Beijing takes another major step to control the South China Sea

May 23, 2014

China’s project to slowly gobble up sovereignty over the South China Sea and, with money and threats to cow the 10 countries of Southeast Asia into subservience, has made dramatic advances.

Beijing will be well pleased with the success of the latest strike in its campaign, which started with the moving on May 1 of the massive deep sea oil drilling rig Haiyang 981 into South China Sea waters that are within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, but claimed by China.

Southeast Asia. Map: Wikimedia Commons

The provocation led to some ugly confrontations at sea as Vietnamese vessels jostled the 100-or-so ships Beijing sent to guard the rig. Meanwhile on land Vietnamese mobs attacked Chinese-owned businesses. At least two people were killed and Beijing evacuated several thousand of its nationals.

The timing of Beijing’s move was very purposeful. It came only a week before the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were due to meet in the Burmese capital, Nyapyitaw, where the incursion was rushed on to the agenda.

Beijing’s calculation was that, as in the past, the ASEAN leaders would be unable to agree on any muscular or effective response to China’s slow nibbling away of the maritime territories and sovereign rights of five of the ASEAN members: Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. Beijing has a strong economic and ideological grip on Laos and Cambodia, as well as powerful commercial ties to Burma and Thailand. None of these countries has a direct interest in China’s South China Sea claims and they could be counted on to ensure that ASEAN’s rage is quickly watered down to banal platitudes.

The Chinese government is very adept at exploiting these conflicting imperatives. Beijing rightly expected the ASEAN leaders would be unable to approve any more robust response to the incursion into Vietnamese waters than a meaningless motion calling for a negotiated code of conduct for economic development of the supposedly oil and gas-rich South China Sea.

Equally satisfying for Beijing was the flaccid response from Washington. Last month United States President Barack Obama attempted to reassure America’s Asian allies and others worried about China’s territorial ambitions that Washington would be staunch in defending their interests. He reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the defence of Japan and signed a new defence agreement with the Philippines.

This appeared to be a significant demonstration of resolve by the American President, especially coming after his “red line” for intervention in the Syrian civil war, when the regime used chemical weapons against civilians, proved to be meaningless. But China’s neighbours are now left wondering whether Obama’s “pivot” of focus from the Middle East to Asia has any more substance than his Syrian “red line.”

For several years the Vietnamese government has been courting Washington, with some apparent success, in an attempt to give Hanoi a strategic counterbalance to the ever-present heavy breathing of its neighbour, China. Washington’s response to the Naiyang 981 incident, however, clearly says that while the U.S. may be ready to go to war in defence of Japan, the 7th Fleet is not going to sail to save Hanoi.

All Vietnam got was some bafflegab from Washington deploring Beijing’s provocation and some weasel words from the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. He said: “We just need to cool off, move in a deliberate manner and hopefully solve this diplomatically.”

The Hanoi government of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his government swiftly realized they are on their own. Dung was left to grasp at straws and on Thursday met the Philippines President Benigno Aquino in Manila. The two called on the world to condemn China’s “extremely dangerous” activities in the South China Sea.

Well, that’s not going to happen. Even if it did, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his close colleagues in the luxury villas of the Zhongnanhai leaders’ compound, next to Beijing’s imperial Forbidden City, will lose no sleep over it.

The targeting of Vietnam and the Philippines by persistently sending Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels into their territorial waters has proved highly effective. Neither is a central or highly influential member of ASEAN and Beijing has been careful not to confront more central ASEAN members Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, whose waters China also claims. Though, in January 2013, China sent a naval flotilla to James Shoal off the coast of Malaysia’s Borneo coast where the sailors took an oath to defend Chinese territory. This caused some consternation in Malaysia and Indonesia, though no serious push-back so far.

Such incursions have been the most visible and flambouyant part of a slow and steady encroachment into the South China Sea that began when China ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1996. This gives signatories rights to “exclusive economic zones” covering 200 nautical miles of the seas beyond their coastlines.

China swiftly ramped up its claims to both the Spratly and Paracel groups of islands in the South China Sea. On this basis of UNCLOS and these claims, Beijing said, all of the sea right down to the massive Natuna natural gas fields in Indonesia’s waters, 1,500 kilometres away from the nearest undisputed Chinese landfall, is Chinese territory.

When, a few years later, China announced that the Spratly and Paracel islands were to be made a municipality under Hainan island province, it was taken as a bit of a joke. But then in 2012 the status of what is now called Sansha was boosted to a prefecture city, with a local government, complete with 600 busy bureaucrats, established on Woody Island in the Paracels. One of the edicts of the Woody Island bureaucrats is that anyone fishing in Chinese waters in the South China Sea must obtain their permission. Restrictions on the right of passage for foreign merchant and naval shipping through the South China Sea are doubtless on Beijing’s agenda.

To reinforce this appearance of administration of the disputed territories, which will be extremely useful should there ever be an attempted international legal resolution, Beijing has been building and manning military outposts on several of the islands and islets.

At what point Beijing gets called on its empire-building campaign is hard to predict. Going on the events of the last three weeks, not yet and probably not until Beijing’s imperial grip over Southeast Asia is a lot more difficult to pry open than it is now.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


Further reading:
Beijing attempts to provoke conflict with Vietnam over maritime claims: Manthorpe
Beijing, not Moscow, is the home of imperialism: Manthorpe


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