In the South China Sea, China's Gaze Moves South

6 MINS READMar 26, 2016 | 13:00 GMT
(Rahman Roslan/Getty Images)
The Malaysian navy, as well as Indonesia's, often must approach ships belonging to the Chinese coast guard carefully when monitoring maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

China's activities in the eastern part of the South China Sea have garnered a lot of attention. Around the Paracel and Spratly islands, the United States, Japan and regional partners (primarily Vietnam and the Philippines) are expanding security cooperation to counter China's growing naval presence. But in the sea's south, China's relationships with Indonesia and Malaysia have largely been unexplored. Though not as dramatic as maneuvers in the east, developments in the south offer a more holistic picture of the maritime trade, energy flows and resource use — especially fishing — that define disputes in the South China Sea.

Two Chinese vessels prevented an Indonesian patrol boat from impounding a Chinese fishing vessel near the Natuna Islands on March 19. Indonesia claims the vessel was trespassing in its exclusive economic zone, but China asserts that the area is its traditional fishing ground. Though Indonesian authorities failed to impound the ship, they did arrest the fishermen. Officials also threatened to appeal to an international court of arbitration and respond to future incidents with larger vessels.

In a similar event March 25, about 100 Chinese fishing boats were detected allegedly encroaching on waters near the Luconia Shoals, which Malaysia administers but China claims. Two Chinese coast guard vessels were reportedly guarding the fishing boats. Malaysia's navy monitored the situation, threatening legal action if the boats trespassed into its exclusive economic zone. But China's Foreign Ministry again reiterated Chinese fishing boats' rights to operate in the area.

These developments come ahead of a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the Philippines' case to invalidate China's claims to disputed areas in the South China Sea, including the Scarborough Shoal. (The Permanent Court of Arbitration is based in the Hague and not affiliated with the United Nations but was established to resolve international disputes that may involve U.N. conventions.) The ruling, expected sometime in 2016, will also clarify the legality of China's so-called nine-dash maritime line, which demarcates the country's perceived area of control in the South China Sea — and overlaps with Indonesia's and Malaysia's exclusive economic zones. China ultimately will not recognize the court's decision. Instead, it will use its surveying, construction and military activities, as well as its fishing activities — whether encouraged by the Chinese government or prompted by fishermen — to bolster its territorial claims ahead of the ruling, not only in the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly archipelago but also in the southern South China Sea.

Calmer Waters to the South

Indonesia and China do not have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, and China recognizes Indonesia's sovereignty over the Natuna Islands. But because of the overlap in territory caused by China's nine-dash maritime line, the two countries have sparred over fishing rights. Indonesia launched a crackdown on illegal fishing in 2014 by sinking foreign vessels caught operating without permission. In 2015, the country destroyed an impounded Chinese fishing vessel. Earlier, in 2010 and 2013, it attempted to impound Chinese ships illegally fishing off the Natuna Islands, though Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels forced Indonesia to back off in both instances.

Yet China and Indonesia have managed to de-escalate tensions in these cases, and they will likely do so again this time. After all, China would rather contain the situation than push a country that perceives itself as a regional peacemaker to support the other countries opposing China's claims in the South China Sea. Moreover, Indonesia does not want to antagonize China while it expands maritime cooperation and economic ties with the Chinese government. Neither does Malaysia, which also seeks greater economic ties with China, despite territorial quarrels and spats over fishing rights with the country.

To the east, this civility is missing from feuds in the Paracels, the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal. There, China is preparing for a larger U.S. and Japanese military role to assist the major contestants in their South China Sea disputes and to block China's rise as a naval power. The United States and Japan signed defense cooperation deals with the Philippines in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Japan has allowed for a transfer of military hardware to boost Philippine coast guard capabilities and is even considering signing a deal that would enable Japanese ships and planes to refuel and resupply in the Philippines. On March 18, Washington and Manila announced the five locations in the Philippines where U.S. forces will have access to bases, including two bases about 300 kilometers from the disputed Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal. The United States and Japan are also cooperating with Vietnam to develop its coast guard.

By comparison, U.S. and Japanese security and military connections with Indonesia and Malaysia are underdeveloped. Malaysia and Indonesia want it this way, mainly because neither wants to pick a side and risk jeopardizing its lucrative ties with China or exacerbating tensions in the South China Sea and the region.

Making Preparations Nonetheless

But China may have no choice but to expand into southern waters. From Beijing's perspective, its military presence in the Paracels and Spratlys is required to contend with the growing U.S. and Japanese activities and, more important, to emerge as a major naval power with global ambitions. China's maneuvers in the south are equally important, aimed at ensuring its access to fishing grounds, smooth trade and energy flows through maritime routes that traverse major choke points, patrolled and controlled by Indonesia and Malaysia (as well as Singapore). China knows all too well that either country could halt this traffic in case of a conflict.

And despite their more cordial ties with China, Malaysia and Indonesia will nevertheless protect their maritime and territorial rights. Their waters are not as overfished as those along China's coast, tempting Chinese fishermen to explore. China's need to find abundant fishing grounds, along with its expanded naval exercises and patrols in the south, will prompt stronger security ties between the United States, Japan and other countries. In the meantime, accidental or unplanned breaches by Chinese fishing vessels, which are generally not under tight government control, could lead to snap decisions and actions, sparking conflict in the region.

The United States and its regional partners will seek to rally support for a joint response against China's activities in the South China Sea, undertaking shared patrols, flyovers and other security measures. But, short of military intervention, they can do nothing to stop China's land reclamation, military and fishing activities. They could, and likely will, approach Indonesia and Malaysia, but these countries will be more cautious in challenging China. And Beijing will be preparing for these scenarios, too. It will push ahead with its military activities in the Paracel and Spratly islands, all the while deepening economic engagement with Indonesia and Malaysia to keep them from aligning against it in regional disagreements.

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