the Philippines are improving the military capabilities of their naval forces. External powers like the United States, Japan and India with significant stakes in Asia Pacific stability and security are also engaged in the capacity-building of these two nations to counter the Chinese threat in the South China Sea.

Concluding, what needs to be said is that it is the United States which has to be more assertive and that needs to take dissuasive stances against China to impose restraint on Chinese military adventurism in the South China Sea .After all what is emerging in the South China Sea is a Chinese challenge to United States predominance in the Asia Pacific.

(Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at