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A reality check, and tests for China, ASEAN

Tensions in the South China Sea have risen precipitously in recent weeks.

A reality check, and tests for China, ASEAN

A Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy frigate in the South China Sea, seen through the bridge binoculars on the USS Chancellorsville, on March 23. The fear of Beijing turning the South China Sea into a ‘Chinese lake’ is fast becoming a reality. Photo: The New York Times

Tensions in the South China Sea have risen precipitously in recent weeks.

Indonesia, a non-claimant state in the territorial disputes in the strategic waters, had a run-in with the Chinese Coast Guard in the waters off the Natuna Islands on March 19. The incident involved a Chinese Coast Guard ship taking aggressive actions to force the release of a Chinese fishing vessel detained by the Indonesia Coast Guard for illegal fishing. China also demanded the release of the eight-member crew in Indonesian custody. A diplomatic tussle ensued, with Chinese Embassy officials in Indonesia summoned to account for the transgression.

Barely a week after the incident, it was Malaysia’s turn to bear the brunt of Chinese actions. On March 25, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) spotted a large fishing flotilla in the vicinity of South Luconia Shoal and swiftly despatched its assets to investigate the intrusion. The Chinese ambassador was summoned to explain the violation of Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). As with the Natuna incident, Malaysia was fed the line that the Chinese vessels were in “traditional fishing grounds”.

Then, last Thursday, the Vietnam Coast Guard seized a Chinese vessel in its territorial waters. The captain of the Chinese ship was reported to have admitted that the ship was carrying fuel meant for Chinese fishing boats operating in Vietnamese waters.

These developments cast a spotlight on China’s unbending attitude to assert what Beijing considers as its historical right over as well as its ambitions in the South China Sea. In claiming part or all of the Natuna Islands’ EEZ as Chinese traditional fishing grounds, China is asserting that all the waters within the nine-dash line are under Chinese control. The fear of Beijing turning the South China Sea into a “Chinese lake” is fast becoming a reality.

Claims of historic right and “traditional fishing grounds” are questionable under international law. But when such claims are for exclusive access for one’s own nationals — such as in the case of the Chinese fishermen in the Natuna and Luconia incidents — and backed up with armed Coast Guard ships, they leave ASEAN questioning China’s strategic intentions.

China’s actions are bewildering. Beijing appears to be nonchalant at stoking anxieties and concerns among ASEAN’s littoral states just as it marks the 25th year of dialogue relations with ASEAN. It would be a grave mistake to sweep the latest round of transgressions under the carpet, in the name of diplomatic niceties, just as it would be a misjudgment for China to assume that the littoral states do not have the temerity to stand their ground.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have responded to China’s intrusions with a mixture of resolve and disquiet. However, summoning Chinese diplomatic officers will not lead to the withdrawal of the Chinese fishing fleets from the Indonesian, Malaysian and Vietnamese EEZs. In fact, China will likely respond with grit, flexing its substantive para-military power by expanding the Coast Guards’ escort and protection missions for its fishing fleets throughout the South China Sea.

Parallel to the diplomatic efforts to manage the situation, ASEAN and China should establish a protocol to respond to contingencies at sea in order to minimise damage to the overarching bilateral ties. The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), inked by 21 countries at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea between the signatories, could form the basis of a regional framework to defuse tensions.

The fact that China and all ASEAN member states, with the exception of Laos and Myanmar, are parties to CUES points to its usefulness as a starting point to think of a “regional CUES”. A South China Sea CUES should be expanded to include Coast Guards and enforcement agencies as they play an outsized role in these waters.

China’s instinctive reaction to the proposal will likely be to bury the initiative under a heap of “discussions”, as it has done in the COC negotiations. But Beijing can win over sceptics with a positive response to signal its sincerity to narrowing the growing trust deficit with ASEAN.


The Natuna incident was a reality check for Indonesia, which can no longer live under the facade of detachment from the South China Sea disputes. This may prove to be a blessing for the region, as Indonesia’s active participation in the issue will provide much needed leadership and strategic weight to bolster ASEAN’s position.

ASEAN states cannot afford to adopt a wait-and-see attitude and leave the future of ASEAN-China relations to chance. Indonesia, working with like-minded ASEAN partners, should reach out to China for heart-to-heart discussions in order to manage and arrest rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Singapore is also uniquely positioned to play an important role as the dialogue coordinator for ASEAN-China relations for the next three years. The division of labour between the ASEAN Chair, whose primary role is to tend to its chairmanship duties, and the dialogue coordinator, who is delegated to manage ASEAN’s relations with China, will ensure one of ASEAN’s most important bilateral relations is given the attention it requires.

The biggest challenge for ASEAN’s littoral states is to channel all their insecurities, anxieties and disappointment of China into a collective voice — not to confront Beijing, but to engage it in frank and sincere strategic discussions on preserving peace and stability in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is a test on two fronts. It not only tests ASEAN’s ability to rise to the occasion to manage regional security, but is also a test of China’s commitment to being a productive and positive security partner for ASEAN. Neither could afford to fail any of these tests.


Dr Tang Siew Mun heads the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Lead Researcher for Political and Security Affairs at the same centre.

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