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By Dr. Celia Lamkin
In the past, the situation in the South China Sea seemed to be “quiet”, but in fact, there are many underground waves because there are many hot spots in the world, so the public’s attention to the situation in the South China Sea is relatively small. to other places around the world.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has a major impact on Southeast Asian countries, especially those directly involved in the South China Sea dispute. These countries fear that the conflict in Eastern Europe will spread to Southeast Asia. They are skeptical and fear the possibility of a similar conflict taking place in the South China Sea region.
In addition, the relationship between the two biggest powers in the world, the US and China, is very tense, especially after the recent hot-air balloon event. The two have also deployed large forces in the South China Sea, leading to the threat of war looming over the Taiwan Strait.
All these issues affect the situation in the South China Sea, and the year 2023 sees the situation in the South China Sea getting warmer day by day.
In early January of this year, the Indonesian government approved the exploration of natural gas from the Tuna Block, part of the largest untapped natural gas field in the world. The Indonesian side said that the Tuna gas field is completely located in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of this country.
However, China insists that this Tuna Block gas field is within the so-called “nine-dash line” that China has laid down to claim its sovereignty. Beijing sent a note of protest to Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and put up a show of force in the field by sending civilian ships and the coast guard to the exploration area with the aim of threatening the target. The Indonesian Navy responded by sending several ships to these waters.
Despite many criticisms from the international community because this “nine-dash line” has no legal basis, and violates international law and UNCLOS 1982, and furthermore, the Arbitral Tribunal in the case of the Philippines against China has -issued an Award on July 12, 2016 , thereby rejecting the so-called “historical rights” of this “nine dash line”, China has not given up on the ambition to “seize the South China Sea.”
China has deployed similar tactics to threaten and gray zone other Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea region. China continues to harass Malaysia over the Kawasari mine site, in the state of Sarawak.
Ray Powell, a retired colonel of the US Air Force, and a researcher specializing in monitoring the activities of Chinese ships wrote on Twitter that from June 21, 2023, the examination of the Haiyan Dizhi Ba Hao of China and its escort Coast Guard 5202 progressed to Luconia Shoal located within Malaysia’s EEZ.
Earlier, the survey vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10 and a flotilla of escort vessels violated Vietnam’s EEZ for 28 days, prompting the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson to protest.
In April 2023, tensions continued between the Philippines and China near Ayungin Shoal, or Second Thomas Shoal.
In September and October 2022, China sent a support fleet and militia ships to prevent oil and gas exploration in this area. Previously, in June 2022, Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels prevented the Philippine military from approaching the outpost, BRP Sierra Madre, in Second Thomas Shoal.
On February 6, 2023, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) reported that a Chinese coast guard ship shone a laser at a Philippine ship in the Second Thomas Shoal area, temporarily blinding the Filipinos on board.
On February 14, 2023, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to express “deep concern” about the event. The spokesperson of the President of the Philippines also stated that President Marcos Jr. expressed opposition to Ambassador Huang Xilian regarding “the increasing frequency and intensity of China’s actions against the Philippine Coast Guard and our Filipino fishermen..”
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price confirmed that the US sided with the Philippines in this case. Ned Price said: “The conduct of the PRC was provocative and unsafe, resulting in the temporary blindness of the crew of the BRP Malapascua and interference with the lawful operations of the Philippines in and around the Second Thomas Shoal. More broadly, the PRC’s dangerous operational behavior directly threatens the peace and stability of the region, violates the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea guaranteed under international law, and undermines the international order based on of the rules.”
In 2022 alone, the Philippines filed nearly 200 notes protesting China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.
China has recently set up supermarkets on the surface of military bases on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef, which are three parts of the Spratly Islands illegally occupied by China.
According to the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a Washington-based think tank, China has reclaimed seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, creating more than 3,200 hectares of new land since 2013. Beijing says it has halted land reclamation in the disputed waters, but China is reportedly continuing to fortify the islands with advanced military bases as well as missile systems, radars, roads, ice, and jet fighters. Some observers view China’s strengthening of these areas as China’s attempt to create an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for its air and sea forces in the South China Sea. US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John C. Aquilino said in March 2022 that three of China’s artificial islands – Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef – appear to be fully militarized and equipped with missile systems as well fighter aircraft. In addition, in December 2022, Bloomberg reported that China is building artificial islands in parts of Eldad Reef, Lankiam Cay, Whitsun Reef, and Sandy Cay.
It is because of such aggressive actions and threats of force that the people of Southeast Asia are disillusioned and have a bad attitude towards China.
According to the survey report on the state of Southeast Asia in 2023 which was recently published by the ASEAN Research Center of the Yusof Ishak Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore (ISEAS), when the views of Southeast Asian leaders were examined in various -other regional policy issues, only 26.8% of respondents trust China to “do the right thing.” Among the respondents who do not trust China, half of them believe that China has used its economic and military power “to threaten the interests and sovereignty of my country”.
The recent completion of the EEZ delimitation agreement between Vietnam and Indonesia shows that the dispute in the South China Sea can be fully resolved through peaceful means if the parties to the conflict seriously adhere to international law and UNCLOS.
In the current complex context of the South China Sea, full respect and compliance with UNCLOS will play an even more important role in maintaining peace, stability, security, safety, and freedom of navigation in the region. It is important for all countries to respect the principle of the rule of law in the seas and oceans, respect the diplomatic and legal processes as well as ongoing negotiations, and avoid violent actions, and behavior to undermine and diminish the role of UNCLOS.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is considered the constitution of the sea, is very clear on almost everything related to the sea. Coastal states have a territorial sea that extends 12 nautical miles from their coasts. So are the islands. Countries also have resource zones that extend at least 200 nautical miles, dedicated solely to the capture, exploitation, and harvesting of deep-sea resources.
The main problem is that China, despite being a party to UNCLOS, ignores these provisions.
China is exercising regional “rising power” over marine resources by preventing Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines from developing their oil and gas fields unless they accept Beijing’s terms. China’s aggressive actions at sea have opened the door for other countries to reject the rule of law, leading to a world where international law has nothing to do with the sea. China backs up its maritime claims with a navy, coast guard, and maritime militia.
With such aggressive actions, violating international law, most people in ASEAN doubt China’s good will in negotiating the Code of Conduct (COC). Can a great power like China say one thing and make another such a reliable partner sign a code of conduct in the South China Sea?
About the author: Dr. Celia Lamkin is the founder and global chairperson of the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea (NYMWPS), a peaceful, non-partisan, and transglobal organization that promotes the preservation of Philippine sovereignty and territory. integrity
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