Interviews

Fall 2018

November 12, 2018

Analysts said dialogue such as this one in Washington normally brings about a calm period in Sino-U.S. military ties after a series of tougher moves, such as a near ship collision in the sea in September. They predicted the calm would last at least through a Nov. 30-Dec. 1 meeting between the two countries' presidents.

"I think every time countries meet, it's sort of a confidence-building measure," said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. "Having contact with each other is better than not having contact."

October 1, 2018

Southeast Asian countries accept the U.S. military presence because they expect no conflict with the United States, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“Most claimants in the South China Sea feel less threatened by the U.S. military presence than the Chinese military presence, that’s for certain,” Spangler said. “As a result, the U.S. military presence can be reassuring relative to the Chinese military presence, which can be cause for unease.”

Summer 2018

August 16, 2018

China may have sent and publicized this vessel’s deployment to look good after angering other states over militarization, experts say.

“Making big announcements about a humanitarian activity is kind of just trying to put a friendly veneer on top of what is pretty clearly militarization. It’s a kind of bluewashing,”* said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

China commands the world’s second largest economy, dwarfing those of Southeast Asia.

Countries with “greater power” and China’s level of resources also have a greater responsibility to offer humanitarian aid, Spangler said.

* Quote corrected

July 17, 2018

In April, China held military drills for two days in the sea. They brought together about 10,000 personnel and 48 naval vessels.

China wants to keep the others away, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“There’s the demonstrating that you are a world leader politically and militarily, the power projection thing, and there’s the deterrent aspect,” Spangler said. “There’s also the sort of insurance policy aspect. In the off chance there’s a conflict, then (China) will be prepared.”

June 28, 2018

When fishing or coast guard vessels from other countries run into China’s coast guard now, they don’t expect it to be “heavily armed,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea think tank in Taipei. They would see the fleet differently under central military command, he said.

“Other countries may have a different view of what the China coast guard represents, and that could definitely make people nervous in those unanticipated encounters, and maybe other countries will see this development as something they need to respond to in terms of restructuring their own coast guards,” Spangler said.

June 15, 2018

France plans to spend $361 billion on defense from 2019 to 2025, up 55 percent from the 2014-2018 budget period. France is also the world’s third biggest arms supplier, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says.

France will use the South China Sea mission to prove the worth of its hardware, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

China will protest the European ships with a statement and, eventually, more militarization at sea, analysts expect.

“Beijing can shadow the ships and follow the French vessels and tell them to leave the waters, and then they can file a diplomatic complaint in the aftermath, but it’s mostly just symbolic as opposed to like actually preventing it from happening,” Spangler said.

Spring 2018

May 12, 2018

Vietnam protested to China on May 8 and demanded that it remove any missiles. The Philippines is studying whether to make its own protest.

But the neighboring countries will probably make few changes in view of any missiles, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. He sees no threat to marine shipping and notes that China regularly passes coast guard ships throughout the sea.

The missiles would mark a “slow progression” in a militarization aimed at stopping any invasion of Chinese-held islets, he said.

April 24, 2018

After the exercises, the Chinese foreign ministry will probably make a statement about its own maritime sovereignty claims and criticize the role of “external actors,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. New military exercises are likely, but later, he said. Another round would lead to yet another response, he said.

“If China doesn’t want other countries to be so involved militarily in the region then it probably also shouldn’t be so ostentatious about its own military actions in the region,” Spangler said.

April 13, 2018

[Brunei–China] ties have improved while the Bruneian economy slips because of declining world oil prices and diminishing supplies. Oil and gas make up 60 percent of Brunei’s economy.

China is propping up that economy now with investments that will make it easier to tap, process and transport fossil fuels, experts say. Economic concerns will take “priority” over political issues including sovereignty, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“I think that China has not so much been using like an aggressive approach with Brunei, but just using economic incentives,” Spangler said. “I don’t know if it will even need to tell Brunei what to do about its maritime claims.”

As recent signs of closer ties, Chinese contractors built a 2,680-meter-long sea bridge that’s due to open this month. China’s Hengyi Petrochemicals Co. offered $79 million worth of bonds last month on a Chinese stock exchange to fund a petrochemical plant in Brunei.

Beijing may later use its ties with Brunei to win favor with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Spangler said. That bloc includes Brunei as well as members such as Vietnam that resent Beijing’s maritime expansion. China has tapped Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines for similar support before.

“If you can control one of those members from the outside, then you can control the entire group,” he said.

