China, a new global power, always claims itself as a trusted friend of Southeast Asian countries. It is true that China is ASEAN’s biggest trading partner and a major provider of foreign direct investment and tourists.
Currently, ASEAN is China’s second-biggest trading partner after the European Union.
But when it comes to the South China Sea (SCS), an international strategic waterway that is rich in fish, oil, gas as well as marine resources, it is a different China. China wants to turn the SCS into a Chinese lake by claiming more than 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometre massive sea based on the controversial Nine-Dash Line, which is against international maritime rules.
Four ASEAN member states – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam – have overlapping claims with China in certain parts of the SCS.
China’s aggressive actions in the SCS are posing a major threat to the sovereign rights of several Southeast Asian states. Until recently, people are in the belief that China will only target SCS claimants. They are wrong.
China recently sent shock waves across Indonesia by sending 63 fishing boats escorted by three Coast Guard vessels also known as cutters to catch fish in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the North Natuna Sea area, which is located 1,100 kilometers south of the Spratly Islands.
Chinese vessels and fishing fleet were spotted at 130 nautical miles from Indonesia’s Natuna Island by the Indonesian Navy.
It was a clear violation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), under which each coastal state is entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial sea and 200 nautical miles of EEZ. Both China and Indonesia signed and ratified the UNCLOS a long time back.
Why did China do this to Indonesia? Unlike all the claimants, Indonesia has no claim in the disputed SCS.
China’s Nine-Dash Line encroaches a small portion of the North Natuna Sea and was never clearly defined by China. China says the area in Natuna waters is its traditional and historical fishing ground.
Indonesia and its 270 million people were furious with China. The Indonesian military deployed six warships and four F-16 fighter planes to the area. The Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to slam Chinese actions and sent a diplomatic note to Beijing as protest.
“We urge China to explain the legal basis and provide a clear definition for its claims on the Indonesian EEZ based on the 1982 UNCLOS,” Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the Raden Sadjad Air Force Base in Natuna on Jan. 8 to review the situation. Only then did the Chinese fishing fleet finally leave Indonesia’s North Natuna Sea waters. But China neither apologized for its illegal activities in the Indonesia’s EEZ nor explained the reasons for leaving the area.
It was not the first time Chinese vessels entered into Indonesian waters and committed illegal activities. In 2016, the Indonesian Navy fired at Chinese Coast Guard vessels, which were escorting Chinese fishing boats, to force them out from the North Natuna Sea.
With its superior naval power, the Chinese Coast Guard – which is the largest in world with 164 cutters and 20,000 personnel – and its aggressive People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, China has been engaging in intimidation, illegal fishing, oil rig deployments, trespassing into other countries’ EEZs, localized blockades, ramming of fishing vessels of Southeast Asian countries, bullying, constructing artificial islands and the militarization of the SCS for many years.
China launched attacks on Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s to occupy the disputed Paracel Islands and some islands and reefs, including the Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands.
In 2012, China entered into the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal illegally and took control of it. The Philippines took China to an international tribunal on this issue, and it won the case. In a historical ruling, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected all of China’s claims based on the controversial Nine-Dash Line. But China rejected the ruling and described it as a one-sided judgement because China never went to tribunal.
Last year in January, China deployed 90 ships around the Philippine-controlled Thitu Island to monitor the construction of a beaching ramp, igniting a strong protest from Manila. In June, a Chinese vessel sank a Philippine fishing vessel near Reed Bank and left the scene without helping Filipino fishermen. A passing Vietnamese fishing boat rescued them. After a huge protest, China later apologized for its behaviour.
In July, China deployed its survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 into Vietnam’s EEZ near Vanguard Bank to disrupt Vietnam’s oil and gas exploration activities. Vietnam, the second-biggest claimant in the SCS dispute, strongly slammed China’s coercive activities.
The US and many big powers condemned Beijing for its bullying behaviour near Vanguard Bank, an area controlled by Vietnam. After global outrage, China finally left Vietnam’s EEZ.
Malaysia, another claimant of the SCS, is no exception to China’s coercion. Chinese Coast Guard vessels spent a record 258 days last year in waters claimed by Malaysia in the SCS. In a clear show of force, Chinese vessels sailed very closely to Malaysia’s oil and gas exploration sites.
What should Indonesia do to face the challenges from assertive China?
The first and foremost thing Indonesia should do is to bring ASEAN unity not on the issue of North Natuna Sea but on the issues of the UNCLOS, the SCS, a legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC) based on the UNCLOS and a rules-based regional order.
The SCS conundrum and Chinese unilateral actions pose a great threat to not only Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia but also to the entire Southeast Asia.
Indonesia must convince other ASEAN member states that they should internationalize the SCS conundrum. The SCS disputes are not just between China and claimant countries but also disputes in shape of overlapping claims among ASEAN member states.
Resolving these disputes may be difficult and complex, but there should be a mechanism based on UNCLOS to maintain peace and security until these disputes are resolved.
Indonesia, which has the biggest military and largest economy in ASEAN, successfully achieved ASEAN unity last year through the collective adoption of its “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” initiative by all ASEAN member states. In addition, Indonesia – the de facto leader of ASEAN — united all ASEAN member states in 2012 in Phnom Penh when they failed to issue a joint statement.
As ASEAN chair for 2020, Vietnam is willing to work with Indonesia on the issue of ASEAN unity on UNCLOS and a rules-based regional security architecture. The UNCLOS is not just for the SCS but for most maritime disputes. Nine out of 10 ASEAN countries have access to sea and face many maritime problems.
In a clear sign of defiance against China, Malaysia, on Jan. 6, submitted to the United Nations Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf an area between its Borneo states – Sabah and Sarawak – and the southeast coast of Vietnam.
Malaysia will support the efforts of Indonesia and Vietnam on ASEAN unity on UNCLOS. The Philippines, Brunei, Singapore and Thailand might agree on ASEAN unity. China may use, like in the past, countries like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to disrupt ASEAN unity. That is why, if needed, the consensus policy of ASEAN should be changed to achieve ASEAN unity.
If ASEAN is united, it will be a big game changer. A united ASEAN can easily deal with issues like UNCLOS, COC, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, climate change, tourism and terrorism.
This week, from Jan. 16 to 17, all 10 foreign ministers of ASEAN will gather in the beautiful Vietnamese city of Nha Trang for their annual ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat to discuss and approve ASEAN’s agenda for 2020.
The retreat will be a golden opportunity for Indonesia’s charismatic Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi to begin her noble mission to unite ASEAN to resist China’s hegemony in the region.
We have talked about ASEAN unity for far too long. It is time for ASEAN leaders to act.