US, China Play Dangerous South China Sea Game

China’s growing assertiveness matched by US combativeness

By: BA Hamzah

The South China Sea, through which an estimated third of global seaborn commerce travels every year, is becoming one of the world’s flashpoints with China and the United States having chosen it as the seaborne arena in which to assess each other’s strength at a time when Trumpian pre-election rocket-rattling can’t hurt at the polls. 

Certainly, China has stirred considerable irritation not just with the US, which sees its waning clout being tested, but among the littoral nations as well. Reports of foul play, human rights abuses and trafficking of Indonesians have lately put a new spotlight on the activities of Chinese fishing vessels.

Similarly, the presence of Chinese warships and armed Coast Guard vessels in Malaysian waters is a disturbing development for a nation that arguably has cooperated more than it needs to because of its dependence on China for trade, tourism and investment. China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner since 2009 although these reports are not new. Thus far, nothing untoward has happened as both sides are careful not to allow such infringement to mar their diplomatic and economic relations.

However, in mid-April, Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese government survey vessel that has been operating in Vietnamese and Philippine waters since 2017, caused concern. She was spotted trailing the West Capella, a drilling vessel on contract to Petronas, Malaysia’s national oil company. Haiyang Dizhi 8 was escorted by several well-armed vessels from China’s Coast Guard.

That incident follows on from a previous three-month stand-off between Chinese “survey vessels,” always accompanied by the Chinese Coast Guard, and Malaysian enforcement agency vessels in Luconia Shoals, an area rich in hydrocarbon resources.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it known that unilateral PRC activities to harass Malaysian fishery and hydrocarbon activities in Laconia Shoals and James Shoal, an underwater outcropping on the continental shelf of Malaysia, are unlawful. Similarly, in the same vein, the US now formally “rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia).”

Such activities are quite common. Apart from rampant illegal and unreported fishing (IUU), incidents of sea robbery, piracy, human and drug trafficking, destruction and degradation of coral reefs and exploitation of protected mollusks like giant clams by many long-distance fishing boats including those from China, to name some, are unsettling. 

However, they are just the very tip of the iceberg of maritime violence and criminality along with the US$3.5 trillion-plus worth of international commerce that pass through annually. These criminal activities are likely to add fuel to the volatile political environment. For instance, in early July, Indonesian authorities arrested two Chinese fishing vessels off the Riau islands, following a tip that an Indonesian crew member had died on one of the boats. The body was found in a freezer, believed to be the victim of a human trafficking racket.

Three Indonesian crew members also allegedly died while working on a Chinese vessel fishing for tuna early last year. A video of the three, unceremoniously buried at sea, has angered the Indonesian authorities. Jakarta demanded an explanation of the inhumane working conditions on Chinese-flagged fishing boats that led to their death.

Early this year, Indonesia deployed six warships and four F-16 fighter jets to the Natuna Sea to counter intrusion by 60 Chinese fishing vessels which were escorted by two Chinese Coast Guard vessels. The showdown was defused after the Chinese vessels left the area, which is reportedly rich in natural gas deposits and fish. Jakarta has since reinforced its military presence on the Natuna Islands which it owns.

In the absence of mitigating mechanisms, the tensions could metamorphose into military flashpoints overnight, with potentially serious global consequences.

Mike Pompeo’s recent statement that formally rejects “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources in the SCS as unlawful” is bound to put China on the defensive and will make it more difficult to rein in the recalcitrant fishing fleets and dubious “research & survey vessels.” Pompeo took Beijing to task for what he implies as its bullying, predatory and coercive strategy against its weaker neighbors.

Beijing has a long history of harassing ships in the South China Sea. Chinese fishing fleets have long operated illegally in waters claimed by Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. A Chinese maritime surveillance vessel, for example, rammed and sank a fishing vessel from Vietnam off the Vanguard Shoal in April. Confrontations with Filipino fishermen, especially in traditional fishing areas off the Scarborough Reef, which China occupied in 2010, are quite common despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s subservient posture towards Beijing.

The evidence of growing political tensions is quite compelling. These tensions have steadily increased in recent years after China went overboard within what Beijing regards as the nine-dash line outlining Chinese hegemony despite President Xi Jinping’s assurance to former US President Barack Obama that China would not militarize the area.

The construction of military facilities on a number of artificial islands since 2012 has alarmed Washington, which has challenged China’s excessive maritime claims under its Freedom of Navigation Program after the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into force in 1994.

Beijing’s refusal to embrace the proposed Declaration on the Conduct Parties (DOC) by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in “its entirety” after 20 years of negotiations has made it exceedingly difficult for ASEAN countries to engage China constructively. China’s lip-service to any form of regional mechanism to mitigate violence and lower regional tensions has left behind a bad taste.

The claimant states are questioning China’s real intentions since it started to build military garrisons on the artificial islands in the Spratlys after 2012.  All seven military outposts in the Spratlys (Mischief, Subi, Cuateron, Gaven, Fiery Cross, Hugh, and Johnson Reefs) are closer to Western Palawan, for example, than to Yulin, a town in Southern Hainan, China’s nearest mainland.

The distance between Yulin and Mischief Reef that China occupied since 1995 is 1166 km; Mischief Reef to Western Palawan is only 241 km. Moreover, China’s potential to extend the operational range for offensive purposes against the claimant states from any of its outpost in the Spratly is high. For instance, using Subi Reef as a forward position, China’s operational range for its aircraft can be extended by 1,000 km. This means all primary targets along the coasts of the Philippines and Malaysia are within China’s military operational range. Together with US new commitments to the region, this fact has changed the strategic landscape.

Beijing says the outposts are for deterrence purposes against the US, which it accuses of containing its rise. While this anti-access and anti-denial military strategy remains valid, it has become a double-edged weapon. The bases can be used against the claimant states that are at odds with China’s maritime strategy. Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia have separately criticized China’s military and illegal fishing activities.

Apart from the DOC process, there is little evidence of ASEAN member states adopting a common position against what China is doing. Statements like the need to exercise self- restraint in the conduct of activities and resort to international law in settling disputes are non-contentious in nature. The ASEAN Chairman’s Statement of the 36th ASEAN summit (26 June 200) reaffirmed the relevance of the 1982 UNCLOS as the preferred legal framework “for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones.” This phrase is included in the Chairman’s statement with China in mind.

There are several reasons why the tensions may flare up into low-level naval skirmishes between China and ASEAN member states with overlapping claims, namely Vietnam and the Philippines, and lately Malaysia. Even Indonesia, as suggested above, a non-claimant, has been drawn into the fray. This new development is caused primarily by China’s coercive policy.

Although Beijing has downplayed the presence of the US warships in the trouble spot, this region could see escalated tensions between the US and China as President Donald Trump could look for excuses to boost his chances for re-election in November 2020, away from domestic woes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The closure of China’s consulate in Texas this week is also intended to underscore Washington’s anger with China’s alleged “stealing of intellectual property,” a euphemism for spying. Of course, stoking the bilateral tensions is essentially geopolitical in nature as Washington seeks to further blunt Beijing’s growing influence.

I have argued elsewhere that as Commander-in-Chief, President Trump could order the US Navy to strike against the military targets to achieve limited political objectives. In the worst military conflict scenario, the military targets offer minimum collateral damage to the population and property, avoiding an all-out war.  China’s growing assertiveness has fuelled concerns over armed conflicts in the South China Sea that President Trump could use as a diversionary strategy to win re-election.

BA Hamzah is a professor in the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defense University of Malaysia. He can be reached at

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