As China pretends to negotiate, it has continued single-mindedly to capture, consolidate and arm the disputed islets. AFP Photo
The Southeast Asian countries have finally realised the futility of expecting that the long-delayed code of conduct would check China’s predatory designs in the region. As China pretends to negotiate, it has continued single-mindedly to capture, consolidate and arm the disputed islets, trampling on the sovereignty of Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
At Asean’s recent Hanoi summit, held virtually, Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc warned that the "international situation and international law have been seriously challenged during the global crisis". Pointing a finger at China, he said: "While the entire world is stretched thin in the fight against the pandemic, irresponsible acts in violation of international law are still taking place, affecting security and stability in certain regions, including our region."
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte added: "As our region struggles to contain Covid-19, alarming incidents occurred in the South China Sea… We call on parties to refrain from escalating tensions and abide by (their) responsibilities under international law."
Both Vietnam and the Philippines had protested in April against China’s unilateral creation of new administrative districts on islands on which both Vietnam and the Philippines have long-standing rights and claims.
Vietnam was further aggrieved as one of its fishing boats was sunk by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel in April.
Asean’s June 27 statement unambiguously declared "the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones." China and all 10 Asean members are signatories to the UN Convention on Law of the Seas.
The leaders stressed the importance of "freedom of overflights" over SCS, making their position clear in case of any ill-advised Chinese attempt to declare any Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the area.
In 2013, China declared an ADIZ over vast tracts of the East China Sea, which was contested by several nations, including the United States, Japan and South Korea.
In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian arrogantly declared that "every country has the right to establish an ADIZ", and said: "In the light of air security threats China faces over SCS waters, China will carefully and prudently study the relevant issues, taking into account all factors."
These statements signal a stiffening of Asean leaders’ spine in challenging China’s exaggerated and untenable claims in the SCS.
The Asean leaders also expressed concern over the land reclamations and serious incidents in SCS which "have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region".
Indonesia is also upset over China’s increasingly aggressive claims around its Natuna Islands and complained to the UN in May that its economic interests were jeopardised by China’s claims and 9-dash line.
When China responded by inviting Indonesia to negotiate what it called "overlapping claims of maritime rights and interests" , Indonesia replied to the UN on June 12, rightly stressing "there was no reason to negotiate as Jakarta had no overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea".
Importantly, Philippines President Duterte’s policy towards the United States is undergoing a 180-degree turn under the unrelenting cartographic, administrative and physical onslaught of China on Philippines’ maritime territory and EEZ.
President Duterte was very unhappy with US criticism of his government’s human rights record, and last February he had decided to terminate the "Visiting Forces Agreement" with the US, central to US troop deployments in the Philippines. However, in early June, its foreign minister said this move was suspended "due to political and other developments in the region". Thus, President Duterte’s policy of downgrading US ties has for now been halted.
It should be recalled that in July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration under UNCLOS at The Hague had clearly ruled in the Philippines’ favour that China had no historical rights based on 9-dash line map and upheld the Philippines’ claims on Scarborough Shoal. However, China rejected this award even as China is a signatory to UNCLOS.
Strangely, after his election later in the year, President Duterte did not press for the implementation of this award and adopted a course of friendship towards China. President Duterte has now realised the folly of extending an olive branch to China.
The Philippines’ reconsideration of the merits of its strong defence ties with the US was the result of continued Chinese provocations. A Chinese fishing fleet recently sailed near a Philippines-occupied islet and a Chinese survey vessel also came towards the area. In China’s book of creeping aggression, its fishing boats and survey vessels form the vanguard.
It is significant that at present three US Navy aircraft-carriers are patrolling the Indo-Pacific region -- USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea on July 4-5 and are deployed in the Western Pacific. Since March, the US Navy had four sailings in the SCS, asserting its right of navigation.
At the virtual "Brussels Forum 2020" on June 26, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the US was reviewing its global deployment of forces to ensure that it is "postured appropriately" to counter the rising Chinese military threat to countries like India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
On June 25, in a rare briefing for the foreign media, Japanese defence minister Tara Kono emphasised the need to watch China’s military capabilities and intentions across Asia.
China’s pre-meditated aggression all around its neighbourhood is a matter of deep concern. Its exaggerated unilateral territorial claims based on Orwellian lies need to be robustly contested by its aggrieved neighbours from the Asean members to India, and must be supported by all regional and global powers.