Given the seriousness and the fact that the South China Sea is becoming ‘militarised’ — it is time for the ASEAN countries to take a strong stand by themselves or in unison with the US and the other players like Australia, Japan, India.
By Premesha Saha
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) have been on the rise. This is mainly for China’s continued assertive actions and for the sharp deterioration in US-China relations over China’s massive territorial claims in the SCS. Tensions in the SCS have risen sharply in recent times, especially in the past few weeks given the general deterioration in the relations between the US and China. This ongoing turf war is only causing more strain in maintaining peace and stability in these disputed waters.
An example of this was the conducting of naval exercises by both the US and China in the disputed area around the same time as was seen in July 2020. What has been the impact of this US-China spat on the South China Sea issue? Has the US- China clash helped the Southeast Asian claimant countries in handling the dispute in a better way? Or have these countries been stuck in the middle of this big power rivalry? What stand should the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries be taking in this ongoing US-China tussle regarding the South China Sea dispute?
The biggest impact of this downward spiral of the US-China relations has been the growing military exercises and deployments in the South China Sea. A barrage of medium range missiles was fired by China across “considerable distances in the South China Sea.”
The area covered under this long-planned drills, according to Senior Col. Wu Qian, a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of National Defence, stretched from Qingdao in northeastern China to the Spratlys, impacting the stretch between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands. This exercise was a showcase of Chinese capability and a response to the exercises being carried out by US Navy’s supercarrier Ronald Reagan and Nimitz around the Chinese nuclear submarine base at Hainan Islands in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon in a statement issued after these exercises has accused China of “violating China’s previous pledges — long ago abandoned — to not militarise the South China Sea.” Besides this, there has been a constant surge of Chinese fishing boats in waters adjacent to Indonesia’s Natuna islands, there has also been deployment of survey vessels in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines. In addition, there has also been the creation of two new administrative districts covering the Paracel and Spratly islands as well.
These actions from the Chinese side have caused an impediment in easing tensions and maintaining stability in the region. According to a report in the Nikkei Asian Review, the PLA has mobilised its Southern Theatre Command, which overlooks the South China Sea. These moves are a signal to the rest of region of China’s strategic dominance and represent efforts to assert sovereignty over the disputed waters and a subtle message to Washington DC.
The US has also been hardening its posture and military presence in the SCS, besides openly calling out China for its actions in these disputed waters. The saga of China’s expansionist activities in this territorial dispute is not a new or a sudden one. China has been engaging in artificial island reclamation activities since 2013, China even considers the 2016 Arbitral ruling as invalid and still upholds its “so-called historic rights” in the South China Sea.
The US in the past has also called out China for its actions in the SCS and has been engaging in increasing number of Freedom of Navigation of Exercises (FONOPs) with the coming of the Trump administration. High profile exercises, including dual aircraft carrier operations have been conducted by the US Navy in 2014 and there has been increased submarine deployments and maritime air patrols. But the frequency of the FONOPs in the Paracel and the Spratlys has increased even further this year with the number of exercises conducted by the US Navy till now in 2020 being seven, in comparison to eight in 2019, five in 2018 and four in 2017.
The presence by the US military has been further stepped up with the deployment of two aircraft carriers in the contested waters in July 2020. The US, in the past, had not taken any sides when it came to the question of sovereignty issue in the SCS dispute. But with the State Department in 13 July 2020 through a report, titled US Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea declaring the expansive Chinese claims in the disputed waters as illegal and aligning completely with the 2016 decision by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, shows very clearly that now the US is siding with the other ASEAN claimants like Malaysia, Vietnam and Philippines.
In another move, in August 2020, the US administration penalised or added twenty four Chinese companies to a “trade blacklist” for helping China in the artificial island building in the disputed islands and reefs in the SCS. In separate statements, the US Commerce Department and the US State Department said that these companies “have helped Beijing dredge and construct more than 3,000 acres of artificial islands featuring anti-ship missiles and other military equipment. These islands to assert new maritime claims in the region and to ‘bully’ the Philippines and other countries out of their rights to fishing waters and offshore energy deposits.”
Additionally, the US has also imposed visa restrictions on executives of these companies and other individuals having a role to play in the island building. The Chinese Embassy in the United States, on the other hand, has labelled this move “an act of hegemony in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations.”
These actions by both China and the US and especially the deteriorating US-China relations have put the Southeast Asian claimant countries in a tough spot. The US has now maintained that the Indo-Pacific region and the South China Sea have become a zone of big power contestation, involving China.
The ASEAN countries have always tried to dodge or stay away from taking sides in such situations. Even after the 13 July 2020 report of the US State Department which clearly put forward the US’ stand on the South China Sea dispute, it did not receive a wholehearted endorsement from the ASEAN claimant countries for the fear of antagonising China, except for Vietnam, which may have in a few words put out a positive response.
There are indications that the South China Sea is rapidly getting transformed into a militarised zone. If the American FONOPs have increased this year, China’s military activities have also- the PLA have taken a confrontational response to the US Navy vessels transiting the Paracels and the Spratlys. This is raising the chances for a bigger crisis in the US-China relations with regard to the SCS.
Therefore, currently, given the seriousness and the fact that the SCS is becoming ‘militarised’, it is time for the ASEAN countries to take a strong stand by themselves or in unison with the United States and the other players like Australia, Japan, India.
The Southeast Asian countries also believe that Beijing has taken advantage of the pandemic for advancing and further strengthening its claims in the SCS. This will also be a good time to draw some benefits from the US to help deal with a contender like China in the long run during the Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations. Due to huge disparity in naval power and capability, Southeast Asian countries can only think of ways of better equipping themselves to monitor Chinese moves in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
The US has expressed its willingness to increase its support to the claimant countries like the transfer of equipment such as radar, drones and patrol boats which can help better monitor China’s activities in their EEZs, specifically illegal fishing and the presence of Chinese government vessels.
Besides being able to better monitor Chinese activities, the other options available to the claimant countries is fast tracking the conclusion of the COC, put pressure on China in multilateral forums like the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), where other countries like the US, Australia, India, Japan are also present to quickly engage with the COC process and not to stall it any further under the garb of the ongoing pandemic.
The COC can follow a ‘building block’ approach- where initial clauses can focus on curbing the encroachment of illegal fishing vessels and stop harassing vessels of the claimant countries which are engaged in exploration and drilling activities. The building block approach can then eventually focus on bringing down the involvement or engagement of military vessels in the disputed waters.
Maritime law will undoubtedly be a ‘weapon of strength’ for the smaller claimant countries. Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam have all been submitting notes verbale to the UN rejecting China’s nine-dash line and its claims to “historic rights” in the South China Sea to be inconsistent with UNCLOS. These countries have been harping on the 2016 ruling. Even Brunei issued its first statement on the SCS and referenced the ruling. Though international law is a potent mechanism, China in the past has completely rejected the 2016 Tribunal ruling.
Therefore engaging with China in multilateral fora where other countries like the US, Japan, Australia, India, who also have a stake in the dispute are present and continuously highlighting in the agenda the need for a binding COC to be the more feasible way of dealing with China in the SCS.