The South China Sea: at the heart of nationalistic waves

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By Michel Struharova

The South China Sea has found itself at the heart of increasing nationalistic waves. China’s economic might and inchoate geopolitical influence on South-east Asia has given China the leverage to flaunt its nascent military prowess in defending its national interest overseas—albeit at the extent of other countries’ territorial sovereignty.

On March 19 2016, a patrol boat from the Indonesian Ministry of Fishery and Marine Affairs (KKP) seized a Chinese fishing Boat—Kway Fey that was fishing illegally in the waters near the resource-rich Natuna islands. China’s infamous reputation for using fishermen as proxies to enforce its nine-dash line historical territorial claims has made such occurrences of illegal fishing outside its territorial waters no longer a novel occurrence. The Diplomat reports that despite the sensationalism of Indonesia’s latest spat with China, the world largest archipelagic state has long been miffed at the illegal fishing by its Asian neighbours including China—a violation of its sovereignty and pilfering of maritime resources.

Aggravating the territorial transgression, a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed Kway Fey into open water, forcing the KKP patrol boat to stop near the limits of Indonesian territorial waters. What seemed as a barbaric attempt to stop Kway Fey from being seized by Indonesian authorities was masqueraded by Chinese media as an assistance of a Chinese fishing vessel “being attacked in traditional Chinese fishing grounds”. Bounded by the Law of the Sea and in consideration of avoiding a diplomatic spat there and then, the Indonesia patrol boat did not manage to detain Kway Fey, but did transfer all of its crew onto the Indonesia patrol boat prior to the Chinese coast guard intervention.

Sink the vessel’ policy:

The incident sparked a notable change in Indonesia’s attitude towards Chinese military indiscretions. Deviating away from its official tendency to downplay maritime misdemeanors, Jakarta has written a diplomatic note to China, on top of summoning Chinese ambassador to Indonesia to meet with Minister Susi Pudjiastuti of the KKP. Minister Pudjiastuti takes a hardline stance against illegal fishing in Indonesia’s territorial waters. The highly public sinking of foreign fishing vessels reflects Indonesia’s inchoate grit to stand up to China’s intimidation.

Despite President Joko Widodo’s recent public rejection of China’s nine-dash line claims, Indonesia continues to maintain the role of an “honest-broker”. Indonesia is not a claimant state to China’s South China Sea disputes, and both countries have openly acknowledged Indonesian sovereignty over the Natuna islands. Indonesian Presidential PhD Scholar Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto posits that Indonesia’s somewhat conflicting message appears to reflect a hedging strategy to tread simultaneously accommodate and confront China’s rise. China and Indonesia tread a fine line, omitting any formal proclamation as to whether China’s nine-dash line claims of the South China Sea infringes into the waters of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Following the incident, Indonesian authorities have again called for a military base to be set up in Natuna Islands. “The development of a military base on Natuna Islands is important for the defence system in the central region of Indonesia, which shares its borders with many countries in the South China Sea,” Mahfudz Siddiq, the chairman of a House committee on defence and foreign affairs, was quoted by Antara. The plan to for military bases in the Natunas has been made known since July 2015. Although it is not yet clear how the base will look like, The Sunday Times reports that panel’s deputy chairman T.B. Hasanudin said the base may not be necessarily a spot “where military personnel are placed in a particular location ready to be deployed but rather a redisposition of forces”.

China to challenge the sanctity of UNCLOS:

China lays claims to a large swathe of the South China Sea—a key conduit for global trade estimated at US$5 trillion a year. While Indonesia, unlike many of its ASEAN partners, is not a claimant of the islands in disputes, ASEAN nations are especially concerned about the possible impingement of the freedom of navigation across such a crucial route for ship-borne commerce.

What used to be a territorial dispute between China and its smaller ASEAN neighbours has now morphed into a geopolitical struggle for regional influence—given China and US’s pivot towards South-east Asia’s exponential economic possibilities, and China’s need to maintain harmony in the region in order to accommodate Chinese ascent to power.

The speed and scale of China’s land reclamation in contested waters dwarfs that of any other claimant of the contested islands. Experts aver that it is now more urgent than ever for China to complete its (unlawful) reclamation of land around the South China Sea, given that the UN Arbitral Tribunal will pass its ruling on the Spratly Island disputes behind China and the Philippines in the months to come, and may throw a curveball in Chinese plans for what seems to be global hegemony.  China continues to maintain its stance of non-interference and does not intend to accept the ruling of the International Court of Justice—a prerogative that it has the right to, given the ICJ’s “voluntary acceptance” clause which allows states to reject the ICJ ruling.