China’s gunboat diplomacy

by Michael Richardson

There is a saying in international diplomacy: Watch what countries do, rather than what they say.

China’s recent actions in asserting its claims to ownership and other forms of jurisdiction over about 80 percent of the South China Sea speak louder than its oft-repeated soothing words that it is not seeking hegemony. Actions in the past month include:

• Offering oil and gas exploration and production rights to Chinese and foreign partner companies in nine blocks covering just over 160,000 square kilometers of waters off Vietnam’s central coast, despite protests from Hanoi that the area belongs to Vietnam and is already under lease.

Dispatching an unusually large fishing fleet of 30 boats, escorted by a 3,000-ton patrol vessel, to part of the disputed Spratly Islands, also claimed by the Philippines.

Issuing a warning through China’s Defense Ministry that “combat-ready” Chinese naval and air patrols are ready to “protect our maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea.

With ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, divided over how to deal with China’s sweeping South China Sea claims and external powers evidently unwilling to constrain Beijing, the way is clear for further Chinese expansion.

Beijing is taking advantage of what it sees as the weakness of ASEAN, the United States, Japan and other potential sources of opposition to push its control mechanisms southward and ever deeper into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, China has clarified the extent and nature of its controversial claim to control a vast swath of the South China Sea. The official Xinhua news agency said July 19 that China has “sovereignty” over an area of 1.5 million square kilometers, stretching as far south as James Shoal, about 80 kilometers north of the coastline of Sarawak, in East Malaysia, and Brunei. The shoal is some 1,800 kilometers from the Chinese mainland.

Xinhua did not specify which areas of the South China Sea Beijing’s sovereignty covered. But they certainly include the three largest disputed archipelagos: the Paracel Islands, which China occupies despite counterclaims and protests from Vietnam; the Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal contested with the Philippines and Taiwan; and the Spratly Islands, which are claimed in full or part by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Xinhua said that in “another move to assert sovereignty”, China had last month announced it would set up a prefectural-level city, Sansha in the Paracels, to administer more than 200 islets, sandbanks and reefs in the three main island groups of the South China Sea.

On July 22, China said it would station troops at Sansha, but did not say when or how many would be based there. Beijing’s announcement that it would establish a garrison came just days after ASEAN called on all parties to resolve any conflicts in the South China Sea peacefully.

ASEAN’s statement of principles was a compromise after divisions left the group without a communique for the first time in its 45-year history at the end of a foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month.

Although the Sansha-administered zone covers a total of only 13 square km of island land, it encompasses 2 million square km of surrounding waters, according to Xinhua. Presumably, the 2 million square km of water is the full extent of Beijing’s South China Sea claim and includes territorial sea areas out to a distance of 22 km from land features, and exclusive economic zones out to 370 km, as well as the underlying seabed on the continental shelves.

This would give China authority over all the fisheries, energy resources and minerals in this maritime domain.

China says that all its recent actions are in response to moves by rival claimants, that its fishing boats are frequently harassed or seized, that Vietnam had “illegally” extended its administration over the Spratlys and Paracels and launched fighter patrols over the former, and that Southeast Asian countries have been “stealing” oil and gas in the South China Sea belonging to China since the 1970s.

After a big buildup in its military power in recent years, China is now embarking on a muscular phase of asserting its South China Sea claims. Its most recent action in sending a large fishing fleet with a para-military escort ship seems designed to confront and intimidate the Philippines and other Spratly claimants. The fleet arrived at Subi Reef on July 18 to start fishing. The reef is within the Spratly area claimed by the Philippines.

“Big fleet fishing” by China is likely to be become a key part of its extended presence in the South China Sea. But He Jianbin, chief of the state-run Baosha Fishing Corp., based on Hainan Island, wants to go further. He has urged the Chinese government to turn fishermen into militiamen to serve as a spearhead to advance China’s claims.

“If we put 5,000 Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea, there will be 100,000 fishermen,” he said in the Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party, on June 28.

“And if we make all of them militiamen, give them weapons, we will have a military force stronger than all the combined forces of all the countries in the South China Sea.”

This is gunboat diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.

What the South China Sea needs is a cooling off period in which rival claimants step back from confrontation and consider how to manage and resolve disputes peacefully, based on international law.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.