March 13, 2018

“On its own, a joint exercise among claimants in disputed waters would mark an important development in regional relations,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

But improvement of broader relations would take longer, he said. “It all depends whether or not China and ASEAN can keep up the positive momentum,” Spangler said. “Because the underlying disputes have not been resolved yet, that may prove difficult in the long run.”

Winter 2017–2018

February 7, 2018

The 4G upgrades show that China will step up an existing technological advantage in the dispute to help tiny populations of citizens who live there, possibly as incentives to stay at their isolated posts, analysts say.

“I imagine that those living there would want such services and also that the government would want to ensure that individuals living in such a strategically significant location were well provided for,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

A stable resident population would in turn advance China’s hold over the sea in a range of fields, analysts believe.

The stronger network might eventually help Chinese-run schools, hospitals, and other facilities “where internet connectivity is standard in many countries,” Spangler said. Also possibly on the list: tourism cruise ships and oil exploration vessels.

January 15, 2018

Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank, told DW that Beijing can influence ASEAN decisions by controlling a few of its members. “This strategy has been particularly effective in relation to South China Sea issues, as ASEAN’s disunity continues to hinder its members from agreeing upon a meaningful plan for dispute management or resolution.”

In German:

Jonathan Spangler, Direktor des “South China Sea Think Tanks” mit Sitz in Taipeh, erklärt gegenüber der Deutschen Welle, dass China die Entscheidungen der ASEAN durch die Kontrolle einiger Mitgliedstaaten beeinflussen kann. “Diese Strategie war ausgesprochen effizient mit Blick auf das Südchinesische Meer. Die Uneinigkeit der ASEAN verhindert die Entwicklung eines überzeugenden Plans, mit dessen Hilfe der Disput gemanagt oder gelöst werden könnte.”

January 13, 2018

A government remote sensing institute in the southern province of Hainan intends to launch 10 satellites over the nearby seas from 2019 to 2021, the official Xinhua News Agency reported in December. Two will be able to analyze each pixel in an image to find objects or detect processes. Others can compose three-dimensional images of landscapes. These tools could effectively monitor what other countries are doing on many of the South China Sea’s 500 tiny islets and surrounding waters.

“If China is collecting data they don’t have to share with other countries, then that’s a strategic advantage,” says Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

Xinhua doesn’t mention who will make the satellites, but per tradition the 11-year-old exclusive domestic operator China DBSat will probably get a sizable part in managing them.

In Vietnamese, as translated by VietTimes:

Nhà nghiên cứu Jonathan Spangler, viện nghiên cứu Biển Đông tại Đài Bắc, Đài Loan cho rằng: “Nếu Trung Quốc muốn thu thập số liệu và không chia sẻ với nước khác thì đó là một ưu thế chiến lược”.

January 9, 2018

… Indonesia and the Philippines have overall strong ties plus a record for reaching maritime agreements.

They signed an agreement in 2014 after two decades of talks on formal boundaries around their exclusive economic zones in the Celebes Sea – a deal aimed at improving resource cooperation.

“There’s a lot of cross-border traffic there, and so that’s caused some problems, but as much as it’s caused some problems it’s also been the focus of some agreements that have been fairly promising in terms of maritime boundary delimitation,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank.

In Indonesian:

“Banyak lalu-lintas lintas-perbatasan disana, dan ini telah menimbulkan beberapa masalah, tetapi karena timbul beberapa masalah telah , daerah ini juga telah menjadi fokus beberapa persetujuan yang memberi harapan untuk menetapkan garis perbatasan maritim,” kata Jonathan Spangler, direktur Pusat Pengkajian Laut China Selatan di Taipei.

December 22, 2017

Since China rejected the arbitral ruling, it would struggle to criticize Japan’s claim of Okinotori based on its size or close to the water’s surface, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“They can say it’s not Japanese for other reasons, but they can’t say it because of the size of the island or the type of the island,” he said.

December 7, 2017

International organizations have spotted Chinese aircraft in the Paracel chain at other times over at least the past year, making this case unique because official Chinese media reported the deployment, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“China was trying hard to offset all the negative publicity it was getting and also trying to bolster its image with ASEAN countries and trying to work things out with the Philippines under (President) Duterte,” Spangler said.

“Perhaps now the attention in the region has been drawn a bit away from the South China Sea temporarily and that could be (a) reason China might be more willing to be a bit more outspoken,” he said.

