Sinopec Dips Toes in Disputed South China Sea

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Brian Spegele reports: China wants to ramp up fuel supplies at a contested island outpost in the South China Sea, and it is enlisting one of the nation’s biggest state-owned enterprises to help.

China Petrochemical Corp., commonly known as Sinopec, said Monday it had begun building a fueling station and storage depot at the Chinese settlement of Sansha City in the disputed Paracel Island chain.

A statement by the company on its official microblog account confirmed earlier reports from local authorities that the project intended to ease fuel shortages at Sansha, a settlement with a population of around 1,000 people, making it the largest outpost among the many contested islands of the South China Sea.

Tu hao, go fishing in Sansha, and remember to bring your refueling card,” Sinopec’s statement said, using a popular term for China’s newly minted moneyed class.

[Read the full story here, at China Real Time Report – WSJ]

Sansha City, located on Woody Island, is used to administer China’s claims over nearly the entire South China Sea, and holds the same administrative rank in China as large metropolises with millions of people.

China took de facto control of Woody Island and the Paracels following a naval conflict with South Vietnamese forces in 1974. Vietnam continues to claim the area today. Its Foreign Ministry said it didn’t have any comment on the fuel facilities Monday.

Sinopec, whose main listed unit trades in New York and Hong Kong, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on whether building the facilities would hurt its ability to pursue future business with Vietnam. Read the rest of this entry »


U.S. Patrols to Raise Stakes with Beijing in Disputed South China Sea

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Greg Torode reports: U.S. plans to send warships or military aircraft within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, possibly within days, could open a tense new front in Sino-U.S. rivalry.

A range of security experts said Washington’s so-called freedom of navigation patrols would have to be regular to be effective, given Chinese ambitions to project power deep into maritime Southeast Asia and beyond.

But China would likely resist attempts to make such U.S. actions routine, some said, raising the political and military stakes. China’s navy could for example try to block or attempt to surround U.S. vessels, they said, risking an escalation.

Given months of debate already in Washington over the first such patrol close to the Chinese outposts since 2012, several regional security experts and former naval officers said the U.S. government might be reluctant to do them often.

U.S. allies such as Japan and Australia are unlikely to follow with their own direct challenges to China, despite their concerns over freedom of navigation along vital trade routes, they added.

“This cannot be a one-off,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“The U.S. navy will have to conduct these kinds of patrols on a regular basis to reinforce their message.”

The Obama administration has said it would test China’s territorial claims to the area after months of pressure from Congress and the U.S. military. It has not given a timeframe.

“I think we have been very clear – that we intend to do this,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters last Monday.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials said this month that Beijing would “never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly islands in the name of protecting navigation and overflight”.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, 12-nautical mile limits cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.

Four of the seven reefs China has reclaimed over the last two years were completely submerged at high tide before construction began, legal scholars say.

China claims most of the South China Sea. Other claimants are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Read the rest of this entry »


Scientific Habitat? Secret Military Project? China’s Tiangong Keeps Us Guessing

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For The Week, Steve Weintz, reports: Months after its scheduled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere — and a surprise cameo appearance in hit space flick Gravity — China’s first space station boosted into a higher orbit. It still speeds around the planet, doing … what, exactly?

“As with the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B robot space plane, mystery opens the door to daydream.”

No one outside of China’s popular but opaque space program seems to know.

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Tiangong, or “heavenly palace,” blasted off atop a Long March 2F booster in 2011. “Chinese Gen. Chang Wanquan, commander of China’s manned space program, declared the launch a success from a control center in Beijing, drawing applause from assembled Chinese politicians and dignitaries,” Spaceflight Now reported.

“What are they doing up there? Only they know for sure. But it’s obvious that Tiangong could be more than a scientific habitat.”

During spaceflights Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10, three-person Chinese crews lived aboard Tiangong’s small habitat for as long as 15 days at a stretch.

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[Also see – “China Set to Launch Its Own Space Station; Mission: Unknown” – WIRED]

The astronauts practiced rendezvousing and docking with the station, observed the Earth, conducted medical experiments, and tested equipment. Astronaut Wang Yaping wowed students back home with her live-cast zero-G science demos. The manned missions delivered NASA-style civil prestige and outreach. Read the rest of this entry »