Beijing Ratchets up the South China Sea Pressure

Chinese state media recently announced new regulations that would see Hainan maritime police boarding vessels that have illegally entered its “territory” in the South China Sea, opening yet another chapter in the long-running maritime and territorial dispute. The orders, to be enacted on Jan. 1, were quickly denounced from claimant states involved in the dispute, who view this as effort by China to restrict regional freedom of navigation.

The new regulations follow after Beijing’s move to issue new passports containing a revised map of Chinese territories, which include disputed islands in South China Sea, its border regions with India, and Taiwan. This ongoing passport episode has so far seen India countering by issuing new visas with a revised map of its own.

In declaring its intent to board vessels that have entered its “territory,” China has only escalated tensions in the region, setting back any hopes for a permanent and peaceful resolution. Under the new regulations, Chinese police would turn away straying vessels, but will also the right to board and seize the ship.

Picking battles in the South China Sea

Undoubtedly China is flexing its military muscle, but to what end? China has made public its opposition to US “intrusion” in the South China Sea disputes, therefore these new regulations are all the more puzzling given that they are guaranteed to attract American attention.

Although the US has elected not to wade deep into the South China Sea disputes, hoping instead for a multilateral resolution, it has continued to uphold the importance of freedom of navigation in the region. Critics, however, were quick to raise red flags and claim the new regulations from China would jeopardize said freedom.

There is little doubt that Beijing was expecting a response, but it is a dangerous path upon which they have set off. In the past, Chinese maritime police have stopped and detained fishing crews, most often from Vietnam; however, such arrests were more random and less of a rule. Moreover, the fishermen were typically freed quickly afterwards. For these seizures to now be a rule and to take place in contested waters could spark violent confrontation.

It is one thing to board an unarmed fishing vessel and detain its crew; however, it is quite another to board a vessel intent on resisting or, for that matter, a military vessel. What is the protocol if the Chinese police were to come across, say, an armed Filipino escort ship? Would the Chinese risk stopping and detaining Filipino servicemen? Of equal importance, how would the United States, with whom the Philippines holds a Mutual Defense Treaty, react?

Someone somewhere in Beijing has already asked these questions, and someone somewhere in Beijing has already concluded that the benefits outweigh the risks. However, as these regulations will not be implemented until Jan. 1, the question is where will Beijing draw the line, and how will other countries react?

It is almost certain the Hainan maritime police will not stop and board a US Navy vessel; but for smaller countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, whose maritime assets are not as capable, to stop and board such vessels may be a risk China is willing to take.

Neither the US nor China has any desire to confront one another militarily, for both countries at present are too economically interdependent. On the other hand, China may believe that it is no sweat off their backs should they come into conflict with a country such as Vietnam, which does not have a treaty with the US.

The new regulations will have little impact on American forces in the area, but to neighboring states lacking in military support, it is a grave concern. The US Navy cannot escort every civilian ship traveling through the South China Sea, therefore leaving the majority of vessels to their own devices. Countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Russia may travel the sea lanes unimpeded; however, for the rest, they may find themselves forced to submit to these new rules.

A stabilizing presence

The Philippines and Vietnam, as well as other claimant countries, hope that United States’ pivot to Asia-Pacific will balance against an increasingly assertive China. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the US will maintain a permanent presence.

Short of increasing the size of its navy, which, at the moment seems unlikely, every US Navy warship in the Western Pacific is a loss of a warship elsewhere in the world. Although the pivot has been described by Washington, DC, as a strategic rebalance, it cannot be ignored that the US possesses global commitments.

Knowing this, the US has made efforts to establish and/or re-affirm security partnerships with countries in the region, so that the US is not stretched beyond its means. Countries like Vietnam will have to pick up the slack and cannot expect the US to fight its battles for them. The pivot to Asia-Pacific is a “temporary solution” to China’s rise, designed to address the needs of the US and not necessarily the needs of regional countries.

On Dec.12, representatives from Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines - all of whom are claimant states - will meet in Manila to discuss South China Sea disputes and the role of China. In the course of their meeting, they should begin seeking a new, stabilizing presence in the South China Sea.

Such a stabilizing presence should not be understood as a complete and total replacement of the United States, but rather a force that can augment an American presence and balance against China. To this end, Indonesia would be well-suited to such a role.

Among Southeast Asian nations, Indonesia is by far the most populous and is in possession of the largest economy. It is among one of the founding nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Although it is not a claimant state in the South China Sea disputes, that it was not invited to the December 12 meeting is somewhat surprising, given its prominence in the region.

Indonesia has flirted with taking a leadership role in the disputes; however, perhaps because they are not yet ready, have so far remained distant. Should Indonesia decide to throw its hat into the ring, it would be able to balance China to some degree, with the support of the other claimant states.

Manila should extend an invitation to Jakarta soonest possible. After all, what is the harm in having a fifth opinion? Although the future of the South China Sea disputes is in doubt, what is not in doubt is that Indonesia will be as much a part of it as any one of the four claimant states gathering in Manila. At least in the near future, claimant states will find strength in numbers, and they may also find strength in working as a bloc.

China does not have to control the South China Sea to enforce its rules. Rather, it need only have the appearance of controlling the sea; and to give such an impression, it will simply board a ship every now and then. Alone, the claimant states are easy pickings. Together, however, they may balance against China.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel)