The month of April has witnessed escalations in the South China Sea territorial dispute between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This has occurred despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently, China has named and effectively claimed 80 geographical features along one of the world’s busiest trade routes. According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), this includes “25 islands, shoals and reefs, and 55 undersea mountains and ridges”. It has sparked controversy, particularly with Vietnam. This is, at least in part, because 13 of these reefs are found in the West Reef, which Vietnam currently occupies. Tensions followed announcements on Sunday, 19 April, asserting that China had established two new administrative districts. These are on the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which Vietnam and Taiwan claim.
Responding to China’s latest activities in the long-disputed South China Sea, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Le Thi Thu Hang, issued a statement. She protested that the move had “seriously violated” Vietnam’s sovereignty. Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) described the move to name these features as being unusual and possibly in breach of international law. Director of the University of the Philippines College of Law’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, Jay Batongbacal agreed. He said: “The act of surveying and naming underwater features as part of a marine scientific research activity cannot be made the basis of any claim to any part of the marine environment.” These claims are substantiated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states: “Nations cannot claim sovereignty over an underwater feature unless it is within 12 nautical miles of a land feature.”
In the past, China has not only named these geographical features. According to the SCMP, it has also “added more than 1,300 hectares to islands, reefs and atolls primarily on the Spratly archipelago”. Vietnam has followed suit. These land reclamation projects have increasingly seen damage to shallow-water ecosystems and undermined multibillion-dollar fishing industries. Aside from UN Environmental Programmes and multilateral scientific cooperative activities (such as the Joint Oceanographic Marine Science Research Expedition from 1996-2007), the environmental dimension to the territorial dispute has largely gone unnoticed.
Yan Yan, Director of the Chinese Research Centre of Oceans Law and Policy in the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, has defended their decision. He suggested that Beijing was “merely exercising its sovereign right” directing attention to Vietnam and Malaysia who have been “drilling oil in the disputed water”. There is some truth to this. An exploration vessel operated by Petronas (Malaysia’s state oil company) was found by a Chinese government surveillance ship on 17 April. Meanwhile, the SCMP claims Vietnam has steadily deployed more “maritime forces, comprising naval, coastguard and law enforcement vessels”. It has also deployed more fishing boat militia over the past month in response to China’s 21 million fishers and 439,000 motorboats present in the area.
To say that these actions were unprovoked, however, would be inaccurate. China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 (the government surveillance ship in question) which had entered Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone on Thursday, was at one point, flanked by more than 10 Chinese vessels. SCMP claims that these were “belonging to maritime militia and the coastguard”. However, Malaysian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hishammuddin Hussein, called for all parties to “work together to maintain peace”. According to Poling, “The stand-off was the latest development in a series of targeted harassments by Chinese vessels of drilling operations in five oil blocks [headed by Petronas and Royal Dutch Shell] off the Malaysian coast in the past year.”
Aside from this, a Chinese coast guard ship and a Vietnamese fishing vessel had collided on 2 April near the Paracel Islands. This caused a Vietnamese fishing boat to sink, with both sides denying responsibility. Vietnam, however, has the support of the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Department. They were reminded of an event in June 2019. In this incident “22 Filipino fishers were left floating in the high seas last June when a Chinese vessel rammed and sank their boat at Reed Bank.” The Hague had ruled the Reed Bank as the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in 2016.
China, however, has a history of ignoring The Hague’s verdicts. This continues to be the case with China laying claim to roughly 90 per cent of the sea. This continues despite a ruling determining that China’s claims to much of the South China Sea had no legal basis in 2016. The resurgence of activity along the waters, particularly during these unprecedented times, has prompted global questioning. Whilst China practices “coronavirus diplomacy”, according to the United States’ National Public Radio, they are continuing to make territorial claims. Involved countries are currently preoccupied with their own COVID-19 cases and are unable to stand in opposition. These include Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as the U.S. Navy (which typically conducts freedom of navigation exercises).
It might be some time before we see any progress amongst the disputants. Talks between China and ASEAN, regarding the Code of Conduct along the waters as earlier discussed in August 2018, has largely come to a stalemate. It is crucial that attention continues to be drawn to each country’s actions. The United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo noted, “The US strongly opposes China’s bullying and we hope other nations will hold them to account too.”
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