Beyond the constant strife with the U.S., China’s assertion of global powers runs into increasing resistance even by normally acquiescent Asian nations.
While President Trump bluffs and blusters in his “trade war” with China,
a serious challenge to China’s strategic ambitions has surfaced within Asia itself.
Standing up to China can work
On January 8, the normally cautious Indonesian government ordered
Indonesian naval vessels into the area and dispatched fighter planes to
patrol it. In response, the Chinese fishing fleet is reported to have
This action occurred after repeated complaints that Chinese fishing
vessels protected by its Coastguard vessels were constantly intruding
into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The area in question is located off Indonesia’s Natuna islands in the
south eastern part of the South China Sea. To underscore Indonesia’s
sense of sovereignty, President Widodo himself had visited the islands.
China’s maritime imperialism
Predictably enough, China alleges that these waters, though nearly
1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland, have traditionally been fished by
Chinese. The PRC also claims that the Indonesian waters fall within the infamous nine-dash line.
China uses it as a prop to legitimize its huge sea claims. That line
is based on a curious combination of fictional history and China’s
traditional disdain for supposedly tributary peoples.
Widodo emphasized that he was not trying to provoke China. Nor, he
said, was there anything to negotiate with the Chinese. Indonesia’s
rights to a 200-mile EEZ from its archipelago baseline are well
established in international law.
Widodo has been encouraged to take a firmer stance than the norm for
his country’s ever-so-polite diplomats by his chief of staff Moeldoko,
former armed forces commander, and by Indonesia’s neighbouring
Undoubtedly, this recent episode will not be the end of the matter.
But it is the latest sign that the littoral states of the South China
Sea are informally coordinating their efforts to check China’s claims to
most of the sea.
They are acting fully within their rights, as the majority of the
South China Sea falls within the Exclusive Economic Zones of Vietnam,
the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Malaysia also stepping up
In December 2019, Malaysia filed the specifics of a claim to the
United Nations Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf in respect
of its EEZ between its Borneo coast and southeast Vietnam.
Asserting its rights in this regard was, in fact, nothing very new.
Malaysia and Vietnam had jointly submitted an outline claim back in
2009. However, Beijing chose to respond sharply to this slight
challenge to its maritime imperialism.
Malaysia’s timing was significant, coming shortly before January 1
when Vietnam assumed a one-year chairmanship of the Association of South
East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
It may also have reflected the anger of Malaysian prime minister
Mahathir Mohamad at the kowtowing to China pursued by his predecessor
Najib Razak. The latter had sought Chinese money to bail-out the
multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal for which he is now standing trial.
Resistance fighter Vietnam
Of all the littoral nations in the South China Sea, Vietnam has been
the most stalwart in resisting Chinese claims, sometimes with force.
Now, it will seek to use its ASEAN position to focus on the sea issue
and the effort to agree a Code of Conduct which would provide some
protection against China’s overwhelming force.
Such an effort has been under discussion for almost two decades and a
code without specifics or a dispute resolution mechanism is almost
China vs. ASEAN
China for its part keeps talking, but it has no intention of agreeing
to anything which limits its demand that disputes be settled on a
bilateral basis. As for ASEAN, the sad truth is that it can never reach a
consensus. Cambodia and Laos are in China’s pocket and Myanmar and
Thailand not engaged on the topic.
Thus, Vietnam’s hope must be to show the importance of joint action
by the concerned members, perhaps issuing a separate declaration on the
Philippines on the sidelines
Missing in action now is the Philippines. This current stance stands
in marked contrast to its landmark victory over China at the Court of
Arbitration in 2016.
The court not only rejected China’s presumably “historic” claims, but
deemed that none of the islets and rocks in the sea was sufficient to
support an EEZ claim. It thus left most of it to the EEZ’s of the
Unfortunately, President Duterte declined to follow through on the
victory. His likely motivation was Chinese money. While not formally
abandoning Philippine rights, he remains reluctant to ruffle Chinese
feathers as his neighbors have done.
The Philippine military has been unhappy with Duterte’s stance, but
the president remains too popular for effective opposition to gel. The
only good news is that the pro-China leanings of Duterte are unlikely to
The ambiguous U.S. role
The ambiguous position of the United States is not helpful either.
Trump’s neglect of the region and abandonment of the Trans-Pacific
Partnership has seriously weakened its diplomatic pull, although quiet
cooperation with many of the region’s military remains intact.
Indonesia’s engagement in pushing back against China’s maritime
claims is a significant point of departure for the country. All the
more so as it had long avoided the sea issue because it had no island
disputes with China.
But by pushing its fishing boats so far from its shores, China has
aroused the political will of Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest and
potentially most anti-Chinese nation.
That this is happening at a time when the gloss is coming off China’s Belt and Road Initiative
should give the Chinese reason for pause. Its constant attempt to put
pecuniary lures before its maritime neighbors may not do the trick.
***Philip Bowring is a journalist who has been based in Asia since 1973
and is a resident of Hong Kong. He divides his time between writing
columns, books and helping develop www.asiasentinel.com, a news and
From 1992 to 2011, he was a columnist on Asian affairs for the International Herald Tribune.
He also worked at the Far Eastern Economic Review for many years,
including as its editor. Prior to that, he was a regional correspondent
for the Financial Times.
Born in England and educated at Cambridge University, he spent his
earlier career as a financial journalist in London and Sydney as well
as a freelancer in Africa.
He is married to Hong Kong Civic Party legislator Claudia Mo. His
hobbies are studying southeast Asian history and competitive sailing.