COVID-19 Op-ed

Double trouble in South China Sea amid COVID-19 Crisis: an ASEAN consensus and a new regional security architecture needed to thwart future Chinese maritime ambition

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Tania NguyenStudent, Asia
Pacific MA Human Rights and Democratisation
Global Campus
of Human Rights Asia Pacific
Institute of Human Rights
and Peace Studies, Mahidol University

China’s rise in the South China Sea has been considered as one
of the most critical security threats to ASEAN countries. It is assumed that
the disputes over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas would have been
suspended amid the outbreak of Coronavirus worldwide. However, that is not
really what happened. China takes advantage of the COVID-19 crisis easing on
the mainland and steps up the disputing on the South China Sea (Parameswaran,
2020). This action complicates the difficulty ASEAN states claimants already
face in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic while the coping continues to
create both internal and external security challenges.The South China Sea, a
key commercial thoroughfare connecting Asia with Europe and Africa, is
subject to variant overlapping territorial disputes involving China, Vietnam,
Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, based on various accounts of
geography and history.China claims more than 80 percent of the South China
Sea, including the archipelago of islands, reefs, and atolls known as the
Spratlys. At the same time, Vietnam asserts sovereignty over the Paracel
Islands and the Spratly Islands (SCMP Reporter, 2019). Also, Brunei and
Malaysia have claimed sovereignty over southern parts of the sea and some of
the Spratly Islands. The Philippines claims ownership of the Spratly
Archipelago and the Scarborough Shoal. Over the decades, the claimants have
seized control of a raft of sea features, including islands, rocks, and
low-tide elevations. Since 2009, Beijing has advanced its territorial claims
in this region through various tactics such as building artificial islands
with military facilities over reefs and outcrops and using legal arguments
and diplomatic influence. Its “nine-dash line,” which stretches as
far as 2,000 kilometers from the mainland, is a geographical marker applied
to strengthen its claim. The rival countries have wrangled over territory in
the sea for centuries, but tension has steadily increased in recent years,
especially during the pandemic.In early April, a Vietnamese fishing boat with
eight crew members was sunk after being hit by a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG)
ship near the disputed Paracels (Drake Long, 2020). The Vietnamese government
has presumed China’s role in this incident, which may increase tension in the
South China Sea. The incident also has prompted a stiff criticism from the
United States that Beijing has exploited the pandemic to boost its “unlawful
claims” in the South China Sea. Vietnam has claimed sovereignty over the
Paracels but they have been occupied by China in their entirety since
1974.Since 15 April, Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 (a Chinese survey ship, with CCG and
maritime military escort ships) has conducted its survey within Malaysia’s
Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (Drake Long). Consequently, a drillship
contracted by Malaysian state-owned oil company Petronas called the West
Capella that had been operating in Malaysian waters for five months left the
region. “The West Capella has finished its planned work and has left the
area,” Ian Cracknell, the company’s communications director, said by e-mail.
Nevertheless, Chinese activity has been widely acknowledged as an aggressive
attempt to pressure Malaysia to stop oil exploration in overlapping waters,
which both sides claim. The Malaysian government has yet to comment about the
departure of the West Capella.The situation got worse when China perversely
reiterated its annual fishing ban in the South China Sea on 1 May, outlawing
all fishing activity in an area north of the 12th parallel of the sea that it
claims to have jurisdiction over (Drake Long). The area is also claimed by
Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Fisheries associations from
both Vietnam and the Philippines immediately protested China’s ban. The ban
is “invalid,” Vietnam said in a statement of defiance. It
encouraged the nation’s fishermen to continue with their fishing activities
around the disputed Paracel Islands under the support of local authorities.
The Malaysian government, however, has highlighted a differing approach in
managing its maritime dispute with China. On 22 April, the Malaysian Foreign
Minister said that he was consulting privately with both the United States
and China, and urged all parties to refrain from sending more warships to the
