China has announced that its coast guard and an anti-narcotics unit conducted a rare drug bust in the middle of the Spratly Islands last month, seizing a ship and making six arrests, in the latest show of Beijing’s claim to jurisdiction over disputed waters in the South China Sea.
China’s state media reported the bust on Wednesday, but provided few details. The China Coast Guard (CCG), in conjunction with the anti-narcotics unit of China’s Ministry of Public Security, ambushed the suspected drug smuggling ship on Aug. 13 northwest of Fiery Cross Reef, one of China’s four largest military bases and artificial islands in the South China Sea.
It wasn’t immediately clear why it took nearly a month for the action to be made public.
While the CCG is a member of China’s Central Military Commission as a constituent part of the People’s Armed Police, the Ministry of Public Security is a civilian law enforcement agency, and has no prior record of performing any duties or operations in the South China Sea.
China described it as the first ever seizure of bulk illegal drugs in “Nansha,” China’s term for the Spratlys, an archipelago of rocks and reefs in the southern part of the South China Sea, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have claims. Radio Free Asia could not independently confirm it was the first such drugs seizure in the Spratlys.
Fiery Cross Reef is located less than 260 nautical miles from Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, which raised questions for Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“When the piece mentioned waters northwest of Fiery Cross Reef, there’s no exact location, which could mean that potentially the event could have taken place even in Vietnam’s [exclusive economic zone], given the proximity to Vietnam’s southern coast area,” he said.
A nation’s exclusive economic zone is comprised of the waters encompassed by a 200 nautical mile boundary off its coasts.
Raid planned for months
A subsequent report by China’s state media revealed that the Ministry of Public Security and CCG had been planning the night-time ambush for months.
As early as May of this year, the Ministry of Public Security’s Fujian office believed a Chinese drug trafficking gang was conspiring to use a container ship to send drugs back into China through the port of Fuzhou, Fujian province. The suspected ship left port on July 2 and was on its way back to China with cargo when it was interdicted by CCG ships lying in wait at Fiery Cross Reef.
It’s unknown what flag the ship was sailing under, nor did the reports give the nationalities of the six persons arrested, who included the captain of the ship. Koh said that under international law, the arrests would be under Beijing’s jurisdiction so long as the suspected ship was Chinese-flagged.
However, he added that such an interdiction operation “could reinforce the notion that Beijing is carrying out effective jurisdiction in the disputed area, which definitely feeds into its South China Sea claim. That’s a key political implication that arises from this event.”
Hotbed for smuggling
Southeast Asia has long been a hotbed for organized drug smuggling. One hundred and twenty tons of methamphetamine were confiscated by law enforcement agencies in 2018 alone, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
China alone seizes about 30 tons a year of synthetic drugs, according to a release by the same agency. However, most drugs originate in the ‘Golden Triangle,’ a mountainous region where the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet, and pass over land borders.
Neighboring Vietnam stopped a massive shipment of methamphetamine, ketamine, ecstasy, and heroin passing through its border with Cambodia on Sept. 2, according to Tuoi Tre newspaper.
China has sometimes been criticized for its failure to stop the transit of precursor chemicals needed for production of some illegal drugs in other countries. But it has cracked down on drug trafficking in recent years, launching a “Two Strikes, Two Controls” law enforcement campaign that has continued since 2018 and seen provincial Public Security bureaus escalate their arrests of suspected drug syndicates.
China’s President Xi Jinping gave a speech to the nation’s police force on Aug. 26, stressing “iron-like discipline and conduct” and capping off a months-long “education and rectification” campaign aimed at the country’s legal system and judicial bodies.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of abetting narcotics trafficking in Southeast Asia on Friday, in a statement coinciding with high-level meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its key dialogue partners.
“We stand for transparency and respect in the Mekong region, where the CCP has abetted arms and narcotics trafficking,” the statement said, without providing evidence to back up the allegations.