ASEAN’s biggest headache: The South China Sea

Florence Chong's picture

Pirates, smugglers and territorial claims have fed a cauldron of instability in the waters around Asia . . .

TENSION on three separate fronts has turned waters surrounding Southeast Asian nations into a cauldron of instability. Geopolitical security – involving boatpeople, pirates and Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea – is emerging as ASEAN’s biggest headache.

Year 2015 was designated to usher in a new era of prosperity and harmony for ASEAN as the region’s 10 nations inch towards implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community.

AEC promises to deliver more economic growth to ASEAN, and to harness the full potential of its developing members.

But it is not possible to gloss over current issues which pose possibly the most grave threats to the region since World War 2. These issues could detail the promise of AEC – and tear apart political harmony within ASEAN.

Earlier this month, right at the top of global news was the plight of a flotilla of Rohingya refugees and impoverished Bangladeshis, being bounced around the territorial waters of a number of countries and posing a huge embarrassment for the governments of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

At the same time, Southeast Asia has replaced Somalia as the world hotbed of piracy.

A report from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) says Southeast Asia counted for 55 per cent of 54 piracy and armed robbery incidents reported worldwide in the first quarter of 2015.

On average, the IMB says, one small coastal tanker is hijacked by pirates in Southeast Asia every two weeks. Armed gangs are targetting the tankers to steal their fuel cargo.

Five tankers and an offshore tug were hijacked in the first quarter, and, since April 2014, 23 ships have been hijacked in Southeast Asia.

Waters off Indonesia accounted for almost 40 per cent of first quarter 2015 attacks, with two vessels hijacked and 19 boarded. The IMB says the overwhelming majority of incidents are low-level and opportunistic, although the attackers are usually armed with knives, machetes or guns.

With eight reports in three months, Vietnam has seen an increase in armed robbery incidents at sea. More thieves are also breaking into ships at anchor in and around Hai Phong and Vung Tau.

“The frequency of hijackings in Southeast Asia is an increasing cause for concern,” says IMB Director, Pottengal  Mukundan.  “There is a risk that the attacks and the violence could increase if left unchecked.” The IMB has been monitoring world piracy since 1991.

Attacks at sea in Southeast Asia topped 150 last year after beginning to tick upwards in 2010, according to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, based in Geneva. It says: “Piracy is not a new issue in Southeast Asia, but the daring and frequency of these attacks is something new.”

However, boat people and pirates pale into insignificance when compared with Sotheast Asia’s overarching – and potentially most destabilising – problem, Chinas claim to sovereignty over large areas of the South China Sea.

As ATI has reported previously, China’s disputes with various countries in Southeast Asia - primarily the Philippines and Vietnam – have been gnawing away at the region with no resolution in sight.

Now China, it seems, has thrown fuel on the fire by building up artificial islands, some big enough to have airstrips, in a bid to reinforce its sovereignty claims.

The South China Sea is a body of water of enormous strategic importance, not just to China and ASEAN but to the world, including the United States - because it is a vital shipping lane.

Angst dialled up several more decibels when an American surveillance aircraft flying over the artificial islands was warned off by the Chinese – not once, but eight times, according to a report by CNN, which had staff on board.

The incident, along with recent Chinese warnings to Philippine military aircraft to leave areas around the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea suggest that China is trying to enforce military exclusion zones around its claimed new islands.

China last year unilaterally established an Air Defence Identification Zone (AIDZ) over the Senkaku-Daioyu islands in the East China Sea.

Will there be further confrontation between China and the US?

The Pentagon, according to one US official, is considering sending military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around the Chinese-made islands.

A spokeswoman for the US State Department said US aircraft operate “in accordance with international law in disputed areas of the South China Sea” and will continue to so “consistent with the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea”.

Beijing, on the other hand, is reportedly insisting that it has the right to engage in the monitoring of relevant airspace and waters to protect China’s sovereignty and to prevent accidents at sea.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said in a regular briefing: “We hope the relevant country can earnestly respect China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.”

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail – but there is no sign of that happening.