Assertive China confronts challenges over claims on entire South China Sea

China, Chinese President Xi Jinping

As China continues to increase its aggressive military activity in the South China Sea, tension over the disputed 3.5 million square kilometres long waterbody of the Western Pacific Ocean is mounting with each day passing.

On March 7, the US, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia carried out joint naval and air drills in the world’s key strategic waterway, signalling their common desire to take on Beijing which, on the basis of its imaginary U-shaped ‘nine-dash line’, lays claim on the entire waterbody of the Western Pacific Ocean. On the same day, China also conducted naval and air exercises in the South China Sea, hinting clearly about its intentions over the highly important waterway in the Indo-Pacific region.

This was the first time when the US and its three close allies in the Indo-Pacific region came together to conduct joint naval and air drills in the South China Sea to counter China’s aggression in the Sea. It was undertaken four days prior to the first-ever trilateral summit between the US, Japan, and the Philippine in Washington DC where the major focus of the meeting will be on bolstering maritime cooperation between these three countries in the South China Sea to counter Beijing.

In the recent past, China has stepped up its bullying activities against Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei to force them to concede their claims on the South China Sea. Besides being one of the most strategically and economically important waterways in the world, the South China Sea has massive reserves of oil and gas buried under its surface.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, the South China Sea holds around 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves. Analysts hold this as the key reason why China, the world’s top oil importer, lays claims on the entire South China Sea by disregarding its neighbours’ claim and the 2016 international tribunal ruling that invalidated Beijing’s assertions of sovereignty over the waterbody of the Western Pacific Ocean.

However, the US and its allies worry about the consequences of overlooking China’s approach towards this important international waterway. They fear that Beijing’s blatant and unlawful claims on the entire South China Sea could threaten freedom of navigation and sea lines of communications (SLOCs) which are important for maritime passages of trade and the movement of naval forces. Each year, an estimated $5 trillion worth of international trade passes through the South China Sea.

Over the past couple of years, Chinese navy, coast guard and maritime militia have repeatedly harassed the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam in their respective Exclusive Economic Zones of the contested South China Sea. Armed with bigger and more heavily military vessels, Chinese coast guards have been making more frequent and invasive visits to these EEZs. These moves have more often resulted in close encounters with the navies of the Southeast Asian nations.

In 2021, Indonesian coast guard vessels and Chinese coast guard vessels overshadowed each other for months near the Natuna Sea of the South China Sea where Indonesia was undertaking oil exploration exercise. Jakarta says that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the North Natuna Sea which lies in the southern end of the South China Sea, is part of its EEZ.

In December 2022, Indonesia had to deploy a warship to its North Natuna Sea to monitor a Chinese coast guard vessel that was active in the area. Indonesia, which is not a party to the South China Sea dispute, has a strategic and economic interest as its EEZ overlaps with several Southeast Asian countries as well as with China’s so-called nine-dash line.

The Philippines, which justified massive joint air and naval drills with the US, Japan, and Australia in the South China Sea on April 7, has constantly faced harassment from China’s coast guards and maritime militia in its EEZ. Just two-day ahead of the joint military drills with its allies, Manila reported its fishing vessels were harassed by Chinese coast guard ships which used water cannons to block their moves in the Sea.

Earlier in March, the Philippines coast guard accused the Chinese coastguard of “reckless and illegal actions” in the South China Sea after the latter rammed the former’s vessel, resulting in minor structural damage to the ship. In March itself, Manila strongly protested after two Chinese coast guard ships sprayed water cannons at a Philippine navy operated supply boat near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. The incident had resulted in injuries to Filipino Navy crew members and severe damage to their vessel in the South China Sea.

Since last year hostilities between Manila and Beijing over the South China Sea have increased. Till October 2023, according to the Philippines Foreign Ministry, Manila had lodged diplomatic protests as many as 55 times against Beijing regarding Chinese Navy and coast guard’s continuous harassment of the Philippines coast guard in the South China Sea.

Vietnam is also a target of regular Chinese bullying in the disputed South China Sea which is recognised as the East Sea by Hanoi. In April 2020, Hanoi lodged a protest with Beijing after a Chinese coast guard ship collided with and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the Paracel Islands of the South China Sea. Vietnam had to cancel a major oil project in the South China Sea for the second time in 2018 following pressure from China. In 1974, China invaded the Paracel Island of the South China Sea, which Vietnam claims belonged to it since the 17th century.

Last year, Malaysia rejected China’s latest edition of the ‘standard map’ that lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea, including areas lying off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. “Malaysia does not recognise China’s claims in the South China Sea as outlined in the 2023 edition of the standard map of China which extends into Malaysian maritime area,” the Malaysian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on August 31, 2023.

These developments show the itchy relationship that China shares with Kuala Lumpur and other Southeast Asian neighbours. Moreover, its assertive stand over the South China Sea and unrestrained bullying acts against neighbours like the Philippines have impacted its credibility as a responsible international power. Peace and stability in the marginal sea of the Western Pacific Ocean have come under threat due to China’s militaristic approach in the region.

It is in this background, the US and its Asian allies’ just concluded joint military drills in the South China Sea are seen as a substantial move to make Beijing take note of efforts being made to counter its aggressive designs in the region. Analysts say the region would be witnessing more robust countermeasures against China in the South China Sea in days to come as the US and its allies appear all set to make the waterbody of the Western Pacific Ocean as a zone of peace and stability.

Copyright Greekcitytimes 2024