Lessons from Paracels, Pt II

James Shoal and proximity to Sarawak

The three Chinese Naval Forces vessels which include an amphibious landing ship complemented with armed marines detachments have been conducting ‘exercise’ in the James Shoal, 50 nautical miles off Bintulu.

Riong Kali dot com story:

Chinese ships patrol area contested by Malaysia

JANUARY 26, 2014

'A' marks the location of James Shoal, about 80km off the coast of Sarawak. - January 26, 2014.‘A’ marks the location of James Shoal, about 80km off the coast of Sarawak. – January 26, 2014.

Three Chinese ships patrolled the James Shoal, that is also claimed by Malaysia, as soldiers and officers on board swore to safeguard its sovereignty, in the latest sign of Beijing’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea, Reuters reported today.

This latest act of aggression by China is a slap in the face of the Najib administration that has talked up China’s benign intentions in Asean meetings as well as touted Malaysia’s special ties with Beijing.

James Shoal is located about 80km from Sarawak, however, Beijing regards it as the southernmost part of the country’s territory.

The Chinese vessels comprised an amphibious landing craft, the Changbaishan, and two destroyers, state news agency Xinhua said.

“During the ceremony held in the Zengmu Reef area, soldiers and officers aboard swore an oath of determination to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and maritime interests,” Xinhua said. Zengmu Reef is the Chinese term for James Shoal.

Xinhua said the fleet commander Jiang Weilie “urged soldiers and officers to always be prepared to fight, improve combat capabilities and lead the forces to help build the country into a maritime power”.

China is in an increasingly angry dispute with its neighbours over claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea. China lays claim to almost the whole of the sea, which is criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes.

Last March, Malaysia protested against the incursion of four Chinese ships in James Shoal. Chinese sailors fired guns in the air during the visit to the shoal.

In April, a Chinese maritime surveillance ship returned to James Shoal to leave behind steel markers to assert its claim.

China upset the Philippines and the United States this month when rules went into force demanding fishing boats seek permission to enter waters under the jurisdiction of China’s southern province of Hainan, an area the provincial government says covers much of the South China Sea.

Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also claim other parts of the South China Sea. China has a separate dispute with Japan in the East China Sea. – January 26, 2014.


Chinese state TV news channel story, based on Xinhua report:

Chinese ships patrol southernmost territory

01-26-2014 16:44 BJT

ABOARD CHANGBAISHAN, Jan. 26 (Xinhua) — A flotilla with China’s Nanhai Fleet on Sunday morning patrolled the Zengmu Reef, the southernmost part of the country’s territory, and held an oath-taking ceremony to safeguard sovereignty.

The three-ship flotilla consists of amphibious landing craft Changbaishan and destroyers Wuhan and Haikou, according to military sources.

During the ceremony held in the Zengmu Reef area, soldiers and officers aboard swore an oath of determination to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and maritime interests.

Fleet commander Jiang Weilie urged soldiers and officers to always be prepared to fight, improve combat capabilities and lead the forces to help build the country into a maritime power.

The Zengmu Reef is a key maritime traffic juncture as well as a strategic spot. The Chinese navy patrols the area on a regular basis.

James Shoal is definitely within Malaysia’s continental shelf and economic exclusive zone (EEZ).


This reflective of China’s attitude towards the sensitivities of the regional neighbours and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) where she is a signatory.

China is also a signatory on the Declaration of Conduct (DOC), inked 4 November 2002 between ASEAN nations and China. It is obvious that China diplomatically commit to a position but the military casually dishonour it.

China’s claim on the James Shoal which is more than 600 nautical miles from her own undisputed territories being part of her territories is baffling to experts.

South China Morning Posty story:

How a non-existent island became China’s southernmost territory

Bill Hayton says records show that a translation error some 80 years ago may be to blame

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 6:37am

Bill Hayton

  • china-military-maritime-dispute_bej6563_30096749.jpg
An aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain. Photo: AFP

Where is the “southernmost point of Chinese territory”?

It’s a controversial question and the least controversial answer might be Hainan Island . More controversial options would be the Paracel (Xisha) islands or the Spratlys (Nansha). But officially the southernmost point is even further south – as far south as the James Shoal, about 100 kilometres from the coast of Borneo. What’s more surprising is that this piece of the motherland is actually invisible. There’s nothing there to see, unless you have diving equipment.