China’s follow-up to the deployment will depend on what reactions follow, Spangler said. A formal complaint from abroad would hurt China’s image as neighborly negotiator, but lack of one would offer “smooth sailing” until someone protests, he said.

Fall 2017

September 29, 2017

Beijing … has befriended the Philippines over the past year but only after years of diplomatic hostility that some Filipinos fear could resurface.

“I imagine there’s a feeling that the time has come to consider other options,” said Jonathan Spangler, director, South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. “I just think it’s more like a hedging thing, like making sure you don’t go all the way in one direction.”

The Philippines can help lock in its Spratly claims by showing human habitation and economic activity, Spangler noted.

September 4, 2017

Vietnamese officials also want to protect trade with China, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“Sino-Vietnamese relations will remain volatile as they have in the past, but both governments will be constrained by their key interests,” Spangler said.

“For Vietnam, the free flow of trade with China will remain a top priority, perhaps second only to domestic political stability,” he said. “For China, maintaining its influence in regional affairs and preventing any regional consensus that would threaten its interests will continue to take precedence.”

From interview transcript:

Like many governments, Hanoi has to perform a delicate balancing act in its relations with Beijing. Trade with its northern neighbor drives the Vietnamese economy, but diplomatic tensions threaten Vietnamese people’s livelihoods and domestic political stability.

Sino-Vietnamese tensions are not new. Vietnam has been affected by Chinese imperial domination for hundreds of years. The deadliest conflict in the South China Sea was a naval skirmish between the two countries in the Paracel Islands in 1974, and the most recent war in East Asia was between China and Vietnam in 1979. More recently, the standoff between them over a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam in May 2014 caused the greatest spike in South China Sea tensions in the past five years.

Sino-Vietnamese relations will remain volatile as they have in the past, but both governments will be constrained by their key interests. For Vietnam, the free flow of trade with China will remain a top priority, perhaps second only to domestic political stability. For China, maintaining its influence in regional affairs and preventing any regional consensus that would threaten its interests will continue to take precedence.

Summer 2017

August 28, 2017

“Even the most minimal gestures of goodwill toward other countries, such as allowing Philippine fishermen into Scarborough Shoal, are enough to appease critics or at least defer criticism for the time being,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

August 7, 2017

“If and when a code of conduct is finalized, we can rest assured that it will be diluted to a point where it does not damage Chinese interests in the South China Sea,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

From interview transcript:

China’s leadership understands that giving the appearance of diplomatic progress and goodwill towards its neighbors is in the country’s national interest. These actions help it to justify its position and divert attention away from its militarization of the maritime area. Even the slowest of movement in negotiations with ASEAN and the most minimal gestures of goodwill towards other countries – such as allowing Philippine fishermen into Scarborough Shoal – are enough to appease critics or at least defer criticism for the time being.

For Beijing, the best progress is slow progress, and it will continue to pursue this approach in future negotiations with ASEAN and rival claimants. If and when a Code of Conduct is finalized, we can rest assured that it will be diluted to a point where it does not damage Chinese interests in the South China Sea.

July 21, 2017

«Администрация Дутерте надеялась, что улучшение дипломатических отношений с Пекином принесет экономические бонусы Филиппинам. Если ожидаемые бонусы не столь удовлетворительные, правительство имеет повод удовлетворить свои интересы по-другому, например за счет добычи природных ресурсов в ЮКС», – считает директор базирующегося на Тайване South China Sea Think Tank Джонатан Спэнглер.

From interview transcript:

“The Duterte administration had hoped that improving diplomatic relations with Beijing would bring economic benefits for the Philippines. If the expected benefits are less than satisfactory, the government will have reason to consider other means of pursuing its interests. Natural resource extraction in the South China Sea is but one of the options available to it.”

July 12, 2017

“It is likely that the regional grouping (of Southeast Asian countries) will maintain a cautious approach in its relations with China and that any statements or agreements will be watered down so as to avoid upsetting Beijing,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“Chinese policymakers know that now is as good a time as any to push forward with securitization of their maritime territorial claims,” he said.

From interview transcript:

“With President Duterte’s inauguration just prior to the arbitral award of July 2016, there was an abrupt change of direction in Sino–Philippine relations. As former President Aquino III’s confrontational approach was replaced by a more conciliatory posture under Duterte, the Philippine ‘victory’ in the arbitration case was cast aside by the new administration in favor of extracting economic benefits from Beijing.”

