Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency has invited counterparts from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam to ‘share experiences and foster brotherhood’ as the six Southeast Asian countries most affected by China’s activities in the South China Sea. The gathering next month appears to have been triggered by reports of Chinese coastguard ships harassing Indonesian oil and gas exploration.
Indonesia has long acted as if it were not involved in the South China Sea disputes but is now forced to recognize that Chinese companies and state agencies covet the oil, gas, and fish resources available off its coast, and so finds itself in the same boat as its Southeast Asian neighbours. This seems to have caused a reassessment of how to respond to China.
Back in 2020, Vietnam was forced to pay around $1 billion to international energy firms after cancelling offshore energy contracts following Chinese pressure. In 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte told journalists President Xi Jinping had warned him there would be ‘war’ if the Philippines attempted to develop a gas field off its own coast. And Malaysia and Brunei have also come under similar pressure not to develop energy resources.
They have all suffered economic costs with government budgets losing tax and licence revenues while energy companies have been obliged to buy oil and gas on the open market, develop import infrastructure, and forego export income. And some will have to expand coal-fired power generation to meet the demand for electricity, with inevitable consequences for climate change.
Fisheries are also collapsing, creating food insecurity as fishing communities are cut off from sources of income, pushing them into poverty and triggering renewed migration to already overcrowded cities.
Exploiting a 1948 line on a map
At the root of all these troubles is a line which was first printed on a Chinese map in 1948 looping around the South China Sea and stretching almost 1,500 kilometres from the Chinese coast on Hainan Island to areas just 50 kilometres off Malaysian Borneo and 100 kilometres off the Natuna Islands of Indonesia.
When this line was first drawn after World War Two, it was intended to mark a new Chinese territorial claim to the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea. But since then the China coastguard and other government agencies have acted as if it is a maritime boundary and a claim on the resources of the sea.
In 1982, almost every country in the world – including China – agreed the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to prevent and resolve maritime disputes. UNCLOS gives countries the rights to the resources in the sea up to 200 nautical miles – about 400 kilometres – from their coasts within areas called exclusive economic zones (EEZs).
But despite ratifying UNCLOS in 1996, China has been accused of violating its provisions in increasingly dramatic ways. In 2016, an International Arbitral Tribunal ruled against China on 14 out of 15 points brought by the Philippines. In the past two years, China has conducted seismic surveys in the EEZs of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, raising fears it might drill for hydrocarbons there in the future.
Until now, these countries had – publicly at least – placed their hopes in the development of a code of conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea involving China and all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The initial idea for this code emerged more than 25 years ago, but agreement has never been reached.
In 2018 Chinese premier Li Keqiang declared China was ready to ‘conclude consultations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea in three years’ time’. But since that speech, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced diplomats from China and ASEAN to agree to a one-year delay. But it is highly unlikely agreement will ever be reached.
Limits on China or the US
The ASEAN coastal states want a CoC to constrain China’s behaviour but China wants one which constrains US behaviour by banning it from military exercises in the region. Vietnam also wants the code to apply in the Paracel Islands but China says it should only apply in the Spratly Islands. The Philippines wants the Scarborough Shoal reef included in the code but China disagrees. And Singapore and the other states want the code to be ‘legally binding’ whereas China does not wish to be bound.