China's turning points to “mastering” operations in the East Sea
Experts believe that China already has a significant presence in the East Sea, going ahead of the US, and will use this advantage to force small countries to follow them.
The US cruiser USS Shiloh launches a missile during an exercise in the waters of the Philippines. Photo: Reuters
The East Sea in 2020 can be generalized by the following features:
The increase of China’s presence after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA)’s rulings in 2016
The gathering of countries inside and outside the region through the exchange of notes against China’s 9-dash line, asking China to strictly abide by the PCA’s ruling and affirming United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) as the universal and unified legislation for all activities in the oceans, and the foundation to determine the ability to create seas, sovereignty rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over waters” as well as to resolve disputes in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea).
ASEAN has made new efforts to build a unified stance under the leadership of the ASEAN chair - Vietnam. The influence of the US presidential election will occur in efforts to shape the Pacific - Indian Ocean strategy of the US and its allies.
Competition between the US and China is increasingly fierce through diplomatic notes, gunboats, and wolf warrior diplomacy in the East Sea.
Both the US and China want to entice ASEAN countries. Washington wants to emphasize a strong US, committed to continuing its presence in the region, ensuring the maintenance of international law, and not letting any party monopolize the East Sea.
Beijing considers the East Sea as "core interest" and is not afraid of American power, and will continue to strengthen military operations and its presence in the East Sea as its backyard.
The Covid-19 pandemic did not make it difficult for China, but caused a great impact on the concentration of countries in the region on the East Sea issue. However, the East Sea, with its important role, is not out of the attention of international public opinion. The trend of internationalization and the legal content in the East Sea disputes has seen dramatic developments.
Domestic and foreign scholars and experts all agree that in 2020, China became more and more aggressive, shown on all fronts. Strategically, China was determined to complete the construction of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a "world-class" force by 2037, with a range of operation over two siege chains of islands established by the US and its allies after World War 2 in 2021.
China's marine science and technology has made a breakthrough. It is expected that in January 2021, the deepest and largest self-propelled exploration rig in the world, built by China, will be launched at Lingshui 17-2 oil field, 150km south of Hainan. Here, China will also arrange an oil and gas storage rig of 53,000 tons.
China has also planned to build a fleet of 10 aircraft carriers with the majority of operations in the East Sea. China will continue projects to build rescue centers, sea cities, and floating nuclear power plants in Truong Sa Archipelago (Spratly Islands), to launch submarines and large underwater research equipment.
The Dongfang Hong 3 ship. Photo: Twitter
The year 2020 marked the completion of China’s plan to replace its ocean research fleet. In 1958, the country had only 50 marine survey ships of all kinds. Now, 42 years later, it has a fleet of 60 marine research ships with 9 ocean research ships like the White Dragon 2, which completed its first voyage to Antarctica.
Notably, these ships were present in the East Sea in 2020, including the Dongfang Hong 3 - the largest marine research vessel in the world, with Petrel-X diving equipment that set a world record at a depth of 10,619m, collecting information on salinity, temperature and elements of deep sea water.
China also announced the start of a project to build 50 aquaculture farm ships with a total area of 100,000m3, capable of catching and raising 200,000 tons of high-value seafood.
These activities are the largest in terms of scope, scale and time so far, and if they are successful, China will officially manage and "master" all maritime activities in the East Sea.
Experts believe that China has had a significant presence in the East Sea, going ahead of the US and will use this advantage to force small countries to follow them.
In 2021, China will continue to combine the presence of coast guard and militia maritime vessels.
They are intended to:
Affirm the 9-dash claim and Four Sha in order to reject the PCA’s 2016 ruling; put pressure on relevant countries to abandon the legal path to settle the East Sea disputes;
Put pressure on foreign investors to leave projects with countries around the East Sea to implement the policy that no foreign country can participate in oil and gas exploration and exploitation in the East Sea; promote "setting aside dispute and pursue joint development"; respond to freedom of navigation activities of the US and other countries;
Promote negotiation of the Code of conducts in the East Sea (COC) in favor of China; create a position for the "One Belt, One Road" initiative before the US changes its administration and the Indo-Pacific strategy; set up bargain cards in strategic competition among powers; deploy marine science research strategy for the next decade, and finally modernize the army and its attached forces.
US and Japanese naval warships in joint exercises in the East Sea. Photo: AP
International experts have also talked about the possibility of establishing an air defense identification area (ADIZ) in the East Sea. But this possibility also has an opposite effect on China when the majority of international commercial air routes pass through the East Sea.
In 2021, based on the US attitude and response, China will have enough military activities to intimidate surrounding countries, while proving to the world its presence and security of the East Sea is under control, and that instability is caused by external factors.
The year 2021 has no convergence of factors to make the situation better. At the 12th East Sea conference held in November 2020, international experts made recommendations.
Chinese warships exercise in the East Sea. Photo: Chinamil
Scholars said that ASEAN does not have enough military power against China, so it can only rely on legal and diplomatic struggle, enlist international support for establishing and adhere to an order based on rules. Regional order should be based on interests and values, rules and norms that are common with the institutions that govern the behavior of nations and international relations.
Dialogue mechanisms can help countries resolve uncertainties and promote cooperation through the expression of intentions and interests. Transparency, dialogue, respect and mutual understanding are all elements of trust-based relationships.
Australian expert Carl Thayer proposed developing a Code of Conduct against incidents at sea, expanding regulations on the prevention of unintended sea collisions between military forces for both civilian, commercial and fishing boats.
Scholars are all inclined to develop multilateralism, calling for cooperation in building order based on rules, calling on China to negotiate. Countries need to fight for an effective surveillance and compulsory dispute resolution mechanism to stabilize the East Sea situation.
Nguyen Hong Thao
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, tensions in the East Sea have increased.