[By Michael Heazle]
Five and a half years after the international arbitral tribunal rejected China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea in July 2016, the international maritime order in East Asia is clearly in trouble. China continues to consolidate its control over the Paracel Islands and most of the Spratley group and increases its encroachments on the recognized exclusive economic zones of most states bordering the South China Sea with relative impunity. The Philippines and Vietnam in particular have suffered numerous Chinese incursions, and Indonesia’s Natuna Islands and more recently Malaysia’s EEZ have been targeted in China’s attempt to control the southern waters of the First Island Chain.
The region’s maritime order under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is central to the rules-based order that Australia, India, Japan, the United States (the Quad) and other like-minded states see it as essential to regional security and prosperity. Yet China’s gray area tactics continue, weakening the authority and relevance of UNCLOS in the absence of a coordinated and unified regional position supporting its rules and authority both in principle and in principle. convenient.
The wider regional implications of China continuing to unilaterally impose its own maritime laws on other states, denying them fishing and other maritime rights, provide compelling reasons for the Quad states, and others , to work harder to ensure that the rights and entitlements of all South China Sea littoral states under UNCLOS are protected. The threats include not only a further erosion of the authority and legitimacy of the rules-based order, perhaps to an irreparable degree, but also a significant increase in Beijing’s political and economic influence over the many Southeast Asian states that continue to depend on fisheries, energy and other sovereign rights that China seeks to control.
Allowing Beijing to further expand its already significant presence and influence in the South China Sea would make it much more difficult for Australia, Japan and the United States to build regional diplomatic support against China’s actions in the South China Sea. southern China and elsewhere, making conflict in the region more likely by major military forces.
ASEAN’s role in disputes remains hampered by internal divisions over its responsibility as a regional institution for the protection of individual states’ maritime rights, despite its various statements claiming that UNCLOS is the basis for resolving disputes over maritime rights. Many ASEAN members fear the consequences of being forced to choose between the United States and China, as ASEAN is marginalized by great power politics in its own backyard and the region becomes more militarized and prone to conflict.
The absence of a unified ASEAN position and response to China’s demands is also explained by the fact that member states are not directly affected by the disputes in the South China Sea or whose elites policies and trade prioritize the benefits of not upsetting Beijing. The fact that rival maritime claimants within ASEAN had conflicting interpretations of UNCLOS provisions was an additional obstacle to the development of a common ASEAN position.
But signs of greater willingness to cooperate on maritime law enforcement and other maritime issues, encouraged by Beijing’s aggressive behavior, are beginning to appear among ASEAN’s bordering states. An agreement between Indonesia and the Philippines on their overlapping EEZs in the Celebes Sea was ratified by the two governments in 2014. Vietnam and Malaysia plan to sign a memorandum of understanding on security cooperation dealing with several issues, including illegal Vietnamese fishing in Malaysian waters. . Vietnam and Indonesia, meanwhile, are continuing negotiations to establish provisional borders in overlapping areas of their claimed EEZs in the North Natuna Sea; in December last year, the two nations signed a memorandum pledging to improve maritime safety and security cooperation.
These bilateral agreements should be interpreted both as an affirmation of the parties’ maritime rights and as a clear rejection of China’s illegal “nine-dash line” claims.
Beijing’s deployment of militia vessels for sea fishing exposes them to suspicion of illegal fishing and therefore also to legitimate maritime law enforcement actions under UNCLOS. The long-standing problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the South China Sea may therefore present a significant opportunity for the South China Sea states most threatened by China’s illegal maritime claims – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia – to collectively develop, with increased capacity building and regulatory support from the Quad states, a non-military UNCLOS-based means to push back claims and tactics of China’s gray area.
This will ensure that regional, rather than external, actors take the lead in defending and asserting maritime rights. It will also provide a broad and unambiguous assertion of the authority and relevance of UNCLOS and impose responsibility for any military escalation on China by imposing gray area dilemmas on the Chinese leadership, especially in terms of calculations. conflict threshold.
Besides the geostrategic threat posed by a Chinese takeover of the South China Sea, the alternative to cooperative EEZ regulation and better maritime law enforcement is a Chinese-controlled South China Sea. This would extinguish the resources and freedom of navigation rights of all other states and render any plan for cooperative or multilateral management (eg through a regional fisheries management organization) of these resources and rights redundant. The risk of a catastrophic collapse of the region’s greatest fishery resource due to Chinese mismanagement, increased competition and conflict, or both, would increase dramatically. Such an outcome would most likely mean more illegal fishing in the already depleted waters of Southeast Asia and in the EEZs of other states, including Australia and Japan.
By collectively supporting the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia in their efforts to more effectively regulate and monitor fishing and other maritime activities, the Quad states can indirectly push back against China’s gray zone encroachments while helping coastal states better manage a long-standing problem. threat to the socio-economic security and future prosperity of the region.
Michael Heazle is an assistant professor at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University and teaches international relations at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
This article appears courtesy of The Strategist and can be found in its original form here.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.