“Especially with the Philippines as ASEAN chair for 2017, it is likely that the regional grouping will maintain a cautious approach in its relations with China and that any statements or agreements will be watered down so as to avoid upsetting Beijing. Chinese policymakers know that now is as good a time as any to push forward with securitization of their maritime territorial claims.”

June 26, 2017

“Both countries know that they will have to continue to work towards finding a balance where they can both benefit economically and co-exist politically,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

From interview transcript:

“As with so many other countries, Vietnam’s relationship with China is characterized by both political friction and economic cooperation. The sudden cancelation of bilateral talks is a reflection of those political tensions. Both countries know, however, that they will have to continue to work towards finding a balance where they can both benefit economically and co-exist politically.”

June 16, 2017

“China has always had an opposition to foreign interference in its domestic affairs, of course, and also in regional affairs, and India, although it’s part of Asia, is perceived as an outside actor in terms of the South China Sea,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“China and India have quite a complex relationship,” Spangler said. “They have their own territorial disputes along their land borders, and that’s been true for a long, long time.”

June 9, 2017

“Увеличение активности в ЮКМ повышает риск непредвиденных инцидентов в море, но эти инциденты необязательно приведут к вооруженному конфликту. Несмотря на трения, связанные с рядом международных политических вопросов, двусторонние отношения между Китаем и США взаимовыгодны во многих других отношениях, — пояснил «Известиям» директор Тайваньского аналитического центра South China Sea Think Tank Джонатан Спэнглер.”

From interview transcript:

“It is likely that there is a strong correlation between Chinese activities perceived by other countries as militarization of the South China Sea and international diplomatic and military involvement in the maritime area. Increased activity in the South China Sea raises the risks of unanticipated incidents at sea, but those incidents will not necessarily lead to armed conflict. Despite frictions related to several international political issues, China–US bilateral relations are mutually beneficial in many other ways.”

“Policy makers in Beijing understand that a belligerent North Korean leadership is not in China or the region’s best interests. If Beijing aims to establish itself as a regional and world leader in diplomatic affairs and Pyongyang’s actions jeopardize this, China will take the necessary measures to ensure that North Korea does not pose an obstacle to its national interests.”

Spring 2017

May 8, 2017

“The Philippines seeks large-scale Chinese investments or aid in infrastructure projects and guarantees that Chinese vessels will not infringe on its fishing and resource extraction operations in its Philippine waters,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“Because of the power imbalance between the two countries, negotiations will mostly be on Beijing’s terms, so it can be expected that any relevant commitments will be vague enough to avoid damaging Chinese interests in the future,” he said.

April 17, 2017

Najib usually avoids confronting Beijing because of tight Chinese-Malaysian economic relations. Malaysia counts China, the world’s second largest economy, as its top trading partner and biggest source of direct foreign investment.

“For Malaysia, which has sought to maintain friendly relations with China, publicly condemning Chinese actions would disrupt that delicate balance and could have serious economic and other repercussions,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

But China is careful to avoid sparking strong protests as it locks in its maritime claims, analysts say. A dispute over Scarborough Shoal near the Philippines in 2012 prompted Manila to file for world court arbitration. An arbitration tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in July, a decision Beijing called a “farce.”

“For China, it has demonstrated that it is willing and able to increasingly securitize its claimed territories, but overdoing it could eventually provide rival claimants the impetus for mustering a united regional response,” Spangler said.

China has offered economic incentives elsewhere in Southeast Asia in exchange for tolerance of its maritime expansion. Countries such as Malaysia’s neighbor Brunei, and more recently the Philippines, have obliged.

From VOA Learning English:

Razak usually avoids direct conflict with China. The country is Malaysia’s top trading partner and its biggest source of direct foreign investment.

Jonathan Spangler is director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. He says, “For Malaysia, which has sought to maintain friendly relations with China, publicly condemning Chinese actions would disrupt that delicate balance and could have serious economic and other repercussions.”

From Korea News Gazette:

"For Malaysia, which has sought to maintain friendly relations with China, publicly condemning Chinese actions would disrupt that delicate balance and could have serious economic and other repercussions," said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

March 22, 2017

“For many decades, Japan has played an important role in providing development and humanitarian aid to countries throughout East and Southeast Asia, but it was long ‘hindered,’ so to speak, by its pacifist defense policy,” says Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. “It can now become more directly engaged in regional securitization efforts. For some, this is reassuring. For others, it is cause for concern.”

