Almost two weeks after, Chinese President Xi Jinping told leaders from the Southeast Asian countries that Beijing would never seek hegemony nor take advantage of its size to bully smaller countries, and work with them to eliminate “interference,” Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia and Laos complained of cyber-attacks by hackers from China.
As per Bloomberg News, such cyber-attacks on Southeast Asian countries’ interests were detected by Insikt Group, a wing of Massachusetts-based Recorded Future. If Insikt Group’s report is to be believed, Thailand Prime Minister’s Office and the Thai Army were specifically targeted along with the Indonesian and the Philippine navies, Vietnam’s national assembly and the central office of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Malaysia’s Ministry of Defence.
Ironically, the development has taken place at the time when the gulf between China and ASEAN countries are increasing. Whatever layer of trust was there between the two sides has eroded. Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam are already fighting a battle for sovereignty over the South China Sea with their backs to the wall.
On November 22, China held a leader-level summit with ASEAN and promised to remain a good neighbor and good friend of the Southeast Asian countries. Just a week after such a heart-warming speech by President Xi Jinping, Beijing told Indonesia to stop drilling for oil and natural gas in the Natuna Sea that Jakarta claims belongs to it.
Indonesia has always held the southern end of the South China Sea as its exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China, while following a might is right dictum, over-ruled such claims of Indonesia and told Jakarta to stop drilling at the Natuna Sea.
Indignant Indonesia stood its ground and continued to drill oil and natural gas in this part of the South China Sea. However, the Philippines has not been so strong in obviating China’s aggression. Several times in the recent past it has told China that it should not overlook the concern of its neighbors on their territorial interests but to no avail. Result is, the unhappy Philippines is compelled to adopt a new tactic; it has avoided showing even minimum diplomatic courtesy to the Chinese leadership.
It was clearly seen during the just concluded China-ASEAN leadership summit. Without any hesitation, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told Chinese President Xi Jinping, during the summit, that he abhors the altercation and that the rule of law was the only way out of the dispute. He referred to a 2016 international arbitration ruling which found China’s maritime claim to the sea had no legal basis. The Duterte government was under public pressure to arrest and prosecute Chinese fishermen for destroying marine life in the Philippine waters. In 2019, 22 Filipino fishermen vessels were destroyed by Chinese fishing militia in Reed Bank. China’s aggression against Philippines’ interests reached a peak when in March 2021, Philippines authorities found China mooring more than 200 fishing vessels in line formation at Whitsun Reef, known as Julian Felipe Reef to Filipinos. On March 21, when Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., as per media reports, filed a protest with the Chinese embassy in Manila, the embassy rejected it, stating that the flotilla is not Chinese militia as alleged but fishing vessels harboring to avoid inclement weather—a typical Chinese alibi which is used perversely to whitewash the truth.
On the other hand, Malaysia seems to have given a good bye to its soft approach towards China. On October 4, as per The Straits Times, Malaysia summoned Chinese envoy Ouyang Yujing and protested against the presence and activities of Chinese vessels, including a survey vessel, in the Southeast Asian country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. This was the second time since June 2021 when Kuala Lumpur summoned the Chinese ambassador over violations of Malaysian sovereignty by China. On June 2, after 16 Chinese military aircraft flew over the sea off its eastern state of Sarawak, the Malaysian Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador and conveyed its anger over the Chinese activity.
Brunei is desperate to see that China agrees to the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea to resolve disputes related to the Sea which has six claimants. In August 2018, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had unilaterally announced that the Code of Conduct would be finalized within three years. During China-ASEAN leaders’ summit, President Xi Jinping deliberately refused to speak about the South China Sea or Code of Conduct, hinting categorically that Beijing is not interested in resolving the festering dispute on the Sea.
While claiming the entire South China Sea as its own, China is developing artificial islands and military outposts in the waters backed up by Coast Guard and so-called maritime militia. As per the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, as many as 300 vessels from China’s maritime militia, patrol the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea at any one time. Maritime militia, supported by the Chinese government in terms of getting subsidized fuel, free vessel construction and repairs, are engaged in surveillance and also in creating obstacles in the way of foreign military activity.
Amidst this, Chinese hackers, who, according to Insikt Group, could be state-sponsored, have been targeting government and private-sector organizations across Southeast Asia, including those closely involved with Beijing on infrastructure development projects. However, this is not the first time when Chinese hackers have targeted private or government institutions across the Southeast Asian nations.
In August 2021, the telecommunications industry across the region was hit by hackers from China. The US-based Cybereason Nocturnus, the group which had investigated the attack, then maintained that it was done to gain and maintain continuous access to telecommunication providers and to facilitate cyber espionage by collecting sensitive information, compromising high-profile business assets such as the billing servers and key network components.
These developments have led the Southeast Asian countries to sit and ponder over their security. Should they strive for China’s alternative or put all their eggs in one basket? To their disappointment, China has repeatedly employed cyberattacks to damage their interests and most often these attacks have been employed against them because of their claims on the South China Sea or their inability to give Chinese projects green signals in their respective countries even if they are controversial. Ironically, the chasm between Southeast Asian countries and China is widening at the time when Beijing’ economy has started shrinking, population has started graying and domestic debts have ballooned to nearly 300 per cent of GDP.