On Saturday, May 4, Indonesian authorities went on nationwide television with great fanfare to sink 51 foreign ships at five ports across the archipelago, including 28 Vietnamese-flagged boats, six Malaysian, two Chinese and one from the Philippines.
Those two sunken Chinese ships, a small part of the total Chinese vessels and Indonesian ones leased by Chinese fishing interests that have been sunk at the behest of Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s fisheries minister, stand in vivid contrast to the picture hundreds of kilometers to the east, where on July 23 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, during his annual State of the Nation Address, publicly in effect ceded control of Philippine waters to China.
“You know, I cannot go there even to bring the Coast Guard to drive them away. China also claims the property and he is in possession,” Duterte said, adding in Tagalog: “That’s the problem. They are in possession and claiming all the resources there as an owner.”
The Philippines, he said, “lost the Spratly and the Panganiban Island. That’s the truth. That is not a bluff. Now, there is an arbitral ruling. I … I said, I could not even ask for the oil claiming the entire resources of the …What do I tell them? So I said, “Let us do this mutually.” Of course, when Xi says, “I will fish,” who can prevent him?
An increasingly aggressive China has laid claim virtually all of the South China Sea, based on a so-called nine-dash line map created in 1947 by the long-gone Nationalist government of the late Chiang Kai-shek, whose government was ousted from the mainland and fled to Taiwan. The contested areas include a flock of islets that make up the Paracel and Spratly Islands as well as other specks in the South China Sea that run deeply into the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones claimed by the littoral nations. While Indonesia is not technically within the line, it does run through the Natuna region claimed by Jakarta.
Despite the fact that the Philippine case was bolstered by a landmark decision in the Hague on July 21, 2016, when an arbitral tribunal ruled under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that China has “no historical rights” based on the nine-dash line claiming virtually all the South China Sea, Duterte has simply given up.
Thousands of protesters marched following the speech to denounce Duterte’s remarks, condemning both his bloody campaign against illegal drugs and his capitulation on the South China Sea issue.
The protest made little headway, with the Congress elected earlier this year firmly on his side. But the capitulation raises questions. If Indonesia can dynamite Chinese fishing boats on camera, why is the Philippines so timid?
Indonesia and China have had three seaborne skirmishes since 2016 in which warning shots have been fired, including one near-ramming in which Indonesian frigates seized a Chinese fishing boat and its crew. Susi Pudjiastuti has shown no signs of backing away from confrontation, with the confiscations and scuttlings continuing, along with the occasional spectacular dynamiting for public relations value.
Although Indonesia, like the Philippines, is the recipient of considerable investment and is a major trading partner of China, Jakarta hasn’t let fear of Chinese cutbacks impede its determination to reserve its fishing and oil resource areas for itself.
Like Indonesia, Vietnam has refused to be intimidated by China, with the latest confrontation in early July when a Chinese survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, entered the Vanguard Bank area claimed by Vietnam to carry out a mapping mission. The Haiyang Dizhi was escorted y Chinese Coast Guard vessels, dozens of merchant marine vessels and maritime militia ships. Chinese Coast Guard vessels were also spotted near an oil exploration block near the Vanguard Bank where a Japanese oil rig had started drilling operations under contract with a Vietnamese company.
After the reports, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said the country would “resolutely fight violations” in its sea areas, triggering a standoff. China has threatened attacks on Vietnamese outposts in the area, causing Hanoi to halt two exploration projects. There is a significant chance that the matter will escalate, raising the possibility that shooting could start, or ramming each other’s vessels.
With Indonesia and Vietnam standing firm against Chinese incursions, it would seem that the opportunity for combined action might present itself. But, Duterte said in his July 23 speech, there is a “time to antagonize and a time to make peace and a time to go to war, and a time to live and a time to die. That’s Ecclesiastes 3.”
Indeed, Coast Guard ships donated to the Philippines by Japan are being deployed on the west coast, keeping them well away from actually defending the coasts and waters from the Chinese.
“Our ownership of the Philippine — West Philippine Sea is internationally recognized,” Duterte said. “However, both the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Arbitral Award in the case of People — “Republic of the Philippines vs. People’s Republic of China” recognize instances where another state may utilize the resources found within the coastal state’s Exclusive Economic Zone.”
The national honor and territorial integrity “shall be foremost in our mind, and when we may take the next steps in this smoldering controversy over the lines of arbitral ruling, the West Philippine Sea is ours. There is no ifs and buts. It is ours. But we have been acting, [applause] along that legal truth and line. But we have to temper it with the times and the realities that we face today,” he said.
In the meantime, China continues to, in effect, rule Philippine waters. On June 9, a Chinese vessel rammed a wooden fishing banca, with the 22 crew members charging they were abandoned to their own survival. The incident took place at the Reed Bank off the island of Palawan, a swath of ocean that China has claimed as its maritime territory despite the fact that the incident took place about 150 km. from Palawan, well within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone.
Duterte was silent for a week, then called the ramming “a little maritime incident.”’