March 22, 2017

Officials in Beijing might argue that a monitoring station doesn’t violate the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that it signed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is being chaired by the Philippines this year, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

That accord only prohibits occupying so far uninhabited land features in the disputed sea,

“Building an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal could theoretically be done without inhabiting the feature, but that would not make the action seem any less provocative to rival claimants or other major stakeholders,” Spangler said.

March 21, 2017

“Like China and the U.S., Japan is trying to consolidate its role as a leader in the region,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank. “Part of this effort involves demonstrating that it has the capacity and courage to operate in areas well beyond its own borders.”

From interview transcript:

“Like China and the US, Japan is trying to consolidate its role as a leader in the region. Part of this effort involves demonstrating that it has the capacity and courage to operate in areas well beyond its own borders.”

“For many decades, Japan has played an important role in providing development and humanitarian aid to countries throughout East and Southeast Asia, but it was long ‘hindered’ – so to speak – by its pacifist defense policy. With recent changes to that policy, it can now become more directly engaged in regional securitization efforts. For some, this is reassuring; for others, it is cause for concern.”

“Chinese officials view the South China Sea as domestic territory, so it is not surprising that they would cast a wary eye on any foreign military activity in the area. This is especially true when such operations represent an unprecedented departure from previous levels of involvement there.”

March 6, 2017

“Brunei’s interests in the South China Sea are primarily economic,” says Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. “It depends economically on resource extraction within its claimed exclusive economic zone, and at the same time maintains close economic ties with China. Although China’s nine-dash line claims overlap with Brunei’s EEZ claims, both governments understand that avoiding diplomatic or military confrontation over the issue is in their best interests.”

March 6, 2017

An informal China-Taiwan dialogue of eight years ended after Tsai took office in May on a public mandate to be more cautious toward Beijing. China had also “refrained from harassing” Taiwanese fishermen at that time, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank.

He added that contact with other countries at sea “could give Beijing reason to intervene in a way that would be detrimental to Taiwan’s interests.”

From interview transcript:

“For Taiwan’s South China Sea policy, its relationship with China is a double-edged sword. On one hand, China has refrained from harassing Taiwanese fishing boats operating in the maritime area, so it could be said that they receive a sort of exceptional treatment compared to fishermen from other claimant states. On the other hand, Taiwan’s maritime law enforcement options are limited because any encounters with other countries could give Beijing reason to intervene in a way that would be detrimental to Taiwan’s interests.”

Winter 2016–2017

February 21, 2017

Still, analysts agree that there is a dizzying degree of uncertainty within the Trump administration. Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank, pointed out that many senior members of Trump’s cabinets have made “off-the-cuff remarks that reflect their misinformed perspectives” on Asia-Pacific security issues. He said that secretary of defence James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, was the only official who seemed to have a clear grasp of the intricacies involved in regional politics.

China, Spangler added, seems to be biding its time amid confusion in Washington, issuing statements denouncing the US’ actions and waiting to see how far Trump will go to preserve his tough-talking persona.

“The reality is that disarray in Washington can only hurt US interests and weaken its global leadership role,” he said. “Beijing, in turn, may eventually benefit from this.”

From interview transcript:

“As part of its Freedom of Navigation Program, the US Navy has challenged what it views as excessive maritime claims since for decades and publicly releases a record of these each year. Most of these receive little or no media coverage. However, given the high-profile nature of the South China Sea disputes and US government decisions to publicize its operations there, its naval operations in the area – routine as they may be – have sparked heated debate among observers and criticism by Chinese officials, who see US presence in the waters as unwelcome interference in domestic and regional affairs.”

“Of the relevant officials in the Trump administration, Secretary of Defense James Mattis seems to be the only one with a clear grasp of US interests as relate to Asia-Pacific regional security, the risks involved in sudden policy shifts, and the nuances of regional diplomatic relations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and President Donald Trump himself have all made off-the-cuff remarks that reflect their misinformed perspectives on Asia-Pacific regional security issues and threaten to be detrimental to long-term US interests in the region and around the world.”

“Beijing seems to be taking a relatively patient approach to dealing with the unpredictable Trump administration as it tries to develop a cohesive policy approach to major global issues, including the South China Sea. The reality is that disarray in Washington can only hurt US interests and weaken its global leadership role. Beijing, in turn, may eventually benefit from this if the Trump administration continues have difficulty advancing a clear and consistent Asia-Pacific security policy approach.”

