VIETNAM VERSUS CHINA FACE-OFF STOKES SOUTH CHINA SEA TENSION
Conflicting claims over rights to certain waters are creating a face-off between China and Vietnam, with the latter’s decision in mid-June to hold what it termed a ‘routine’ live fire naval exercise the former considered provocative. It took place 25 miles off central Quang Nam province, an area, which was previously believed to be still well outside any disputed region. The exercise consisted of day and night phases which in total lasted 15 hours.
This did not placate China however, which termed the exercise as a show of force intended to send a signal. For it came after Vietnam accused China of cutting the cables of a survey vessel and also that a Chinese ‘fishing vessel’ had rammed the cable of another. China responded by claiming its fishing vessels had been chased from the area by armed Vietnamese craft.
Furthermore, the Chinese claimed the Vietnamese vessels had been operating illegally there. In response to the rising tensions China dispatched the Haixun-31 of the Maritime Safety Administration, to the area before she was scheduled to make her way to Singapore. The Haixun-31 is a 3,000 tonnes vessel equipped with a helicopter pad. It was to monitor the situation in the region, protect shipping, and inspect oil wells during her transit. Six nations have varying claims on the area, which is thought to be rich in mineral resources and fishing stocks. However, Beijing claims the South China Sea almost in it entirety, so bringing it into conflict with Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Taiwan also has its own claim.
BOOST TO ARCTIC CLAIM
The newly re-elected Conservative government in Canada is expected to make small increases in the maritime defence budget, particularly to support claims to waters off its far north. This could mean that the go-ahead is finally given for the Arctic Patrol Ship project that is intended to procure six or eight vessels, based on the Norwegian Svalbard Class, for duties in the far north. The CAN $3.1billion contract (CAN $4.3billion over the 25 year life of the vessels) was supposed to deliver the first ship in 2014. There have been criticisms of the ice-breaking capabilities of design, however, with some maintaining this aspect of the proposed vessels will have to be to a higher standard. Competition for control of the waters in the far north among certain nations has increased due to a navigable route appearing thanks to melting of the polar ice cap. The fabled north-west passage is now largely passable with care, though whether it lies in Canadian or international waters remains a considerable cause for dispute. Russia has, for example, claimed a vast proportion of the area. The Arctic is thought to be rich in mineral resources, and also fish stocks. All of these will become more accessible and hence more open to competition for exploitation rights.
NORTH KOREAN SHIP INTERCEPTED
A US Navy warship has reportedly intercepted a North Korean freighter suspected of carrying ballistic missile technology.
The Arleigh Burke Class destroyer USS McCampbell found the MV Light south of Shanghai and asked to board on four occasions, but the North Koreans refused. The incident took place in late May but details only emerged last month (June). A few days later the MV Light turned around and returned to North Korea, tracked by US surveillance planes and satellites. UN Security Council Resolution 1874, passed in June 2009 in the aftermath of a North Korean nuclear test, allows member states to intercept Pyongyang’s vessels, if they are suspected of being involved in arms shipments. Fellow Asian pariah Burma is known to have at least a rudimentary nuclear programme in existence, and both nations appear to have established a bilateral effort to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
BLACK SEA BMD FRICTION
The arrival of the Ticonderoga Class cruiser USS Monterey in the Black Sea during mid-June met with sharp protests from Russia. The Monterey was in the area to participate in the Ukrainian-US Sea Breeze 2011 naval exercise, but Russia objected to what it termed a piece of “strategic infrastructure” (due to the cruiser’s Anti-Ballistic Missile – ABM – capability) being so close to its shores. Russian opposition to the cruiser’s presence came in the aftermath of failure between the West and Russia to agree a deal on the USA leading provision of a missile shield for Europe. Russia fears the shield will be directed against its own missiles, (though the West has consistently used states such as Iran as examples of the kind of potential foe against which the system would be deployed). Russia is demanding legal guarantees the shield will not be a counter-measure aimed in its direction. These would be hard to define according to the West, however, and Russia therefore continues to claim its demands are being ignored. Monterey was sent to the Mediterranean in March, the first such US Navy deployment of a European ballistic missile defence shield vessel. Sea Breeze 2011 was, however, all about rehearsing anti-piracy drills rather than ABM defence.
KEY VESSEL FAILS TRIALS
The US Navy new ballistic missile tracking ship, USNS Howard O. Lorenzen has reportedly failed acceptance trials. Failings were said to be related to the anchor, aviation inspections, damage control systems, electrical systems, steering, and thrust bearings temperature. The ship, equipped with a new radar system, was last year intended to replace the ageing USNS Observation Island, a remarkably long-served and accomplished ship that is equipped with the powerful AN/SPQ-11 Cobra Judy PESA radar. However, having failed the trials the Lorenzen will return to port to have these problems rectified, delaying her in-service date yet further. Observation Island was first commissioned in 1958, and despite being out of commission between 1972 and 1977 has otherwise served continuously and with distinction, having accumulated a string of notable achievements. She was closely associated with the Polaris programme and in 1960 monitored the first at-sea launch of the A-1 missile variant, and later the A-2 and A-3 variants. Her worth was still felt in 2008 when she was used to track satellites as part of the anti-satellite missile test programme.
JOINT SECURITY STRATEGY
Mozambique and South Africa have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on maritime security. Included in the memorandum were provisions covering joint patrols, information and intelligence sharing, and training. The move comes amid wider efforts in the Southern Africa Development Community committee to boost regional security in the face of pirate attacks in the Mozambique Channel. Whereas South Africa is clearly the most capable regional military force, that of Mozambique is essentially a paper only organisation. Much of its equipment is inoperable or in storage. The maritime equipment it does have (thought to be two ex-South African inshore patrol craft) is incapable of dealing with such a threat of piracy.
Three inshore patrol craft are on order, but even their presence may not be enough to ensure maritime security in the channel. South Africa is, however, facing very severe financial constraints, which probably hamper any possibility that it can make a meaningful contribution to a sustained anti-piracy effort. As such the South African Navy intends to reduce the number of hours spent at sea from 9,000 in 2010, to 8,000 in 2011 and 2012.
Under the current defence budget, there is only the capability for deploying one frigate and one support vessel at any one time in support of duties in home waters. Even that is a threat to the integrity of the defence allocation.
There is no possibility of a sustained South African anti-piracy strategy therefore, let alone a contribution to the wider anti-piracy struggle in the Gulf of Aden.