April has been a particularly eventful month for the tension-laden South China Sea, where the waters have been roiled by China and the smaller littoral nations who are currently entangled in a complex sovereignty claims issue, as also access to traditional fishing grounds in a bitterly contested part of the western Pacific ocean.
Extra regional powers represented by the US and its military allies have also been drawn into this matter, and during the month under review – China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have been differently embroiled.
Attempts by Beijing to Further Consolidate Claim & Physical Control Over Disputed Areas
In early April, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel reportedly sank a Vietnamese fishing boat off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea (SCS), and in a rare display of bi-lateral solidarity, Manila supported Hanoi in its protest to Beijing. Given that the international community was becoming slowly aware of the enormity of the corona pandemic and the need for cooperation by regional nations, Manila issued an unusually firm statement noting: “COVID-19 is a very real threat that demands unity and mutual trust. In the face of it, neither fish nor fictional historical claims are worth the fuse that's lit by such incidents.” The word ‘fictional’ is import-laden.
In mid April, a Chinese survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, with Coast Guard and maritime militia escorts, moved into a region in the SCS – proximate to Malaysia – to disrupt a gas drilling operation by a Malaysian oil company – leading to a protest by Kuala Lumpur.
But this has had little effect, and a few days later (18 April), Beijing announced that it was creating new administrative units in the SCS.
Two new districts, Xisha and Nansha, were created – the names corresponding to the Chinese description for the disputed Paracel and Spratlys islands. Experts see this as an attempt by Beijing to further consolidate its claim and physical control of the disputed areas, as also the imposition of Chinese domestic law, despite the protests from other claimants.
The potential for greater animosity against China will only increase post COVID-19, but the smaller countries are also aware of their limited options and the lack of harmony among themselves.
April Turbulence in South China Sea Was Further Animated by the US
Even as these incidents of Chinese muscle-flexing in the South China Sea were unfolding, in a separate development, a Vietnamese fishing boat was reported to have capsized after it tried to ram a Indonesian patrol craft – and this points to the tension among the neighbouring countries over access to traditional fishing areas. China has been accused of using social media to stoke the discord, and prevent a consensual bi-lateral resolution of a very tangled and emotive issue within ASEAN.
Beijing’s profile has been further muddied by the pandemic, and aspersions about China’s commitment to transparency.
The April turbulence in the SCS was also animated by the US which embarked upon a freedom of navigation patrol (FON) involving four of its naval ships led by the USS America – an amphibious assault ship. Among the US allies, Australia also sent one of its naval ships to be part of this demonstration of upholding the principle of FON – and this has an instructive sub-text given the current Beijing-Canberra animus over Chinese intrusion into the domestic affairs of its trading partners.
China’s response was predictable, in that the PLA navy’s aircraft carrier Liaoning, and its escort ships, which were in the SCS, set forth to establish their own presence in the area – and this was playing out against sharp statements that the foreign offices of both the US and China were making against each other.
The Hague Had Rejected Historical Claim by Beijing in July 2016
The US under President Donald Trump has taken a very critical stand against China, holding it responsible for triggering the corona pandemic, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Beijing of “exploiting” the world’s pre-occupation with this global health challenge by acting in a provocative manner in the maritime domain.
Predictably, Beijing rejected the US charge, and a Foreign Ministry spokesperson asserted (23 April): “China's sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters is based on sufficient historical and jurisprudential evidence. Some people in the US want to replace facts with rumours and lies, and sow discord among neighbours. Such attempts will not succeed.”
The SCS dispute is an old one, and has become more entangled and contested with every passing year.
Absent consensus among the claimants about how to manage the disputed EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) international arbitration was sought by Philippines. It may be recalled that in July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague, heard the matter of the South China Sea (SCS) dispute between the Philippines and China, and unambiguously rejected the historical claim advanced by Beijing.
Furthermore, the ruling had also rejected the concept of extending territoriality to the maritime domain, and upheld the validity of the 1982 UNCLOS – the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.
EEZ Rights Have Morphed into a ‘Territorial Claim’ That Pits China Against Smaller Neighbours
At the time, Beijing reacted angrily and summarily dismissed the decision of the PCA and the Chinese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Liu Zhenmin, who, back then, referred to the possibility that the SCS could turn into a ‘cradle of war.’
Since July 2016, the SCS has remained discordant with a number of incidents of varying tension related to China’s assertive and muscular behaviour in seeking to consolidate its claims.
An international water body and contested multi-nation EEZ rights have morphed into a ‘territorial claim’ that now pits China against its smaller neighbours. What has changed in recent months is the manner in which some ASEAN nations have chosen to speak up and resist the Chinese narrative. Case in point is the Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah stating in a December interview: “For China to claim that the whole of South China Sea belongs to China, I think that is ridiculous.”
The events of April indicate that however ‘ridiculous’ China’s SCS claims may seem to some of its interlocutors, pandemic or not – Beijing remains resolute in seeking to assert its historical right to a disputed sliver of the ocean. The unstated corollary is ‘might is right’.
(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)