The James Shoal lies 22 metres below sea. Yet this inconvenience doesn’t prevent PLA Navy ships visiting the shoal from time to time to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty over it. This ritual involves heaving a large piece of engraved stone over the side of the ship. There is now a small collection of Chinese stelae gathering organic encrustations on the sea floor, more than 1,000 kilometres from Hainan.

How did the Chinese state come to regard this obscure feature, so far from home, as its southernmost point? I’ve been researching the question for some time while writing a book on the South China Sea. The most likely answer seems to be that it was probably the result of a translation error.

In the 1930s, China was engulfed in waves of nationalist anxiety. The predation of the Western powers and imperial Japan, and the inability of the Republic of China to do anything meaningful to stop them, caused anger both in the streets and the corridors of power. In 1933, the republic created the “Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps” to formally list, describe and map every part of Chinese territory. It was an attempt to assert sovereignty over the republic’s vast territory.

The major problem facing the committee, at least in the South China Sea, was that it had no means of actually surveying any of the features it wanted to claim. Instead, the committee simply copied the existing British charts and changed the names of the islands to make them sound Chinese. We know they did this because the committee’s map included about 20 mistakes that appeared on the British map – features that in later, better surveys were found not to actually exist.

The committee gave some of the Spratly islands Chinese names. North Danger Reef became Beixian (the Chinese translation of “north danger”), Antelope Reef became Lingyang (the Chinese word for antelope). Other names were just transliterated so, for example, Spratly Island became Sipulateli and James Shoal became Zengmu. And this seems to be where the mistakes crept in.

But how to translate “shoal”? It’s a nautical word meaning an area of shallow sea where waves “shoal” up. Sailors would see a strange area of choppy water in the middle of the ocean and know the area was shallow and therefore dangerous. James Shoal is one of many similar features in the Spratlys.

But the committee didn’t seem to understand this obscure English term because they translated “shoal” as ” tan” – the Chinese word for beach or sandbank – a feature which is usually above water. The committee, never having visited the area, seems to have declared James Shoal/Zengmu Tan to be a piece of land and therefore a piece of China.

In 1947, the republic’s cartographers revisited the question of China’s ocean frontier, drawing up what would become known as the “U-shaped line”. It seems that they looked at the list of Chinese names, assumed that Zengmu Tan was above water and included it within the line. A non-existent island became the country’s southernmost territory.

But in a parallel process around the same time, the republic government gave new names to many of the sea features. Spratly Islands became Nanwei (the noble south), for example, and James Shoal was changed from a sandbank ( tan) into a reef ( ansha). Perhaps, by this time, the authorities had realised their mistake. Nonetheless Zengmu Ansha retained its official southernmost status.

By now, the translation error had become a fact, setting the region on course for conflict 80 years later.

This is more than a piece of historical trivia; James Shoal is a test of whether Beijing really is committed to the rule of international law in the South China Sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no state can claim sovereignty over an underwater feature unless it lies within 12 nautical miles of its land. James Shoal is over 1,000 kilometres from undisputed Chinese territory.

Last month, the Philippines government announced it would seek a ruling from an international tribunal about whether China’s claims in the sea were compatible with the UN convention. James Shoal would be a clear example of a claim that is not compatible. Perhaps this might be a good moment for Beijing to review how it came to claim this obscure piece of submarine territory in the first place.

Bill Hayton is writing a book on the South China Sea for publication later this year

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as How a non-existent island became China’s southernmost territory

As a comparison, 600 nautical miles is about one and half day steaming in the sea.

One of the Chinese Naval Forces vessel which is part of the flotilla off Bintulu is the 19,000 tonnes amphibious landing ship Changbanshian. Armed marine detachments are onboard. The ship is believed to carry upto 1,000 armed marines (one and half battalion), armoured vehicles and tanks and helicopters.

Changbanshian is supported by two guided missile destroyers.

This is not the first time this happened. Last March, Changbanshian’s sister ship Jianggangshan and three other guided missile warships conducted live firing exercise using missiles near James Shoal.

It is obvious despite China being a ‘friend’ to Malaysia and the two leaders embraced each other as symbol of friendship and continuous trade, working and diplomatic relations, the military is very intimidating against Malaysia and at the brink of provoking an international row.

