Unprecedented things have been happening in the disputed South China Sea (SCS) during the last five months, mainly due to China’s aggressive, unilateral and coercive actions against its small Southeast Asian neighbors.
The immense pain and suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe, apparently, did not have any impact on bellicose Beijing, which became more aggressive in strengthening or consolidating its claim on the SCS.
Chinese fishing vessels illegally entered into Natuna waters of Indonesia in December 2019, violating Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). They left in January after strong protest from Indonesia.
China threatened the Philippine warship BRP Conrado Yap by a pointing gun radar at it near Rizal Reef on Feb.17.
In late March, China began operations of two research stations on the disputed land features of Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef.
China brutally rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the Paracel Islands on April 2. On April 19, China made new laws to name and include disputed islands, reefs and underwater features into its territory.
China has conducted naval exercises at Bashi Channel from April 12 to 22, threatening Taiwan’s security.
Since April 16, the Chinese maritime research vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 (HD- 8) has been conducting illegal surveys off the coast of Sarawak and northeast of the Riau Islands. The area is in Malaysia’s EEZ, where Malaysia’s oil company Petronas is conducting oil exploration through the Panamanian-flagged drill ship West Capello.
Starting May 1, China unilaterally imposed its annual summer fishing ban in the Paracel islands of the SCS. Fishermen from Vietnam and the Philippines protested strongly against China’s fishing ban. Vietnam even asked its fishermen to defy China’s ban.
The U.S. condemned strongly China’s recent actions in the SCS and conducted a naval exercise (with three U.S. warships) along with Australia on April 22 near the place where China’s HD-8 is conducting a maritime survey.
In late April, the USS Barry, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, passed through the waters of the Paracel Islands as part of its freedom of navigation operation despite China’s protest.
The USNI News, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, reported on May 8 that the U.S. deployed the Littoral Combat Ship USS Montgomery and the replenishment ship USNS Cesar Chavez near the West Capello drill ship.
“We are committed to a rules-based order in the South China Sea, and we will continue to champion freedom of the seas and the rule of law,” U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. John Aquilino said in a statement on May 8.
“The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries.”
Chinese actions and the reaction from outside powers have created serious tensions in the SCS.
As a de facto leader of ASEAN, Indonesia, a non-claimant state that itself became a victim of China’s intimidation in its own territory recently, expressed its serious concern and called on all parties to calm down the situation.
“Indonesia calls on all relevant parties to exercise self-restraint and to refrain from undertaking action that may erode mutual trust, and potentially escalate tensions in the region,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said on May 6.
Under this tense situation, some claimants from Southeast Asia have become more bold in pursuing their claims in the SCS.
In a surprise move, Malaysia, a claimant state in the SCS, submitted a claim to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) on Dec. 12, 2019, to increase its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles off the northernmost point of Borneo in the SCS.
This submission angered China, the biggest claimant of the SCS, and stunned Vietnam, the second biggest claimant of the SCS, as well as the Philippines, another claimant state.
Malaysia, along with Vietnam, made a joint submission to the CLCS in 2009 to extend their boundaries in their respective EEZs in the southern part of the SCS.
Malaysia’s claims in the SCS overlap with China’s, which are based on the controversial Nine-Dash Line map. They also overlap with Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Malaysia claims, for example, sovereignty over the Vietnamese-occupied Amboyna Cay and Alison Reef, and Philippine-occupied Commodore Reef in the SCS.
What motivated Malaysia to deviate from the ASEAN spirit?
At the time of submission to the CLCS, the Malaysian government under Mahathir Mohamad was on the verge of collapse. The decision was politically motivated with the purpose of boosting the government’s image.
With the collapse of Mahathir’s government, the new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin must reconsider Malaysia’s new claim in the SCS, which puts Malaysia in dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines, in addition to China.
Some scholars are seeing Malaysia’s move from a different perspective.
The Malaysian submission to the CLCS has reignited the SCS conundrum. China sent a strong diplomatic note, while Vietnam and the Philippines also submitted diplomatic notes countering China’s claims.
“Malaysia is trying to encourage its neighbors to enter into discussions so they can all make claims to the extended continental shelf and negotiate among each other how to reach a solution to this,” Carl Thayer, a professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told the Benar News recently.
Vietnam submitted three diplomatic notes – one on March 30 to counter the Chinese diplomatic note and two on April 10 with reference to the responses of Malaysia and the Philippines.
“Vietnam opposes any maritime claims in the East Sea (South China Sea) that exceed the limits provided in UNCLOS, including claims to historic rights; these claims are without lawful effect,” Vietnam said in its March 30 diplomatic note.
Vietnam has been consistent in its claims on the SCS. It says all maritime disputes must be resolved peacefully in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Vietnam is willing to negotiate with its ASEAN peers – Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia – to resolve maritime disputes in true ASEAN spirit.
As a chair of ASEAN this year, Vietnam, in close cooperation with Indonesia – the de facto leader of ASEAN – wants to unite ASEAN and achieve a common ASEAN stance in the Code of Conduct (CoC) negotiations with China.
Vietnam wants a legally binding CoC, which is based on the rules of the UNCLOS, freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in the SCS.
Vietnam condemns strongly all illegal activities, coercion and bullying in the SCS.
A surprising incident also occurred in early April when a Chinese surveillance vessel committed a clear act of aggression and coercion by sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat. The Chinese act was condemned by China’s friend – the Philippines. It was a rare act of solidarity.
China’s aggressive behavior and bullying tactics are threatening the peace and security in ASEAN.
What must ASEAN do?
Though ASEAN’s first priority is to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, the 10-member grouping must be on alert against China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the SCS.
All ASEAN members must work together to promote unity and solidarity among themselves. The Philippines’ condemnation against the sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat was a new beginning. All ASEAN countries must condemn all aggressive acts of China with one voice.
ASEAN must be in the driving seat in all regional security initiatives, which must be based on international laws such as UNCLOS.
China is currently facing a global backlash due to its alleged cover up of its initial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Global recession and its rivalry with the U.S. may weaken China’s global standing.
As far as SCS is concerned, assertive China may not back down in the near future. It may try to drag CoC negotiations for several years.
ASEAN unity is the only way to stand against assertive China in the SCS.