February 20, 2017

The Vietnamese government knows that it “must avoid upsetting China” while staying open to defense ties with the United States, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“For Vietnam, regional stability is closely tied to national security,” Spangler said. “Vietnam, like other rival claimants, needs to balance the benefits of its economic ties with China and the political risks of not defending its sovereignty claims and thus appearing weak domestically.”

From interview transcript:

“For Vietnam, regional stability is closely tied to national security. The Vietnamese government knows that it must avoid upsetting China while at the same time keep its options open in terms of defense ties with the US.

The Trump administration’s unpredictability introduces new variables into Vietnam’s policy considerations for the South China Sea. The Vietnamese government should ensure that US policymakers clearly understand Vietnam’s importance for maintaining regional stability while continuing to emphasize mutual economic benefits in its discussions with Beijing.

Vietnam, like other rival claimants, needs to balance the benefits of its economic ties with China and the political risks of not defending its sovereignty claims and thus appearing weak domestically.”

February 10, 2017

Vietnam understands the risk of a pullback, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank.

“Beijing has been known to limit outbound tourism as a political tool, but the Vietnamese government understands that such risks are only a small part of its economic relations with China and broader diplomatic and political interests,” he said.

From VOA Learning English:

Jonathan Spangler is director of the South China Sea Think Tank, a research group based in Taiwan. He says Vietnam understands the risk of a sudden decrease in tourism.

“Beijing has been known to limit outbound tourism as a political tool, but the Vietnamese government understands that such risks are only a small part of its economic relations with China and broader diplomatic and political interests,” he said.

From interview transcript:

“Chinese tourism has economic benefits for many countries, including Vietnam. Beijing has been known to limit outbound tourism as a political tool, but the Vietnamese government understands that such risks are only a small part of its economic relations with China and broader diplomatic and political interests.”

December 26, 2016

“For the most part, the civilian populations on many of the features in the South China Sea are either working for or otherwise supported by their respective governments,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“Tourism has been limited in the South China Sea for practical, economic and political reasons,” Spangler added. “Even so, both China and Vietnam have organized cruise ship tours to their occupied features, and some Philippine officials have advocated doing the same.”

From interview transcript:

“For the most part, the civilian populations on many of the features in the South China Sea are either working for or otherwise supported by their respective governments. That goes for China-occupied Woody Island, Philippines-occupied Thitu Island, Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba Island, Vietnam-occupied Spratly Island, and various others.”

“Tourism has been limited in the South China Sea for practical, economic, and political reasons. Even so, both China and Vietnam have organized cruise ship tours to their occupied features, and some Philippine officials have advocated doing the same. Malaysia’s Avillion Layang Layang Resort on Swallow Reef is the longest-running of these efforts and has certainly helped to advance its claims to the feature.”

“Tourism could be seen as positive in that it provides concrete evidence that South China Sea infrastructural developments are at least partly intended for civilian purposes and suggests that the future of the disputes need not be confined to military issues. On the other hand, it could be seen as negative in that it highlights the unresolved sovereignty issues and alters the status quo.”

December 14, 2016

ASEAN chairs since 2013 have made it priority to unify members or avoid upsetting China, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. The chair rotates to a new Southeast Asian country every year.

Malaysia last year maintained an “ASEAN-centric” approach, he said. Chairs this year from Laos and in 2014 from Myanmar also avoided the maritime disputes due to risks of disunity and upsetting their own ties with Beijing, he added, while Brunei as 2013 chair, took a characteristically “low-profile” stance on the maritime dispute.

“It is likely that the Philippines will advocate a leadership role for ASEAN in managing the South China Sea disputes, but it will not sacrifice ASEAN unity to achieve those aims,” Spangler said. “Only half of the ten-member regional grouping has South China Sea claims, so an iron-fisted ASEAN role is far less likely than one that cautiously balances the interests of all its members. For many countries, their relations with Beijing would be a greater priority.”

From interview transcript:

“With Malaysia as the ASEAN chair in 2015, the country maintained quite an ASEAN-centric approach to dispute management in the South China Sea.

With Myanmar as its predecessor in 2014 and then Laos in 2016, there was little reason for either of those countries to push for greater involvement in the disputes because of the risks it would pose to ASEAN unity and their own relations with Beijing.

Brunei, who served as chair in 2013, has always taken a low-profile approach to the maritime disputes, which is also largely a byproduct of its relations with China.

It is likely that the Philippines will advocate a leadership role for ASEAN in managing the South China Sea disputes, but it will not sacrifice ASEAN unity to achieve those aims.

