Minister's Remarks at the Munich Security Conference and Nato Centre of Excellence for Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters Maritime Security Roundtable on "Bridging Troubled Waters – The SCS Dispute"

Minister's Remarks at the Munich Security Conference and Nato Centre of Excellence for Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters Maritime Security Roundtable on "Bridging Troubled Waters – The SCS Dispute"

Thank you for this opportunity for myself and Ambassador Bay and Ministry of Defence staff to be here to talk about this important issue. It is the Chinese New Year and the fact that we are here, it is a great sacrifice. As we speak I think 130 million people are moving back and forth in China, the largest migration and probably 600 million train trips but I think any discussion on the South China Sea (SCS) is incomplete without the Chinese. And I am very happy that Mr Zhou Bo is here and I look forward to his comments. I thought it was very apt that they asked Mr Hayton to moderate – he is both a historian and an optimist; he says the solution to the SCS is an easy one. But I thought it would be useful and he gave very good opening remarks chronicling the development but from the strategic perspective, I thought it would be useful to describe certain key events which can explain the motivations and possible trajectory of the SCS issue. And yes, historical aspects aside, I think we can start with the 11-dash line, the so-called progenitor of the nine-dash line, which was released first in 1947. It was released by the then-Republic of China Government, demarcated on a map based on historical claims that mainland Chinese researchers date back to the Qing dynasty. After the Communist Party of China (CPC) came into power, Chairman Mao Zedong agreed to remove two-dash lines that claimed the Gulf of Tonkin in 1952. 

I fast forward to 2010, where China asserted its rights in the SCS as a core interest. The phase "core interest" is important, I will explain in a bit. At that time, President Hu Jintao was in charge and this took countries by surprise, not least ASEAN, particularly because all individual ASEAN member states (AMS), as well as China, had signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Philippines signed it in 1984; Indonesia in 1986; Vietnam and Singapore in 1994; so on and so forth and finally Thailand in 2011. Cambodia signed the Convention in 1983 but has not ratified it. China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, with a caveat, and it is an important one, that it asserted its sovereignty over disputed features in the Spratlys and Paracels. Vietnam lodged a similar caveat.

I said the term "core interests" is important because that term hitherto had been used by China for three other critical regions – Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang – over issues of sovereignty for which there could be no compromise. 

During the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping said that China "stood firm in safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and would never allow the historical tragedy of national division to repeat itself." These lines were consistent with what President Xi Jinping said in his first speech as CPC General Secretary in 2012 and again reinforced in his "Chinese dream" speech after he became President in 2013.  

I started with 1947, 1949 and then I went to 2010, but we should not mistakenly conclude that there was a hiatus with regard to China's preoccupation with the SCS from 1949 to 2010. In fact, the SCS has long been core to the People's Liberation Army in defending China against a repeat of the "century of humiliation" by foreign powers from sea. That was the origin of that preoccupation. In the 1980s, the strategy had been articulated by the Commander of the People's Liberation Army (Navy) (PLAN) ADM Liu Huaqing, who articulated the need to defend the waters between the coasts of mainland China and the 'first island chain'. He mentioned the word 'first island chain', but ADM Liu was not the originator of that concept. In fact, that concept I think was made more promulgated by prominent US figures, including General Douglas MacArthur, including Secretaries of State John Foster Dulles, Dean Acheson, during the Cold War. But that concept of containing USSR and China, actually pre-dated even the Cold War. So the PLA was responding to that. 

Whatever the reasons and timing for China's assertion and actions in the SCS, one aspect of that motivation is clear. The PLA holds a deeply entrenched view that the island chains are a potential encirclement against China and has both developed and implemented plans to: (a) prevent encirclement; and (b) push forward its defence lines. The expansion of China's Navy, viz. developing blue-water capabilities, is a critical part of this counter-strategy. Some of course have dubbed this Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) counter strategy. 

This counter-strategy has also led to its natural extension, literally. So, since 2013, China has expanded the Spratly and Paracel Islands to an estimated about 3,200 acres. This has provided China the ability to monitor activities through the use of radar and communications arrays with reported ranges of up to 300km, and the ability to detect fighter aircraft and deploy anti-aircraft assets. But I should put this into perspective, the expanded islands, even as they are, are unlikely to accord significant projection capabilities. The military facilities, for example, in Guam are 12 times what is currently the expanded features in the SCS by China; and Hawaii, about 70 times.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in August last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that China had "completed its reclamation in the SCS". China's response to countries that voice concerns about freedom of navigation has been to assure the international community that no single ship has been and would be stopped.  

So what do ASEAN states do, especially because Singapore is Chairman of ASEAN this year. The approach of AMS to the SCS issues has been a pragmatic one. Both ASEAN and China have affirmed the hope to complete the Code of Conduct (COC). The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS, which ASEAN and China signed in Cambodia in 2002, took over five years. This frames our expectations for the COC.

In the meantime, the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) has worked hard to produce consensus on practical measures that prevent mishaps and miscalculations, or if there are, to de-escalate issues. Since 2013, there have been at least 38 reported small-scale incidents between claimant states' vessels. Many of these incidents have involved fishing vessels, reminiscent of the "Cod Wars" and the "Turbot War" in the North Atlantic, which were eventually resolved peacefully.

Singapore was glad to see that the State Departments operationalised their hotline to respond to maritime emergencies. From the defence agencies we launched a similar Direct Communications Infrastructure amongst ASEAN defence establishments. We are also glad that there was agreement to expand the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to all ADMM-Plus countries in Nov 2017. And, moving forward, as ASEAN Chair, we hope to develop a set of guidelines for air encounters between regional military aircraft. And, we seek to enhance practical cooperation and build confidence through the conduct of multilateral exercises, including the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise this year.

Some commentators have proposed that China's stance over the SCS is the parallel of US' "Monroe Doctrine". There are similarities but one vast difference exist – of course that is the entrenched dominance of the US through its 7th fleet and military bases in Hawaii and Guam. 

Whatever the motivations and trajectory, an estimated one-third of all global shipping transits through the SCS. All countries have recognised the critical need for peace and stability in these waters.  

Thank you.

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