It is obvious too that Malaysian political and diplomatic leaders have not learned anything when China invaded the Paracel Islands, off the coast of Vietnam exactly forty years ago this week.

Defence Minister Dato’ Seri Hishamuddin Hussein was reported to slip his tongue when talking the American press right after the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus summit held at Bandar Seri Begawan in late August:

“Just because you have enemies, doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies,” Hishammuddin said on the sidelines of meetings with counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as well as the United States. “The Chinese can patrol every day, but if their intention is not to go to war” it is of less concern, he said. “I think we have enough level of trust that we will not be moved by day-to-day politics or emotions.”

It is naive to treat that Chinese PLA’s and military might as toeing all the diplomacy and international politics lines that China’s formally agree. The fact is that Chinese PLA is independent from the government and only adhere to what the Communist Party decide.

Military dominance based on the communism paranoia is reflective on China’s military build up and expansionary track, more rapid and aggressive since the past decade. China has been flexing its military muscle and filling the void in the region ever since the Americans withdrew all major bases from The Phillipines, after the end of the Cold War with Soviet Union 20 years ago.

Energy demand forecast, between the soon to be mega economies

Energy demand forecast, between the soon to be mega economies

China’s determination of dominance in the multiple claim areas in the South China Sea has took prominence coupled with her own rapid economic growth and corresponding increasing demand for energy. The multiple claim in dispute held huge deposits of valuable oil and gas, which is a very important component to drive the economic uptrend.

The popular notion around the ASEAN bloc to resolve these multiple claim issues within South East Asia is continuous multilateral discussions. As mutilateral talks progresses and develop into productivity, the end result would point towards a joint development co-operation to explore and extract produce in the multiple claim area, where hydrocarbon is the key objective.

Existing oil and gas fields, multiple claims and China's imaginary 'territory' in South East Asia

Existing oil and gas fields, multiple claims and China’s imaginary ‘territory’ in South East Asia

However, China is more interested in being the neighbourhood bully with the ‘divide and rule’ policy of bilateral talks on country-to-country basis.

The military does not correspond to this diplomacy, despite Chinese diplomats insistence on mutually exclusive bilateral talks. China’s political willingness is also hampered with the aggressiveness of the PLA, to flex its military muscle and might. They are bent on the heavy handed approach to resolve in meeting China’s strategic intent and economic objective.

China’s is also not shy to assert their interest on these hydrocarbon deposits, with glee and greed.

New York Times story:

China Asserts Sea Claim With Politics and Ships

Published: August 11, 2012

HAIKOU, China — China does not want to control all of the South China Sea, says Wu Shicun, the president of a government-sponsored research institute here devoted to that strategic waterway, whose seabed is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. It wants only 80 percent.


Mr. Wu is a silver-haired politician with a taste for European oil paintings and fine furniture. He is also an effective, aggressive advocate for Beijing’s longstanding claim over much of the South China Sea in an increasingly fractious dispute with several other countries in the region that is drawing the United States deeper into the conflict.

China recently established a larger army garrison and expanded the size of an ostensible legislature to govern a speck of land, known as Yongxing Island, more than 200 miles southeast of Hainan. The goal of that move, Mr. Wu said, is to allow Beijing to “exercise sovereignty over all land features inside the South China Sea,” including more than 40 islands “now occupied illegally” by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

In the past several weeks, China has steadily increased its pressure, sending patrols with bigger ships and issuing persistent warnings in government-controlled newspapers for Washington to stop supporting its Asian friends against China.

The leadership in Beijing appears to have fastened on to the South China Sea as a way of showing its domestic audience that China is now a regional power, able to get its way in an area it has long considered rightfully its own. Some analysts view the stepped-up actions as a diversion from the coming once-a-decade leadership transition, letting the government show strength at a potentially vulnerable moment.

“They have to be seen domestically as strong and tough in the next few months,” Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said of the senior leadership. “They have to make sure they are not seen as weak.”

The Obama administration, alarmed at Beijing’s push, contends that the disputes should be settled by negotiation, and that as one of the most important trade corridors in the world, the South China Sea must enjoy freedom of navigation. The State Department, in an unusually strong statement issued this month intended to warn China that it should moderate its behavior, said that Washington believed the claims should be settled “without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without the use of force.”

Washington was reacting to what it saw as a continuing campaign on the South China Sea after Beijing prevented the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at its summit meeting in Cambodia in July, from releasing a communiqué outlining a common approach to the South China Sea.