Only half of the ten-member regional grouping has South China Sea claims, so an iron-fisted ASEAN role is far less likely than one that cautiously balances the interests of all its members. For many countries, their relations with Beijing would be a greater priority.”

December 9, 2016

“Taiwan has long been trying to frame itself as a peacemaker in the South China Sea, but the issues of sovereignty are not yet resolved. Of course, that’s sort of the key fundamental issue.”

The wildcard here is the threat of a more hawkish US military under President Trump. “It could potentially embolden claimants in their securitization efforts, and it could also embolden the United States and other major stakeholders who sort of back up their policies with military action.”

December 7, 2016

“For an action like designating the Scarborough Shoal as a marine sanctuary to have a deescalating effect on South China Sea tensions, it would need to have at least tacit approval from relevant claimants,” says Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. “Otherwise, it risks leading to escalation, regardless of whether Manila’s intentions are related to environmental conservation or not.”

December 6, 2016

“Designating the Scarborough Shoal area as a marine sanctuary would be a renewed claim by the Philippines to sovereignty over that area,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. “Any unilateral actions that imply sovereignty are likely to cause friction between rival claimants, even if they are framed as marine conservation efforts.”

China has not weighed in. The foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said only that the Chinese claims to sovereignty over the shoal will not change. The marine sanctuary would need “at least tacit approval” from related claimants other than Manila to reduce South China Sea tensions, Spangler said.

Elsewhere in the South China Sea, Taiwan formed a national park nine years ago at Dongsha Atoll in the Pratas archipelago to regenerate coral. China claims the Pratas as well but has not overtly challenged Taiwan’s sanctuary.

December 3, 2016

“Obviously for Taiwan it’s a good sign as some Taiwanese politicians were a bit worried that the Trump administration would ignore Taiwan,” said Jonathan Spangler from the Taipei-based South China Sea think tank.

The call could also help boost Tsai’s ratings, which have plummeted in her first six months in office. “It shows that she does have the capacity and courage to lead Taiwan,” said Spangler.

Fall 2016

November 26, 2016

Surfing is still new to Taiwan, an island of 23 million off the east coast of China. Fewer than 100 people make a living out of surfing.

A high rate of drowning deaths has helped create nationwide trepidation but analysts say the aversion to water has cultural and political roots going back to the island’s tempestuous relationship with China.

Jonathan Spangler, from the Asia-Pacific Policy Research Association in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei says: “In the education system here it’s taught that swimming in the ocean is dangerous, don’t go swimming.”

Dr Francis Hu, head of political science at Tunghai university, Taichung, explains that for decades, post-second world war Taiwan had also restricted access to the coastline for security reasons.

November 24, 2016

“China will likely find a business-minded leader like Trump to be easier to influence than a political and ideologically minded leader like Clinton,” Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank, has predicted.

November 21, 2016

“Taiwan has long been trying to frame itself as a regional peacemaker in the South China Sea dispute,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank. “Humanitarian and search-and-rescue operations near Itu Aba would be a logical next step in backing up that political rhetoric with action.”

From VOA Learning English:

Jonathan Spangler is director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank. He says Taiwan has been trying to position itself as a peacemaker in the South China Sea dispute for many years.

“Humanitarian and search-and-rescue operations near Itu Aba would be a logical next step in backing up that political rhetoric with action,” he said.

Taiwan launched efforts in 2015 to establish itself as a humanitarian player in the South China Sea. At that time, the government released a peace proposal intended to help resolve South China Sea disputes. It urged governments involved to put aside their “sovereignty disputes” and find ways to develop the sea’s resources together.

From interview transcript:

“Taiwan has long been trying to frame itself as a regional peacemaker in the South China Sea dispute. Humanitarian and search-and-rescue operations near Itu Aba would be a logical next step in backing up that political rhetoric with action. Whether or not its efforts will be misunderstood or misconstrued by rival claimants or the media is difficult to predict, so Taipei will have to carefully ensure that its operations are transparent and neighboring countries are informed in advance of its plans.”

November 14, 2016

“Details are scarce as to what Trump’s policy approach to the Asia Pacific might look like, and many of his off-the-cuff remarks have sent mixed signals about how the administration might proceed,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank. “Had Clinton won the election, there’s little doubt that she would have continued to prioritize the Asia Pacific region.”

