Ambassador John Hennessey-Niland
As the world appropriately focuses on the fight against COVID-19, the People’s Republic of China has in fact increased its bullying campaign including in the South China Sea. There are lessons here for this region that apply far beyond the Western Pacific. Because when Beijing uses coercion, subversion, disinformation, and other underhanded tactics in the South China Sea, it is drawing on a playbook it increasingly deploys worldwide.
Recently, during the global pandemic, on April 1, Beijing declared a new maritime law enforcement campaign called “Blue Sea 2020.” Its announced purpose was to “enhance marine environmental protection,” but its real purpose was suggested a day later, when a PRC ship sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel. Beijing has also bolstered its military bases in the contested Spratlys with new aircraft deployments, and “research stations,” dispatched an energy survey vessel and armed flotilla to intimidate Malaysian offshore oil and gas work, and provoked Indonesia by sending hundreds of fishing boats and escorts into waters off its Natuna Island.
Beijing warned that anyone questioning its ridiculous claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea is “doomed to fail.”
These actions fit a pattern. Where the PRC goes, it can increasingly be expected to flout the rules, make up its own facts, and break its promises.
Southeast Asian Leaders issued a strong statement at the June 26 ASEAN Summit that South China Sea disputes must be resolved in line with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The message was timely, given the July 12 anniversary of the powerful 2016 ruling by the South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal which rejected Beijing’s overweening maritime maritime claim as a violation of international law. The PRC, as party to UNCLOS, was obligated to comply, but dismissed the ruling as a “scrap of paper.” Beijing meanwhile put advanced missiles and aircraft on contested outposts in the Spratlys, in clear violation of Xi Jinping’s 2015 pledge to a White House press conference not to militarize these features.
Beijing’s conduct in the South China Sea reflects its complete disregard for the sovereign rights of other nations. Its arbitrary fishing bans and harassment of ships at sea block Southeast Asian nations from accessing the resources off their coasts, including some $2.5 trillion in oil and gas
and some of the world’s richest fisheries. This is the patrimony of Southeast Asian nations, the lifeblood of their coastal communities, and the livelihood of millions of their citizens.
In 2010, Beijing’s top diplomat thundered at his Southeast Asian counterparts: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” For the decade since, this has been Beijing’s mindset toward the South China Sea and, increasingly, the rest of the world.
All this shows what they think of multilateralism. Yang Jiechi made his comment at an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, after all, which is meant to foster cooperation among countries irrespective of military or economic power. This sort of subversion of multilateral forums and the principles they are meant to uphold – free and fair trade, transparency, openness, respect for rule of law – are also seen in Beijing’s actions toward the World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, Interpol, and the UN.
And just as Beijing used trade coercion against Manila’s pursuit of arbitration over the South China Sea by letting Philippine agricultural imports rot on Chinese docks, so it used sanctions against Norway for the Nobel Committee’s awarding of its Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, and against South Korea for deploying the THAAD missile defense system to strengthen its deterrence vis a vis North Korea.
Ultimately Beijing believes in “might-makes-right,” not compromise, and certainly not pluralism or diversity. We all need to stand against it, lest countries and communities worldwide face the harm Beijing has perpetrated closer to home. In the South China Sea and elsewhere, we must support a free and open rules-based order that upholds the sovereign rights of all states regardless of size, power, and military capabilities. All nations that share this vision should be not only alarmed at what is happening in the South China Sea, but also be vocal and visible.
Speak out against bullying. Counter Beijing’s devastating environmental destruction. Support the rights of Southeast Asian maritime claimants. Expand trade and investment ties with partners that can be trusted. Exercise freedom of navigation in international waters and airways
The PRC’s behavior in the South China Sea is a preview of the type of global order Beijing wants to bring forward. The world cannot afford to stay silent.