While most countries in the Indo-Pacific region are battling the coronavirus pandemic, China has been active in the South China Sea, taking aggressive action against Indonesia and Vietnam. China’s belligerent behavior, including military maneuvers and large-scale deployment of military assets to the region, have caught many of its neighbors and the United States off-guard, understandable considering their preoccupation with the pandemic in their respective countries. Such aggressive behavior, in the midst of a crisis that is itself blamed on China, is only likely to further antagonize China’s Indo-Pacific neighbors.
For several weeks, China has been hounding Indonesian fishing vessels in the Indonesian waters off the Natuna Islands. Chinese fishing fleets with the support of armed Chinese Coast Guard ships have been encroaching into areas that Indonesia considers exclusive. Indonesian fishermen are perturbed that the government in Jakarta is not doing anything to protect them. Ngesti Yuni Suprapti, the deputy regent of the Natuna archipelago, said, “There was a vacant period, then China came back. Our fishermen feel scared.”
Such Chinese excursions are becoming more common. In January too, the Chinese fishing vessels were hovering around the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Natuna Islands, but they retreated to the edge of the EEZ just before President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s visit to the region. The Joint Defense Area Command (Kogabwilhan) I commander Rear Admiral Yudo Margono, commenting on the situation, said, “Around 30 foreign vessels are currently situated on the Natuna EEZ border” but affirmed that irrespective of the withdrawal, Indonesian military operations in the region will continue. He added that there are still four fighter jets on standby at the Natuna Air Base.
Indonesia has not been keen to raise the issue through political or diplomatic channels with Beijing for fear of negative impact on the economic ties between the two countries. But that has not helped because Beijing now claims that these are China’s traditional fishing waters and lawful under UNCLOS. Still, Indonesian officials are categorical that “Indonesia has to do nothing with China over the Natuna Islands and their surrounding waters, as UNCLOS does not recognize ‘traditional’ fishing grounds.”
But while Indonesian diplomats may not feel the need to open any talks with Beijing on this issue, the military has a different take, saying that “China’s position is totally unacceptable and we should take concrete actions in the field.” Also, for ordinary Indonesians, China in recent times has become too aggressive. In a recent opinion piece, Kornelius Purba wrote in The Jakarta Post that “For millions of Indonesians, China’s diplomat has crossed the line by openly challenging Indonesia’s territorial integrity. Their pride as a nation has been wounded, for right or wrong reasons. ‘China can easily do it to smaller members of ASEAN, but not with us,’ was the common reaction of Indonesians on social media.” This was a reference to the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, who made quite harsh statements regarding the rights of Chinese fishermen in the Indonesian EEZ.
Meanwhile, last week, China rammed into and sank a Vietnamese shipping boat with eight fishermen on board while they were out fishing in the Paracel Islands, which are controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam. The spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the Chinese action “violates Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands . . . [and is] not conducive to the development of the bilateral relations between the two countries as well as the maintenance of peace, stability and cooperation in the East Sea (South China Sea).” Vietnam also lodged a formal protest against China at the local embassy in Hanoi.
The U.S. Department of State also responded with a strongly worded statement expressing its concerns about China’s behavior. The statement further noted that this is only “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.” The statement also pointed out since the outbreak of the pandemic, China has announced the setting up of “new ‘research stations’ on military bases it built on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef and landed special military aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef,” in addition to the continuing deployment of maritime militia around the Spratly Islands. Of course, China has predictably come out with its harsh criticism of the U.S. statement, calling upon Washington to focus on its COVID-19 response rather than sending ships and aircraft to the South China Sea.
In a surprising move, the Philippines Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also come out with a strong statement expressing concern over the Chinese sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat and referencing a similar incident involving a Filipino fishing vessel last year. The statement said, “Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it; and how much trust was created by Vietnam’s humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen. We have not stopped and will not stop thanking Vietnam. It is with that in mind that we issue this statement of solidarity.”
The statement further noted the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and said that incidents such as these derail “the potential of a genuinely deep and trusting regional relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China… [and hence] it is crucial that such incidents be avoided and that differences be addressed in a manner that enhances dialogue and mutual trust.”
It would appear that China, in addition to mishandling both the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and its rather crass public relations efforts on the pandemic, is demonstrating further strategic tone-deafness in its actions toward its neighbors. In doing so, China is likely to shoot itself in the foot: further accelerating efforts by Beijing’s neighbors to partner with the United States and other Indo-Pacific powers.