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Vietnam Gets Support to Build Islands in Asia’s Most Disputed Sea While China Receives International Criticism

Vietnam has slowly added buildings on some of its 10 major islets since 2017, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said in a report earlier this month

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FILE - An aerial view of Southwest Cay, also known as Pugad Island, controlled by Vietnam and part of the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017. VOA

Both China and Vietnam are building up tiny islets across Asia’s most disputed sea, but while China receives international criticism Vietnam receives very little, and even gets some support because its pace of construction is slower and widely seen as defensive.

Vietnam’s work on islets it has held for decades is kept to areas of the South China Sea closest to its mainland coasts. The country shuns military mega projects that might appear offensive. And it belongs to the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) known for working out any bilateral differences. These factors differ from China.

“They’ve never had, I think, a standoff with any other country, because all the other claimants have respectfully kept to their developable spheres around the South China Sea, and I think there’s this intra-ASEAN consensus, that within ASEAN the claimants do not rock the boat so as to present a common front towards China,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Vietnam has slowly added buildings on some of its 10 major islets since 2017, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said in a report earlier this month. The initiative under the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies also tracked new communications equipment, a sports field and the extension of a runway from 750 meters to 1,300 meters on its largest holding Spratly Island.

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FILE – A Vietnamese floating guard station is seen on Truong Sa islands or Spratly islands, April 12, 2010. VOA

Locking in occupation

Development of military-controlled islands that Vietnam has occupied for decades in the South China Sea’s Spratly Island chain involves landfill work plus installation of solar panels on some buildings, the initiative report says. The report points also to 25 “pillbox” forts that Vietnam has built on sometimes submerged reefs or banks.

Vietnam is very slowly reclaiming land for construction that offers self-defense against harsh weather, said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Construction has shunned use of large ships that might grab international attention, he said.

“The Vietnamese government has made it very clear they just reclaim the islands for self-defense, and they do not expand massively for other purposes,” Nguyen said. “I don’t think the Vietnamese government wants to draw a lot of attention from other countries on their reclamation, so that’s the reason they want to do it quietly.”

Hanoi hopes its tiny islets can get by without much help from mainland Vietnam, Chong said. He said the country is preparing for a long stay on the islets.

Vietnam is upgrading islets to make them harder for China to take without a cost, not for offensive military use, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative Director Gregory Poling said.

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FILE – Anti-China protesters shout “down with invasive China” and hold placards that read “The country will not forget – Johnson South Reef – 14th March, 1988” during a gathering to mark the anniversary of the Spratly Islands clashes between Vietnam and China. VOA

“The Vietnamese endgame seems to be making these facilities more survivable, raising the cost for the Chinese to try to take them,” he said. China normally leaves Vietnam alone at sea because they have shown a willingness to “bump shoulders” with Chinese vessels if pushed, he said.

China contrast

China claims about 90 percent of the disputed sea, overlapping Vietnam’s smaller claim as well as tracts that four other governments call their own. The other claimants are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. Chinese reclamation work particularly alarms Vietnam because China controls the full Paracel archipelago, also claimed by Hanoi, and three major islands in the Spratly chain.

Beijing’s reclamation work has created infrastructure for military aircraft and radars, the think tank initiative says. Chinese contractors had used 1,294 hectares of reclaimed land to help develop reefs and atolls under their control, according to a Pentagon estimate in 2016.

China draws attention from other countries, including the United States, when it sends bombers and naval vessels into the sea. Both China and Vietnam cite historic usage to back their maritime claims.

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South China Sea Territorial Claims. VOA

Keeping peace

China and the Philippines have complained occasionally to Vietnam over the years because its islets fall into their claims. But the complaints fade because the other countries do not see Vietnam as a threat, scholars believe.

Vietnam’s armed forces and maritime development budget lag China, which is Asia’s top economic and military power. Chinese officials meet sometimes with ASEAN leaders but lack access to the regular events for Southeast Asian heads of state, defense chiefs and foreign ministers.

