Is ASEAN waking up to the need for unity in South China Sea?

In a move that could signal ASEAN countries’ boldness to chalk out their own united stand to meet with any political or military challenge, the 10 countries’ bloc have begun their first ever joint naval drills in Indonesia’s Natuna Sea, days after China released a ‘standard map’ showing about 90% of the South China Sea as those belonging to Beijing.

The five-day (September 19 to 23) naval drills, the ASEX 01, aimed at military skilling, maritime security, patrolling, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief, said the Indonesian military in a statement. While Indonesian military chief YudoMargono was quoted by Japan’s Kyodo News as saying that the 10-member ASEAN will remain “united” and this is what is needed to “ensure regional stability.”

In the backdrop of China releasing an expanded map that shows even the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia in the South China Sea as those belonging to Beijing, the naval drills conducted by armed forces of 10- member ASEAN nations, assumed high significance.

It was held after a meeting of ASEAN defence chiefs in Bali in June and annual ASEAN summit in Jakarta earlier this month, where the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea was affirmed.

Although the Indonesia military chief termed the ASEAN naval drills as non-combatant, it was conducted in the Natuna Sea, a narrow area of water located in Indonesia’s EEZ and to the South of the contentious South China Sea. Experts see the drills by ASEAN nations as a way to demonstrate unity at a time when their territorial integrity is under threat from assertive China.

Moreover, it was conducted just three weeks after China’s Ministry of Natural Resources on August 28 issued ‘China Standard Map Edition 2023.’

Even after vociferous protests from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia over the map, Spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wang Wenbin said, “China’s position on the South China Sea is consistent and clear. The competent authorities of China routinely publish standard maps of various types every year, which aims to make standard maps available to all sectors of society and raise public awareness of the standardized use of maps. We hope parties concerned can view it in an objective and rational light.”

Such assertions by Beijing rattled ASEAN nations, especially Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei which maintain overlapping claims over the South China Sea, a major shipping route through which more than $3 trillion worth of global trade in goods annually pass. It is also estimated to possess 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Besides, it is known as the world’s fishing bowl, providing livelihoods to millions of people across the region.

In support of its claim over the South China Sea, Beijing is not only employing high- voltage propaganda, it is also heavily militarising it. In early August, a new airstrip started to appear on Triton Island, the southernmost and westernmost of the Paracel

Islands, known in Chinese as the Xisha Islands, the Associated Press said after analysing satellite pictures from the Planet Labs PBC.

The airstrip on Triton Island on completion will become 4th of the total seven human- made islands which have been militarised by China with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets in the South China Sea, the Associated Press said.

The airstrip which is being developed at Triton Island, would be more than 600 metres (2,000 feet) in length, long enough to accommodate turboprop aircraft and drones, but not fighter jets or bombers.

In comparison to other runaways already developed by China on the Spratly Islands, including on its Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, the airstrip being built at Triton Island of the Paracel Islands is much shorter, South China Morning Post said.

However, at Triton Island, it is not just the airstrip which is being developed, rather by undertaking land reclamation, China has built a helipad, building, a basketball court and port to support the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Associated Press said.

This apart, China has increased harassment of its Southeast Asian neighbours to keep them off the South China Sea. While Chinese fishing militia operating in hordes and in coordination with the Chinese authorities in the South China Sea often intimidate naval vessels from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, Chinese Coast Guard vessels never stop from harassing these ASEAN countries.

At the recently concluded East Asia Summit in Jakarta, the Philippines raised voice over constant harassment of its vessels by Chinese fishing militia and coast guards in the South China Sea. Manila was, in particular, concerned about growing assertiveness of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army which has installed several military facilities on reclaimed features of the South China Sea. It also raised concerns about continued violations of international law by China.

In the South China Sea, Vietnam, like the Philippines, also faces huge challenges from China in securing its territorial rights even in its exclusive economic zone.

In July, the Southeast Asian nation banned the Barbie movies due to a scene that depicts Beijing making a reference to the nine-dash line to stake claim over the entire part of the South China Sea. Satellite imagery released earlier in August showed China building an airfield in an island that Hanoi says belongs to Vietnam.

Vietnamese oil and gas operations in this marginal sea of the Western Pacific Ocean have often faced harassment at the hands of the Chinese military. On June 10, China’s patrol ship Zhong Goo Yu Zheng 310 and a luxury passenger vessel, San Sha 2 Hao, sailed through Vietnam EEZ near oil and gas fields.

Though there is no detail on   Chinese vessels’ activity in   the Vietnamese EEZ, but VOA said they spent about 30 hours in and around Vietnamese oil and gas operations in the South China Sea. It was not a lone incident of deliberate harassment by the Chinese

military, rather it was the third since May 2023. On June 8 too, China sent its largest coast guard ship to the Vietnamese EEZ of the South China Sea.

For nearly a month from May 7 to June 4, the Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10, flanked by as many as 12 ships, operated in Vietnam’s EEZ when Russian and Vietnamese oil and gas firms were undertaking their operations.

In 2020, Hanoi suffered a huge economic setback after it had to pay $1billion as compensation to Spain’s oil firm, Repsol and UAE’s oil company, Mubadala after they suspended their oil drilling operations off Vietnamese water in the South China Sea under China’s pressure, said The Diplomat. Keeping such developments in view, ASEAN countries’ move to hold joint maritime exercises in waters close to the South China Sea is seen as a well thought out strategy to send Beijing a strong message that the Southeast Asian nations are united and are ready to meet any challenge.

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