By Tracy Cabrera
CHINA remains adamant in its initiative to modernize and expand its naval forces and it has once again kicked militarization of the South China Sea into high gear after disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, pressing on with efforts to have at least four carrier strike groups in the next decade.
This came after Manila lodged a diplomatic protest over what it said was Beijing’s illegal confiscation of fish aggregating devices from Filipino fisherman in a disputed lagoon held by Beijing in the South China Sea.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the incident happened three months ago at the Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing site seized by Beijing in 2012 after a standoff that prompted an unprecedented international legal challenge by the Philippines.
The DFA did not give any other detail about the incident but it also protested China’s “continuing illicit issuances of radio challenges (to) Philippine aircraft conducting legitimate regular maritime patrols.”
China’s coast guard routinely warns foreign planes and vessels passing through and over international waters. It’s like a fuzzy red line that China imposes on its weaker neighbors involved in the South China Sea dispute: protest all you like about the militarization and artificial island-building, just don’t mention the international court ruling that rejected Beijing’s far-reaching territorial claims.
Until recently, the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) appeared to abide by this unspoken rule from the behemoth next door. Though the landmark award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016 leaned in favor of the Southeast Asian claimants, statements from those countries’ leaders invoking the ruling against
China has been few and far between.
And while tensions often run high over Chinese maritime assertions, regional hand-wringing has never spiraled into full-on finger-wagging against Beijing’s decision to ignore the ruling.
The court’s decision, in a case brought by the Philippines, flatly denied China’s historic territorial claims to about 85 per cent of the South China Sea, which it demarks on maps with a nine-dash line.
But military watchers and insiders said that even without the coronavirus disruptions, China still had a long way to go to train the personnel it needed to realize its ambitions.
Signs of the navy’s aggressive push were apparent late last year when an aerial photo of a Shanghai shipyard surfaced on social media. The photo showed 12 warships under construction at the dockyard at the same time – the country’s third aircraft carrier, nine advanced destroyers, an amphibious landing dock and a missile test tracking ship.
The navy source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of military information, said that since 2015 the Chinese navy had bought up large amounts of China’s excess special steel, which is used to build commercial and military ships. A decline in the global shipping industry led to a drop in the commodity’s price as companies issued fewer contracts to build new ships.