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“One ASEAN country is not going to war with another ASEAN country,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “We would find consensus. That’s the true spirit of diplomacy.”

Vietnam also has picked up support from Japan and the United States, both keen to limit Chinese expansion. Japan’s agreement in 2014 to donate six coast guard vessels to Vietnam helped prove its “power projection abilities,” Chong said. The U.S. Navy regularly passes ships through the sea to warn China. (VOA)

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China- Top Contributor in Global Warming

China is the leader in coal and clean energy and is the top emitter of greenhouse gases

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In this photo, smoke and steam rise from a coal processing plant that produces carbon black, an ingredient in steel manufacturing, in Hejin in central China. VOA

As world leaders gather in Spain to discuss how to slow the warming of the planet, a spotlight falls on China — the top emitter of greenhouse gases.

China burns about half the coal used globally each year. Between 2000 and 2018, its annual carbon emissions nearly tripled, and it now accounts for about 30% of the world’s total. Yet it’s also the leading market for solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles, and it manufactures about two-thirds of solar cells installed worldwide.

“We are witnessing many contradictions in China’s energy development,” said Kevin Tu, a Beijing-based fellow with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “It’s the largest coal market and the largest clean energy market in the world.”

That apparent paradox is possible because of the sheer scale of China’s energy demands.

But as China’s economy slows to the lowest level in a quarter century — around 6% growth, according to government statistics — policymakers are doubling down on support for coal and other heavy industries, the traditional backbones of China’s energy system and economy. At the same time, the country is reducing subsidies for renewable energy.

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A solar panel installation is seen in Ruicheng County in central China. VOA

At the annual United Nations climate summit, this year in Madrid, government representatives will put the finishing touches on implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which set a goal to limit future warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Nations may decide for themselves how to achieve it.

China had previously committed to shifting its energy mix to 20% renewables, including nuclear and hydroelectric energy. Climate experts generally agree that the initial targets pledged in Paris will not be enough to reach the goal, and next year nations are required to articulate more ambitious targets.

Hopes that China would offer to do much more are fading.

Recent media reports and satellite images suggest that China is building or planning to complete new coal power plants with total capacity of 148 gigawatts — nearly equal to the entire coal-power capacity of the European Union within the next few years, according to an analysis by Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.

Separately, investment in China’s renewable energy dropped almost 40 percent in the first half of 2019 compared with the same period last year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research organization. The government slashed subsidies for solar energy.

Last week in Beijing, China’s vice minister of ecology and environment told reporters that non-fossil-fuel sources already account for 14.3% of the country’s energy mix. He did not indicate that China would embrace more stringent targets soon.

“We are still faced with challenges of developing our economy, improving people’s livelihood,” Zhao Yingmin said.

China is alternately cast as the world’s worst climate villain or its potential clean-energy savior, but both superlatives are somewhat misplaced.

As a fast-growing economy, it was always inevitable that China’s energy demands would climb steeply. The only question was whether the country could power a sufficiently large portion of its economy with renewables to curb emissions growth.

Many observers took hope from a brief dip in China’s carbon emissions between 2014 and 2016, as well as Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s statement in 2017 that China had “taken a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change.”

Renewed focus on coal

Today the country’s renewed focus on coal comes as a disappointment.

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The pollution in China is at extreme levels. VOA

“Now there’s a sense that rather than being a leader, China is the one that is out of step,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki. He notes that several developed countries — including Germany, South Korea and the United States — are rapidly reducing their reliance on coal power.

Fossil fuels such as coal, gasoline and natural gas release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trapping heat and changing the climate. Coal is the biggest culprit.

Last year, coal consumption in the United States hit the lowest level in nearly 40 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

One place to consider the rise, pause and rise again of China’s coal sector is Shanxi province — a vast mountainous region in central China.

Shanxi is the heart of China’s traditional coal country, dotted with large mines, but also the site of some of the country’s largest solar and wind-power projects, according to state media.

