The Big Ideas

'With Swarms of Ships, Beijing Tightens Its Grip on South China Sea'

The New York Times

Steven Lee Myers & Jason Gutierrez | The New York Times
'With Swarms of Ships, Beijing Tightens Its Grip on South China Sea'
'With Swarms of Ships, Beijing Tightens Its Grip on South China Sea'
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April 3, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘Not long ago, China asserted its claims on the South China Sea by building and fortifying artificial islands in waters also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.’
‘Its strategy now is to reinforce those outposts by swarming the disputed waters with vessels, effectively defying the other countries to expel them.’
‘The goal is to accomplish by overwhelming presence what it has been unable to do through diplomacy or international law.’
“Beijing pretty clearly thinks that if it uses enough coercion and pressure over a long enough period of time, it will squeeze the Southeast Asians out.”

A few weeks ago, the Big Ideas included a post on China's 'salami slicing' to take territory in 'Beijing replicates its South China Sea tactics in the Himalayas,' which noted:

  • ‘Emboldened by its cost-free expansion in the South China Sea, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime has stepped up efforts to replicate that model in the Himalayas.’
  • ‘China is aggressively building many new villages in disputed borderlands to extend or consolidate its control over strategically important areas that India, Bhutan, and Nepal maintain fall within their national boundaries.’
  • ‘A Chinese government document says that China intends to build 624 border villages in disputed Himalayan areas.’

After I did that post, I wondered to myself, what is there left for the Chinese to do to take and keep territory.

  • Then I got my answer.

'The Chinese ships settled in like unwanted guests who wouldn’t leave.'

  • 'As the days passed, more appeared.'

'They were simply fishing boats, China said, though they did not appear to be fishing.'

  • 'Dozens even lashed themselves together in neat rows, seeking shelter, it was claimed, from storms that never came.'

‘Not long ago, China asserted its claims on the South China Sea by building and fortifying artificial islands in waters also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.’

  • ‘Its strategy now is to reinforce those outposts by swarming the disputed waters with vessels, effectively defying the other countries to expel them.’
  • ‘The goal is to accomplish by overwhelming presence what it has been unable to do through diplomacy or international law.’

‘And to an extent, it appears to be working.’

  • ‘ “Beijing pretty clearly thinks that if it uses enough coercion and pressure over a long enough period of time, it will squeeze the Southeast Asians out,” said Greg Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, which tracks developments in the South China Sea. “It’s insidious.” ’

‘The latest incident has unfolded in recent weeks around Whitsun Reef, a boomerang-shaped feature that emerges above water only at low tide.’

  • ‘At one point in March, 220 Chinese ships were reported to be anchored around the reef, prompting protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, which both have claims there, and from the United States.’

‘By March 29, 45 ships remained at Whitsun, according to a statement on Wednesday by the National Task Force-West Philippines Sea, an agency that reports to the Philippine president’s office.’

  • ‘The task force counted 254 ships as well as four Chinese warships that day in the Spratlys, an archipelago of more than 100 islands, cays and other outcroppings between the Philippines and Vietnam.’
  • ‘The task force said the 254 ships were not fishing vessels, as Beijing claimed, but part of China’s maritime militia, an ostensibly civilian force that has become an integral instrument of China’s new maritime strategy.’
  • ‘Many of these boats, while unarmed, are operated by reservists or others who carry out the orders of the Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army.’

‘The Philippine defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, called their presence “a clear provocation.” ’

  • ‘Vietnam’s foreign ministry accused China of violating the country’s sovereignty and demanded that the ships leave.’

‘China has brushed off the protests.’

  • ‘A spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, said that Chinese fishermen “have been fishing in the waters near the reef all along.” ’
  • ‘Officials in the Philippines and experts said there was no evidence of that.’

Here’s the kicker:

  • ‘On Monday, the first batch of Covid-19 vaccines arrived in Manila from China with great fanfare.'
  • ‘ “China is encroaching on our maritime zone, but softening it by sending us vaccines,” said Antonio Carpio, an outspoken retired Supreme Court justice who is expert in the maritime dispute.'
  • ‘ “It’s part of their P.R. effort to soften the blow, but we should not fall for that.” '

And China wonders why its efforts at soft diplomacy often have a bad record of success.