South China Sea (Drake Long). Similarly, Indonesia expressed its concern
about recent activities in the region that would “potentially lead to an
escalation in tensions when a collective global effort is needed to combat
the COVID-19 pandemic” (Apriza Pinandita, 2020). Although Indonesia is not a
claimant state, it has an EEZ in the Natuna islands on the edge of the South
China Sea and has faced China’s challenges to fish.Due to the tense
situation, Vietnam and the Philippines have protested strongly against
China’s bullying, but other ASEAN states have been restrained (Nyshka
Chandran, 2020). They have remarked on the importance of maintaining regional
stability and avoiding conflict. The South China Sea Morning reported
individual states would not act publicly against China for fear of affecting
investment and trade ties, especially amid an economic downturn caused by the
pandemic. China saw Southeast Asia as “its backyard.” For this
reason, ASEAN has unobtrusively encouraged the United States and its allies
to become more actively engaged in the region to balance China’s growing
power. In practice, the United States and Australia have responded to China’s
recent activities by sending warships into the disputed South China Sea,
maintaining regional stability to “promote freedom of navigation and overflight,
and the international principles that underpin security and prosperity for
the Indo-Pacific” (Osborne, 2020). Whereas Washington and its allies’
presence is welcome, ASEAN countries not publicly admit it, nor would they
attempt a collective response (Chandran 2020).Vietnam is in a critical
strategic position in comparison with other ASEAN countries. In 2020, it is
the ASEAN chair and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Some
suggested that Vietnam’s ASEAN roles should be extended into 2021 to make up
for the time lost to dealing with the pandemic. If that happens, Hanoi should
facilitate negotiations between ASEAN countries and China for a South China
Sea code of conduct, which has been postponed as the pandemic rages on. Apart
from defying China’s fishing ban and using legal arguments to ask China to
comply with the UNCLOS, ASEAN countries should put aside their maritime
disputes to build an ASEAN consensus — a new regional security architecture.
It could be a “Quad-plus” arrangement, in which ASEAN countries work closely
with the United States, Japan, India, Australia, and Taiwan to thwart future
Chinese maritime expansion (Nguyen Quang Dy, 2020).In short, while not all of
the ten ASEAN countries have territorial claims in the South China Sea, these
countries as a bloc have been involved with China on managing and preventing
conflict in one of the world’s busiest waterways that is rich in natural
resources. Therefore, these states should reunite and work more closely with
each other and their allies to thwart future Chinese maritime expansion.
Peace, security, and stability in the region must be assured.References:Apriza
Pinandita, 2020. Indonesia calls for parties to exercise self-restraint in
the South China Sea amid pandemic. The Jarkata Post,  07 May. Available at: < https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/05/07/indonesia-calls-for-parties-to-exercise-self-restraint-in-south-china-sea-amid-pandemic.html
> .Drake Long, 2020. Vietnam Encourages Fishermen to Defy China South
China Sea Ban. RFA,  12 May. Available
at: <https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/vietnam-southchinasea-05122020184639.html>
.Nguyen Quang Dy, 2020. It is time for Vietnam and ASEAN to challenge Beijing
in the South China Sea. The Strategist, 
13 May. Available at: <https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/its-time-for-vietnam-and-asean-to-challenge-beijing-in-the-south-china-sea/>
.Nyshka Chandran, 2020. ASEAN stays on the sidelines as South China Sea
tensions mount. South China Morning Post, 
16 May. Available at: <https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3084647/asean-stays-sidelines-south-china-sea-tensions-mount>
.Prashanth Parameswaran, 2020. The South China Sea and the Coronavirus: New
Vietnam-China Incident Spotlights Old Realities. The Diplomat,  06 April. Available at: <https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/south-china-sea-and-the-coronavirus-new-vietnam-china-incident-spotlights-old-realities/
> .SCMP Reporter, 2019. Explainer | Explained: South China Sea
dispute. South China Morning Post,  16
February. Available at: <https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/article/2186449/explained-south-china-sea-dispute>
.Simon Osborne, 2020. Watch out, China: the US and Australia send warships
into disputed South China Sea. Express, 
22 April. Available at:<https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1272327/south-china-sea-warships-us-navy-australian-navy-china-oil-exploration>
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