During most of the past 30 years of rapid economic growth, the coal business boomed in Shanxi and nearby provinces. As China’s cities and industries expanded, coal supplied much of that power, and China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s top carbon emitter in 2006.

But after climbing sharply for two decades, China’s emissions stalled around 2013 and then declined slightly in 2015 and 2016, according to Global Carbon Budget, which tracks emissions worldwide. This dip came as Chinese leaders declared a “war on pollution” and suspended the construction of dozens of planned coal power plants, including some in Shanxi.

At the same time, the government required many existing coal operators to install new equipment in smokestacks to remove sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other hazardous substances. About 80% of coal plants now have scrubbers, said Alvin Lin, Beijing-based China climate and energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit.

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This coal processing plant in China produces toxic air pollutants. VOA

As a result, the air quality in many Chinese cities, including Beijing, improved significantly between 2013 and 2017. Residents long accustomed to wearing face masks and running home air-filter machines enjoyed a reprieve of more “blue sky days,” as low-pollution days are known in China.

Annual levels of PM 2.5 — a tiny but dangerous pollutant — dropped by roughly a third across China between 2013 and 2017, from 61.8 to 42 micrograms per cubic meter, according to scientists at Beijing’s Tsinghua University and other institutions. They made the report in November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal.

“That’s a big improvement, although in terms of safe air quality, we’re still not there yet,” Lin said. China’s pollution levels are still well above standards set by the World Health Organization.

While these retrofitted coal plants emit fewer pollutants that harm human health, the scrubbers do not reduce greenhouse gases. “The new plants are good for air quality, but you still have all that carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere,” Lin said.

Carbon emissions rising

In the past three years, China’s carbon emissions have begun to rise again, according to Global Carbon Budget.

That trend was evident in the first half of 2019, when China’s carbon emissions from fossil fuels and concrete production rose 4%, compared with the same period last year, according to Myllyvirta’s preliminary analysis of Chinese government data.

The coming winter in Beijing may see a return of prolonged smog, as authorities loosen environmental controls on heavy industry — in part to compensate for other slowing sectors in the economy. Cement and steel production remain both energy intensive and heavily polluting.

Permits for new coal plants proliferated after regulatory authority was briefly devolved from Beijing to provincial governments, which see construction projects and coal operations as boosts to local economies and tax bases, said Ted Nace, executive director of Global Energy Monitor.

“It’s as though a boa constructor swallowed a giraffe, and now we’re watching that bulge move through the system,” said Nace. In China, it takes about three years to build a coal plant.

In November, Premier Li Keqiang gave a speech to policymakers emphasizing the importance of domestic coal to energy security.

But because China’s coal-power expansion is growing faster than energy demand, overcapacity “is a serious concern now,” said Columbia University’s Tu.

And once new infrastructure is built, it’s hard to ignore.

People in China
The highest red alert was issued for heavy smog in several cities in China. VOA

“It will be politically difficult to tear down a brand-new coal plant that’s employing people and supporting a mining operation. It will make it more difficult for China to transition away from coal,” Nace said.

Reliance on China

The world has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius. All scenarios envisioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for holding planetary warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius involve steep worldwide reductions in coal-power generation.

In that effort, other countries rely on China to manufacture most of the solar panels installed worldwide, according to an analysis in the journal Science co-authored by Jonas Nahm, an energy expert at Johns Hopkins University.

“If we have any chance to meet climate targets, we have to do a lot by 2030 — and we won’t be able to do it without China’s clean-energy supply chain,” Nahm said.

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China’s manufacturing helped bring down the cost of solar panels by 80% between 2008 and 2013. Prices for wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries also dropped significantly, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“China has a really mixed record. On the one hand, it’s seen rapidly rising emissions over the past two decades,” Nahm said. “On the other hand, it’s shown it’s able to innovate around manufacturing — and make new energy technologies available at scale, faster and cheaper.” (VOA)