China’s aggressive moves to claim disputed territory in the South China Sea took a new turn in March when a Chinese coast guard boat entered Indonesian waters far from the China mainland.
The Chinese vessel rammed and retrieved a Chinese fishing boat that had been detained by Indonesia for fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.
An Indonesian official said that the Chinese coast guard had violated Indonesian sovereignty and urged China to respect international law.
Indonesia claims that the Chinese coast guard vessel entered Indonesian waters less than three miles (four kilometers) from the Natuna Islands.
This is well within Indonesia’s 12-nautical mile territorial limit and its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
China’s incursion into Indonesian coastal waters is unusual in that it occurred so far from the China mainland and involved a country, Indonesia, which does not make claims that conflict with China’s own claims to disputed reefs and atolls in the South China Sea.
China demanded the release of eight Chinese fishermen detained by Indonesia, claiming they had been operating in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”
Carlyle Thayer, a veteran analyst who closely follows South China Sea developments, wrote in The Diplomat on March 22 that security tensions in the region are now “slated to get worse before they get better.”
A “high-level visitor to China” told Thayer that he has detected a sense of urgency in Beijing to complete consolidation of control over the South China Sea before the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal hands down a decision on claims made by the Philippines against China.
That decision is expected to come within the next three months.
China’s sense of urgency is also being fueled by presidential election campaigns now being waged in both the United States and the Philippines, according to Thayer.
China has signaled that it won’t recognize any decision made by the UN Arbitral Tribunal.
China is a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But Beijing has disregarded UNCLOS rules under which countries are allowed territorial waters and EEZs.
Instead, China claims nearly all of the South China Sea within an ill-defined “nine-dash line” stretching hundreds of miles to the south and east of its southernmost province of Hainan.
The next target
Thayer predicts that “the war of words between the United States and China over who is militarizing the South China Sea is likely to sharpen….”
U.S. military officials say that they will now increase the number and scope of “freedom of navigation operational patrols” sent in recent months through the South China Sea.
China is likely to respond with a “mix of bluster and defensive measures aimed to signal its resolve,” says Thayer.
Analysts say that further Chinese incursions and U.S. reactions could lead to a mishap and escalation of violence, particularly when they involve Chinese fishing boats and armed coast guard vessels that work in coordination with the Chinese Navy.
And the U.S. and its Asian allies may soon face a new test in waters surrounding Scarborough Shoal, an atoll, or rocky outcrop, claimed by both China and the Philippines.
John Richardson, U.S. chief of naval operations, told Reuters recently that Chinese survey ships seen near that area suggest that Beijing may intend to build an artificial island on top of Scarborough Shoal.
According to The Wall Street Journal, a Chinese base on Scarborough “would allow Chinese military forces to monitor and threaten the Philippine island of Luzon, including the large naval facility at Subic Bay.”
This would give China “a triangle of military facilities around the central shipping lanes of the South China Sea, joining bases in the Paracel Islands to the west and Spratlys to the south.”
The South China Sea is larger than the Mediterranean Sea and is believed to harbor large oil and gas deposits. Most important, ships passing through this area carry more than $5 trillion in cargo to and from the growing economies of East and Southeast Asia.
In addition to China and the Philippines, claimants to disputed territory in the South China Sea include Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The United States takes no position on the disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea but is committed the principle of freedom of navigation under international law.
U.S. and Japanese Involvement
China’s assertive approach to the South China Sea has resulted in promises of an increase in U.S. military aid to the Philippines and increased American military consultations with Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the Philippines has been negotiating for the acquisition of defense equipment from Japan, China’s World War II enemy and modern geopolitical rival.
Japan has long been engaged in a territorial dispute with China over the disputed islands known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China.
According to the Reuters News Agency, Japan on March 28 activated a radar station in the East China Sea, giving it an intelligence-gathering post close to Taiwan and the Senkaku islands.
Policy makers told Reuters last year that Japan’s military buildup in the region was part of a strategy to keep China at bay in the Western Pacific as Beijing gains greater control of the South China Sea.
China’s defense ministry, in a statement to Reuters about the radar station, said that the international community should be on high alert to Japan’s military expansion.
But according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which is run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, China’s actions may have succeeded in reviving interest a seemingly defunct U.S.-India-Japan-Australia quadrilateral strategic dialogue.
AMTI said in a report on March 14 that concerns about provoking China were a principal reason behind the initial failure of this four-party dialogue, nicknamed the “Quad,” after it was first discussed by foreign ministers in 2007.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe originally conceived of the idea as part of “concert of Asian Democracies,” said the AMTI report.
Recent revelations by CSIS that China was building a radar network spanning the region and had placed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed artificial island, “seem to have revived the Quad as a strategic concept,” the report said.
India has announced an “Act East” policy to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific.
But China has grown over the years in economic importance to India, Australia, and Japan, accounting for more than 20 percent of Australia and Japan’s total trade. India is hoping to gain $20 billion in investment promised by China.
“Another obstacle to reviving the Quad is India’s inbuilt suspicion of alliances,” said the AMTI report. “Although India embraced the Quad concept in 2007, it has proved reluctant to commit itself to action in the South China Sea.”
India has, however, begun training Vietnamese submarine crews.
On March 2, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, speaking in New Delhi, suggested that a U.S.-India-Japan trilateral dialogue be expanded to include Australia.
He argued that all four countries are “united in supporting the international rules-based order.”
Australia, which was reluctant to join a Quad in 2008, issued a defense White Paper under a new government in February that emphasized its ties with the United States and its support for a rules-based global order.