The South China Sea (SCS) has been a potential flashpoint between China and many countries in the ASEAN region. By trying to dominate the region through its maritime misadventures China has been extremely successful in antagonising many Asian states like Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Chinese naval vessels and fishing boats trespass into the territorial waters of many of these countries very much on a daily basis. For these countries, the dispute has been a key point of discontent with China. As recently as last month USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz conducted air exercises in the South China Sea region to show solidarity with its regional allies. The US has been vociferous in its rejection of China’s claims over an area of 1.4 million square miles in the South China Sea.
It is in this context that the recent visit of Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines needs to be seen as a new and interesting development. This is amidst rising anti-China sentiment across the world and an escalating trade war between the country and the US. The following are a few interesting details that emerged out of the rapid-fire visit:
Indonesia. A call to have intense dialogues
Wei Fenghe met his Indonesian counterpart, Prabowo Subianto, to discuss the South China Sea dispute and bilateral efforts against COVID-19. Even though both countries cooperate on many fronts, the differences were evident when a spokesperson from the Indonesian side reiterated the need for ‘intense dialogue’ to maintain peace in the region. Indonesia is not a large party to the South China Sea dispute, but China claims parts of the SCS that fall under Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Earlier this year Indonesia had protested diplomatically against Chinese fishing boats operating from Natuna islands, an archipelago of 272 islands located in the southern part of the South China Sea.
Malaysia. High profile visit with low coverage
The Malaysian leg of the visit saw the Defence Minister meeting Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to discuss bilateral cooperation in the sphere of defence, economy, trade, and education. Local officials noted that the visit was not highlighted too much by the country’s media outlets. Malaysian state news agency Bernama and state broadcaster RTM were among the leading names that didn’t cover the event.
News sources also reported about Chinese Coast Guard ships patrolling near Luconia Shoals which fall under Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. In July 2020, Malaysia’s National Audit Department had reported that between 2016 and 2019 Chinese ships had entered Malaysian waters no less than 89 times.
Philippines. A carrot with many sticks
The Philippines has been among the most vociferous critics of China in recent years. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines had started warming up to a closer relationship with China, but the country’s persistent disregard for international laws has seen the Philippines backing away from developing the relationship further. Philippines had challenged China’s claims in the SCS and had successfully won a decision in its favour at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague. Immediately after the Tribunal delivered its judgement, China unilaterally declared that it won’t abide by the ruling. Less than two weeks ago, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui reiterated China’s reaction to the ruling while speaking at an international forum on the South China Sea.
During the visit Fenghe met President Rodrigo Duterte who emphasized that disputes “must be resolved peacefully in full accord with the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and other international instruments,”. Wei Fenghe also met his Philippine counterpart, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who stressed on the Philippines’ adherence to the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal award “without any possibility of compromise or change.”
The statement however was withdrawn and replaced with another version later. In what can be seen only as the carrots and sticks approach, China pledged to donate non-combat equipment worth US$20 million to the Philippines during the visit. This was on top of gifts including engineering equipment, medical supplies and personal protective equipment worth US$30 Million China has provided to the Philippines in recent times.
Brunei. Uneventful as expected
The meeting of Wei Fenghe with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah was largely covered as an uneventful one in the local media, where both parties agreed to deepen the strategic cooperative partnership to maintain peace in the region. Considering the high level of censorship present in the local media, the details of the meeting are largely unavailable.
Feeling the heat on the high seas
For many years now, many ASEAN countries have been individually battling China’s aggression in the South China Sea. The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as the tipping point after which many countries in the region have been more vocal about Chinese transgressions. The latest high level visit might be a band-aid on the increasing global pressure on China due to its continued maritime aggression in the region. Even though China wants to project these visits as an attempt to meet these countries half-way, many experts are unconvinced with China’s sudden change of heart. They note that this might not be an exercise to signal peace but emphasises more on China’s rise as a regional and international power. The SCS dispute dominated headlines even during the recently concluded 53rd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting where some ministers expressed concerns about ‘land reclamations, activities, and serious incidents in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.’