China's 'Mobile National Territory'

China has built an offshore oil drilling rig, numbered HD-981, specifically for the purpose invalidating other nations’ claims to seabed they thought was theirs.  There is no doubt about the purpose of the rig given that a Chinese state oil company official once called it “our mobile national territory.”  Its primary purpose isn’t commercial.  If China can drill an oil well on some other country’s seabed, they can then claim that it was China’s territory all along.  The rig is having its first outing to that purpose off the coast of Vietnam, accompanied by 86 Chinese vessels including a submarine.  Vietnam responded by sending 30 coastguard vessels to interfere with the Chinese drilling rig.  Ramming of Vietnamese vessels by the Chinese ones has been reported.

Miscalculation might not lead to war because there is nothing miscalculated about what China is doing.  China intends to start a war.  Most probably China wants Vietnam to attack its drilling operation so that it can play the injured party and launch a retaliatory strike.  Not so much against forces on the Vietnamese mainland but against the Vietnamese island bases further south in the Spratly Islands.  Vietnam has a number of bases centred on Union Bank, with the main base being Sin Cowe Island.  At least one of these looks like a medieval fortress with firing slots, suggesting that the Vietnamese expect it to take some shelling and an assault across the reef. 

The Vietnamese base that would annoy the Chinese most is the one on an islet on South Johnson Reef just seven kilometres north of where the Chinese are now purportedly building an airstrip.  The scale of the operation, including a large dredge, suggests that’s what its purpose is.  There are other airfields in the Spratlys -- Taiwan has one on Taiping Island and the Philippines one on Thitu Island.  China was late to this part of the South China Sea and, with no natural islands left, has to dredge up all the coral needed to make its artificial island. 

China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Senkaku Islands late last year, which upset the Japanese who own the islands.  China has also indicated that at some stage it will also declare an ADIZ over the 90% of the South China Sea that it claims.  That claim goes as far south as James Shoal, just 4° north of the Equator.  James Shoal is 1,500 km south of the nearest Chinese air base on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands.  That leads to the question of how such an ADIZ would be enforced.  That question is answered by the air base under construction on South Johnson Reef.  China already has an elevated radome further north on Subi Reef, also in the Spratlys, so it is already capable of tracking the air traffic in the region. 

Chinese state media has already stated that “Chinese troops to seize Zhongye Island back from the Philippines in 2014”.  From the China Daily Mail of 11th January, 2014:

“Relying on US support, the Philippines is so arrogant as to announce in the New Year that it will increase its navy and air force deployment at Zhongye Island, a Chinese island that it has illegally occupied for years.

“It will be an intolerable insult to China.

“According to experts, the Chinese navy has drawn a detailed combat plan to seize the island and the battle will be restricted within the South China Sea.

“The battle is aimed at recovery of the island stolen by the Philippines from China.”

Zhongye Island is the Chinese name for Thitu Island.  The Philippines has a mutual defense treaty with the United States; Vietnam does not.  That is the advantage for China in starting with Vietnam first.  If the United States, and perhaps Japan, does not assist Vietnam in its coming war with China, then China is likely to decide that it can scrape the Filipino bases off their islands with impunity.

Vietnam understands what is at stake in the South China Sea.  China claims 90% of the South China Sea as part of its city of Sansha.  Once enforcement is established, ships and aircraft wanting to cross the South China Sea would have to ask China’s permission first.  Vietnamese ships sailing from Haiphong would have to hug the Vietnamese coast almost all the way down to the equator before heading east to avoid the zone.  It would add 3,500 km to the shipping distance between Haiphong and Japan, for instance.  What was open ocean to their east will become a Chinese lake.  It will be a great insult and impediment to the Vietnamese people.  That is the precise intention.

After Vietnam will most likely come Japan.  Rig HD-981, China’s “mobile national territory,” will be moved to a site in Japan’s EEZ north of the Senkakus, equidistant between the Chinese Shuimen airbase and the Japanese and US airbases on Okinawa.  This will be an intolerable insult to the Japanese, but a certain US president might decide that, as no land area is involved, the United States-Japan mutual defense treaty does not apply.   China will wear down the Japanese forces and then invade the Senakaku and Yaeyama Islands.  If successful in taking them, China will then extend its ADIZ to at least 300 km east of the Yaeyama Islands, isolating Japan from the rest of Asia. 

All the countries of East Asia know that once Vietnam is defeated, their turn will come.  They will effectively become vassal states under the Chinese jackboot. 

What can be done?  The best solution is to break the sequential Chinese battle plan.  Japan and Vietnam would be well advised to have their own mutual defense treaty so that China is taking on everybody at once instead of one at a time.  For Japan that means fighting China sometime later this year perhaps instead of in 2015 or 2016.  Nevertheless, taking on China and keeping East Asia free is best done as a joint effort.  By 2015 there may not be anyone left to fight alongside them.

David Archibald, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Regnery, 2014).  

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