“China will likely find a business-minded leader like Trump to be easier to influence than a political and ideologically minded leader like Clinton,” Spangler forecast.

From interview transcript:

“Secretary Clinton’s campaign platform was relatively heavy on policy details, which is unsurprising given her many decades in government. In stark contrast to her approach, President-Elect Trump’s rise to power was fueled by public distrust of government combined with a wave of misogyny, xenophobia, and racism. Trump’s approach earned him the presidency, but it left many questions about where the country is headed unanswered – particularly in terms of foreign policy.

Had Clinton won the election, there is little doubt that she would have continued to prioritize the Asia-Pacific region. As Secretary of State, she became the founding architect of the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy with her influential article “America’s Pacific Century” published in Foreign Affairs in 2011. She is also known for being more hawkish than President Barack Obama, which could have meant a tougher stance against China’s actions in the South China Sea and greater willingness to increase US naval presence in the region.

Details are scarce as to what Trump’s policy approach to the Asia-Pacific might look like, and many of his off-the-cuff remarks have sent mixed signals about how the administration might proceed.

What we do know is this. He has blamed China for many of America’s economic issues and vowed to be tough on Beijing. For its part, China will likely find a business-minded US president like Trump to be easier to influence than a policy- and ideology-oriented leader like Clinton.

Trump has also suggested that regional powers like Japan and South Korea take more responsibility for their own defense and threatened to withdraw US forces from the region. On the other hand, he may also be influenced by advocates of military modernization, such as Republican Congressman Randy Forbes, who has pushed for a stronger US Navy.

What we also know is that Trump is impulsive, perpetually concerned about his own image, and not necessarily bound by Republican Party doctrine, so he might prioritize high-profile short-term gains over a more nuanced approach that would benefit long-term national interests in the Asia-Pacific region.”

November 10, 2016

The drill is to prep for humanitarian search-and-rescue work that backs up a longstanding mission of the coast guard on Taiping Island. The islet with a clinic and lodging is supposed to be a place where people from any country can go when in trouble, say because of a storm at sea. Taiwan wants the other claimants to remember its claim. But it also wants to be seen as an advocate of peaceful cooperation rather than aggression.

“Really the whole idea of turning it into a search and rescue hub is kind of just the next step in that whole approach to in the peace effort,” says Jonathan Spangler, director of Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank.

Summer 2016

July 15, 2016

Regional defense experts say the arbitration ruling may lead other South China Sea claimants to ramp up their defense spending. Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all claim portions of the waterway, which is rich in fish and believed to hold significant underwater mineral resources.

“As states squabble over sovereignty issues and increase spending to safeguard their own interests, it is the global defense industry that is the real beneficiary of the South China Sea disputes,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

From interview transcript:

“China’s military spending increased by 321% from 2001–2014, making it six times higher than all other South China Sea claimants combined. Whether or not its defense expenditures will increase as a direct result of the ruling is trivial.”

“Interestingly, the Tribunal determined in Paragraph 1164 of the Award that China’s dredging and construction activities were not military in nature, basing its decision purely on Beijing’s own assertions. It is therefore ironic that, had China considered its own activities to be for military instead of civilian purposes, the Tribunal may not have had jurisdiction with regards to the Philippines’ Submission No. 14(d), which accused China of unlawfully aggravating and extending the dispute through through such activities.”

“China, like all claimants, has sought to enhance its naval and air defense capabilities in recent years. It has been an ongoing trend, not a sudden shift in acquisitions. Russia has been and will continue to be a major arms supplier to China and other countries in the region. As states squabble over sovereignty issues an increase spending to safeguard their own interests, it is the global defense industry that is the real beneficiary of the South China Sea disputes.”

Spring 2016

April 7, 2016

“China views itself as having suffered in the past from foreign incursions in its territory,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank. “These memories are going to shape its policies and diplomatic interactions with other countries today.”

“From Beijing’s perspective,” Spangler added, “there is a fine line between the US lending its naval expertise to the region and something that feels much more akin to containment.”

March 24, 2016

Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea think-tank in Taipei, says the fight over Taiping’s status has much wider implications because it is the biggest natural feature in the Spratlys and the only one with a serious claim to be an island in international law.

He points out that while China has built a much bigger air base on reclaimed land at nearby Fiery Cross Reef, such man-made features cannot generate an exclusive economic zone.

“If Taiping is officially an island and none of China’s occupied features are considered islands by international law, it could throw the whole focus of the South China Sea disputes back to cross-Strait relations,” he says.