In a clear indication of coercion and bullying, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel, bearing the number 4006 on its hull, chased and rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat carrying a 16-member crew near Lincoln Island in the South China Sea (SCS) on June 12.
The Chinese naval staff seized one ton of fish and US$21,000 worth of navigation equipment from the fishing boat. In a brutal act, the Chinese kicked the fishing boat captain, Nguyen Loc, multiple times.
It was not the first time China responded to a foreign fishing boat with hostility. On April 2 this year, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel sunk another Vietnamese fishing boat near Paracel Islands, threatening the lives of 8 fishermen.
In December 2019, Chinese fishing boats, accompanied by Coast Guard vessels, illegally entered into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Natuna Sea. Indonesia does not have any disputes with China in the South China Sea as the archipelagic nation does not claim a single inch of the SCS.
Last year, on June 9, a Chinese vessel named Yuemoobinyu 42212 sunk a Filipino fishing boat near Reed Bank in the SCS, an area belonging to the Philippines, and left the scene, leaving the fishermen adrift in the sea. A passing Vietnamese fishing boat later rescued them.
Recently, China deployed its vessels to intimidate and hinder Malaysia from its oil exploration activities in Malaysia’s EEZ in the SCS near Borneo Island.
After all these illegal and hostile incidents, people in Southeast Asia are starting to make their stance on whether China is a friend or foe. Should we trust China?
The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the US has condemned strongly China’s illegal and bullying tactics in the SCS.
The US, which does not have any claim in the SCS, has been on the frontline in criticizing China’s coercing and hostile acts against its small neighbors in the SCS and defending freedom of navigation.
“The United States strongly opposes China’s bullying. We’ve also seen that the Chinese Communist Party is exerting military pressure on Taiwan and coercing its neighbors in the South China Sea, even going so far as to sink a Vietnamese fishing vessel. We hope other nations will hold them to account,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in April.
Why is China committing all these unfriendly acts against the ASEAN states at a time when the whole world is suffering from the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 9.5 million and killed more than 480,000 people?
Based on the controversial Nine-Dashed Line map, China claims more than 90 percent of the SCS, a strategic waterway that is rich in fisheries and energy.
Most ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, have strongly rejected China’s Nine-Dashed Line claims and called for the full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) rules. The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) rejected all of China’s claims in the SCS in a historic ruling in 2016.
Since China’s claims are weak and go against all international maritime laws, including the UNCLOS, China decided to adopt coercive and hostile measures in the SCS. It built artificial islands and turned them into military installations. It deployed thousands of naval vessels, personnel and fishing boats in the SCS.
Despite the grave situation emanating from COVID-19, China wants to flex its power against its small and weak neighbors. China has gone as far as to bully Indonesia, a non-claimant state.
ASEAN states are now taking this SCS issue to the UN. On Dec. 12, 2019, Malaysia submitted a request to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to establish the limits of Malaysia’s continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the northern part of the SCS from the baseline from which its territorial sea is measured.
Earlier in 2009, Malaysia and Vietnam made a joint submission to the CLCS for the same purpose for the southern part of the SCS.
In response to Malaysia’s 2019 diplomatic note, China, submitted its response on the same day, rejecting Malaysia’s request on the grounds that it was infringing China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the SCS. Likewise, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia submitted counter responses to China’s claims.
On May 26, Indonesia submitted its first diplomatic note rejecting China’s claims in the SCS.
“Indonesia reiterates that the 9-dash line map implying historic rights claim clearly lacks international legal basis and is tantamount to upset UNCLOS 1982,” Indonesia said in its note.
It submitted another note to the UN on June 15.
The US also joined the fray by sending its diplomatic note to the UN, while supporting Malaysia’s request and rejecting China’s claims.
“The United States rejects these maritime claims (of China) as inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Convention,” US Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Kelly Craft said in his note sent to the UN.
He was referring to the UNCLOS.
Surprisingly, all of China’s bullying and coercive acts have united some ASEAN countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. All of these four countries, known as ASEAN-4, have similar views about the SCS and UNCLOS. The ASEAN-4 will be a game changer, which will determine the future course of ASEAN.
“China’s coercion has also unintentionally helped to unite smaller claimants in the South China Sea,” Nguyen Tranh Trung, a scholar at the Saigon Centre for International Studies, said recently.
On June 26, all ASEAN leaders will attend the 36th ASEAN Summit through a video conference. With the COVID-19 pandemic on one side and China’s aggressive behaviour in the SCS on the other, it is time for ASEAN leaders to take some tough measures to deal with these two major issues. During the ASEAN Summit, the current chair of ASEAN Vietnam and Indonesia – the de facto leader of ASEAN — must play a vital role in convincing other ASEAN member states to take actiogainst China.
Due to China’s bullying behaviour and arrogance, the US Navy, according to The Japan Times, has deployed three aircraft carriers – USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan – to the doorsteps of the SCS for the first time since 2017.
China has deployed hundreds of warships, aircraft carriers, submarines, fighter planes and military personnel on the artificial islands-cum-military bases in the SCS.
The situation is growing tenser, which threatens the peace and stability in Southeast Asia.
ASEAN may not be in a position to take sides with either China or the US in their rivalry. But ASEAN cannot tolerate China’s aggressive behaviour against ASEAN member states anymore.
As a family and a community, ASEAN must first unite to formulate a common perception for a strong Code of Conduct (CoC), which is legally binding and based on the international maritime rules. Unfortunately, the present COVID-19 pandemic may delay the on going CoC talks between ASEAN and China.
It is clear that China has behaved poorly toward many ASEAN members. The time has come to show that ASEAN will not succumb to China’s bullying acts. ASEAN, or at least ASEAN-4 must take action against China in the shape of sanctions like economic distancing or reducing ASEAN engagement with China.
It must be noted that China is currently more dependent on ASEAN than vice versa, especially after its economic war with the US. China needs ASEAN more than ASEAN needs China. ASEAN is now China’s second biggest trading partner with $641 billion trade in 2019 after the EU. China enjoys a huge trade surplus with almost all ASEAN countries.
During their summit, ASEAN leaders must unite and take action against China. That is the only way to stop illegal activities and have a rules-based order in the SCS. ASEAN unity, solidarity and cohesiveness will contribute to the peace and stability in the region.