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China Really Acts Like It Owns The South China Sea

July 2, 2018

A PLAN Type 052C destroyer. Via Wikimedia Commons.

June saw a remarkable tempo of Chinese naval activities in its nearby waters. But these received little coverage from official propaganda and even legitimate news reports gave little insight on what exactly transpired. It’s also understandable for the Singapore Summit between the US and North Korean heads of state to have overshadowed China’s frequent military exercises.

There were three naval exercises held in the past month. This included a “Chinese Coast Guard” drill lasting a whole week that took place at the same time PLAN warships used target drones to test their anti-aircraft weapons. As the end of the month neared, another PLAN flotilla encircled Taiwan in a simulated blockade.

Just days after the much publicized Singapore Summit where North Korea’s leader signed a document promising “denuclearization,” China’s Global Times announced a “seven-day cruising drill” taking place in Guangdong Province. The choice of words suggested ships plying the coastal waters between Hainan Island and the Bashi Channel (also known as the Luzon Strait) although the original report from June 14 didn’t specify a location nor did it reveal what ships are involved.

Global Times did mention “nautical chart work, coast-harbor joint exercises and cruising are aimed at improving reaction time and operating skills for the ship commanders and sailors in the complex and strange sea areas.”

Two weeks after these naval exercises were alleged to have started the PLA’s own news website revealed the coast guard are “transferred to the command of the Armed Police Force (APF) from July 1.” The APF are the same institution as the People’s Armed Police Force, a separate branch of the Central Military Commission (CMC) tasked with maintaining domestic peace. Since China’s “Coast Guard” was only consolidated in 2013 this organizational shift indicates it was always meant to function as a separate armed navy.

Meanwhile, warships from China’s actual navy did maintain their usual schedule of monthly combat drills in June. On June 15 news websites everywhere picked up a token article from an official PLA newspaper revealing target drones were flown near PLAN warships in what was described as “missile tests.” This meant the warships were given the opportunity to use their anti-aircraft weapons. While the PLA almost always releases photos of its activities–these help show off its newer equipment–none were made available from this recent South China Sea display.

Another less conspicuous PLAN display took place somewhere else in the same week. The Global Times again broke the news by describing it as an “island encirclement exercise around Taiwan.” This isn’t too controversial given Beijing’s past behavior towards the country it sees as a “rogue province.” No photos of this combat drill were released either but Global Times revealed a destroyer and a frigate sailed through the Bashi Channel and spent a week inside Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone.” Global Times reported it was the second naval demonstration directed at Taiwan in June.

The clear pattern here shouldn’t be ignored by East and Southeast Asian states who are locked in territorial disputes with China. Beijing isn’t trying to conceal an intended blockade of Taiwan anymore and its willingness to police the South China Sea threatens the economies of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam–all ASEAN members who are now being encouraged to cooperate under Chinese guidance. In the absence of a broad alliance that forces Beijing to stand down, it looks like an undeclared Monroe Doctrine is in place over China’s nearby seas.

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