After Natuna Incident, South China Sea Tensions Likely to Get Worse Before They Get Better

 
 

A recent high-level visitor to China told The Diplomat that he detected a new sense of urgency in Beijing to complete its consolidation of control over the South China Sea before the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal hands down its decision on the claims made by the Philippines against China.

At the same time, the war of words between the United States and China over who is militarizing the South China Sea is likely to sharpen. Tensions between the two countries look to get worse before they get better. United States officials have pledged to increase the scope and complexity of freedom of navigation operational patrols. China is likely to respond to each patrol with a mix of bluster and defensive measures to signal its resolve.

There is a risk, however, that a confrontation at sea or in the air could result in a mishap like the EP-3 incident in 2001, when a Chinese jet fighter collided with a U.S. Navy maritime reconnaissance aircraft patrolling off Hainan island. Unless incidents like this are carefully managed, more confrontations at sea or in the air could occur.

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The decision by the UN Arbitral Tribunal is expected to be handed down sometime in the next three months. China has clearly signaled that it will not recognize any determination that is made. Instead, China is currently embarked on a campaign to denigrate the legal standing of the Arbitral Tribunal.

China’s actions will create a dilemma for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who have repeatedly argued for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes on the basis of international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Meanwhile, ASEAN has no recourse but to plod along and engage with China in a never-ending series of dialogues and consultations to negotiate a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

The United States and its maritime allies will likely mount a diplomatic offensive to pressure China to accept the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision – win, lose or draw – and bring its behavior into line with international law. There is no sign that political and diplomatic pressure will convince China and its leader, Xi Jinping, to change present behavior. ASEAN is highly unlikely to endorse any U.S.-led initiative.

U.S. FONOPs do not address the real issue, which is China’s drive for hegemony over the South China Sea at the expense of the United States. Sailing within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s artificial islands gives China too much legal respect. China has not promulgated any baselines around its eight features in the Spratly Islands. Baselines are a necessary requirement for determining a 12 nautical territorial sea.

China claims a specious “military or security alert zone” over its artificial islands and surrounding waters that are not in conformity with international law. People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships claim that over-flights by foreign military aircraft threaten their security and order them away. China also claims that the waters around the Spratly Islands are its “territorial waters” (as distinct from the legal territorial sea) without giving any indication what area these waters encompass.

China’s position has hardened. It claims it was the first to discover, name and administer all the islands and other features in the South China Sea. China also claims as yet undefined “historical rights” over the maritime area within its nine-dash line map, all the islands and features within this line, and their adjacent waters.

Regional specialists have noted that if incidents between Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels and Chinese fishing boats and their counterparts from the littoral states are marked on a map they tend to occur in the area where the nine-dash line intersects with the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the littoral states.

The recent intervention by two armed Chinese Coast Guard ships in Indonesia’s EEZ 4.34 kilometers off Natuna Island is the latest example. As reported in The Diplomat, an Indonesian maritime law enforcement vessel arrested eight Chinese fishermen for illegal fishing and was towing their boat back to port when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel intervened and took possession of the Chinese boat.

Indonesia responded to this incident by calling in the Minister Counselor from the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta to strongly protest China’s violation of Indonesia’s sovereign rights. Indonesia also issued a written protest. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that the Chinese fishermen were conducting “normal activities” in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told a press conference on March 21 that the encroachment of Chinese Coast Guard ships into Indonesia’s EEZ was not related to the South China Sea dispute. Marsudi was quoted as stating, “I emphasize that Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea.”

Indonesia may not be a claimant state but it is fast becoming a front line state as China presses its claim to “historical rights” in the South China Sea. If China’s nine-dash lines were connected they would traverse the waters off Natuna island within Indonesia’s EEZ. For the past quarter century, Indonesian officials have pressed China to clarify it nine-dash line claim to no avail.

It is clear that as China completes its infrastructure development on its artificial islands that its state fishing fleet, trawlers and Coast Guard ships will be able to operate more frequently in the southern reaches of the South China Sea in waters claimed by Indonesia and Malaysia. In addition, if China takes the step of fully militarizing its artificial islands by deploying warships and aircraft on a permanent basis, China will be able to intimidate and coerce regional states by its sheer physical presence.

The long-term security trends are ominous and in China’s favor unless there is some regional push back, as suggested by Malaysia’s defense minister. The question is: will Indonesia step up and play a leadership role as the largest and arguably most influential member of ASEAN?

The jury is out on this question. At a conference held in Hanoi prior to the recent China-Indonesia confrontation, The Diplomat was told by a variety of Southeast Asian security specialists that Indonesia was viewed widely has having abnegated a regional leadership role and was looking beyond ASEAN to the G20 as a forum for its ambitions.

Closer to home, veteran Indonesia specialist Donald Weatherbee opined in Jakarta that Indonesia under President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo had failed to apply the long-standing principles of bebas-aktif (independent and proactive) diplomacy with respect to the South China Sea dispute. Weatherbee characterized Jokowi’s approach as “passive and dependent.”

China’s new sense of urgency is also being fueled by presidential contests now underway in the Philippines and the United States. Chinese officials have confided to The Diplomat that they expect a more compliant government to emerge in Manila following the May elections. The uncertainty about who will occupy the White House next January means that the coming months present an opportunity for Beijing to step up consolidation in the South China Sea.

It is likely that the decision of the UN Arbitral Tribunal will be the catalyst for a concerted effort by the United States and its allies to push back against China in a serious and coordinated manner. In the meantime, regional security tensions are slated to get worse before they get better.

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