The dispute keeps escalating. On July 31, the 85th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Defense Ministry heralded the occasion by announcing “a regular combat-readiness patrol system” for the waters in the sea under China’s jurisdiction.

The government then said it had launched its newest patrol vessel: a 5,400-ton ship. It was specifically designed to maintain “marine sovereignty,” said People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s leading newspaper.

Adding to the anxiety among China’s neighbors, a Chinese Navy frigate ran aground in July near a rocky formation known as Half Moon Shoal, in waters claimed by the Philippines. The accident raised questions about the competence of the Chinese Navy and suspicions about what the boat was doing there.

Mr. Wu, who is the president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies as well as the director general of the Hainan provincial government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that none of China’s actions were untoward.

Interviewed in his spacious office decorated with landscape paintings from Italy and Russia, he had recently returned from a day of festivities for the expanded legislature and garrison on Yongxing Island.

Yongxing, a sand-fringed island of less than a square mile dominated by an airstrip that can handle midsize passenger jetliners, is part of what China calls the Xisha Islands. They are known as the Paracels in Vietnam, which also claims the territory.

A Boeing 737 flew special guests to the party, including the Communist Party chief for Hainan Province, to celebrate the newly inducted legislators, and the garrison, Mr. Wu said.

The increased military presence on the island makes the Philippines especially nervous because it thrusts China’s presence closer to the islands in the South China Sea that the Philippines claims as its own.

Since the 1990s, the approximately 620 Yongxing Island residents have enjoyed drinking water, electricity and air-conditioning, Mr. Wu said. The new 45-member legislature, which sits in a two-story brick building with pillars and a dome draped with blue and red bunting for the celebrations, is intended to issue laws on maritime issues, he said.

At Mr. Wu’s institute, here on Hainan Island in a handsome new building, visitors are invited into a modern screening room where they are greeted with a video that is a policy sales pitch. The video says that China enjoys maritime rights over “a vast area” of the South China Sea, though it does not specify how much. The 1.4 million square miles of the sea are “crucial to the future of China as a growing maritime nation,” since the sea is a trade conduit between China and the United States, Africa and Europe, the video says.

The deputy director of the institute, Liu Feng, said that China not only claimed sovereignty over most of the islands in the South China Sea, but also transportation, fishing and mineral extraction rights over “all waters within the nine-dash line.”

The nine-dash map, which appears in government documents and even in Air China’s in-flight magazine, is one of the central points of conflict in the South China Sea dispute. The U-shaped line south of China passes close to Vietnam, then around Malaysia and north to the Philippines. It was drawn by China before the Communist takeover but is not recognized by any other country.

On how long it would take China to win back the islands that it claims sovereignty over, Mr. Wu said he could not estimate. The other claimant countries were standing firm, he said. Moreover, the re-engagement of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region “means we will have obstacles in solving the South China Sea questions between China and the relevant claimant states.”

The sustained attention to the South China Sea has been almost certainly coordinated from the senior ranks of the central government, Chinese analysts and Asian diplomats said. “Suddenly, the top leaders have taken a more hard-line policy,” said Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy adviser to the State Council, China’s equivalent to the cabinet.

After the State Department criticized China’s actions, Beijing immediately accused Washington of taking sides with smaller Asian nations against China. On Aug. 4, the Foreign Ministry summoned Robert S. Wang, the deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Beijing, and in an accompanying statement said the State Department had shown “total disregard of facts, confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong message.”

Bree Feng contributed research.


History has proven China’s military resolve on their expansionary track is consistent.

Paracel Islands, which is closer to Vietnam than China, were invavded by Chinese Naval Forces forty years ago

Paracel Islands, which is closer to Vietnam than China, were invavded by Chinese Naval Forces forty years ago

Changbaishan flotila, like Jinggangshan’s live exercise last March, is more than capable to invade any island belong to Malaysia in the size of Tioman or Banggi and hold the position till more military units and logistics are able to join and fortify their position. Just like the Paracel Islands, they are ready to occupy indefinitely. And no international political pressure nor diplomacy could overturn the PLA’s aggression.

The naval and air force capability of Malaysia and ability to ward of a flotilla of this size, would be discussed in Part III.

Published in: on January 26, 2014 at 23:59  Comments (92)