Daily US Times: More than one month earlier this year, Malaysian and Chinese vessels were locked in a high-stakes standoff near the island of Borneo in the South China Sea.
The West Capella, a Malaysian-authorized drill ship, was looking for resources in waters also claimed by Beijing, when a Chinese survey vessel, accompanied by coast guard ships, sailed into the area and began conducting scans, according to satellite images analyzed by the Asia Maritime Transparency Institute (AMTI).
Malaysia deployed naval vessels to the area. The vessels were later backed by US warships had been on joint exercises in the South China Sea.
China claimed it was conducting “normal activities in waters under Chinese jurisdiction,” but for years Chinese vessels have been accused of hounding countries who try to explore resources in waters that China claims as its own.
Experts now say the Chinese ships are trying to adopt increasingly forceful tactics, which risks sparking new conflicts with major regional powers such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Greg Polling, director of the AMTI, said the countries are more important than ever as Chinese ships expand their reach in the region, mostly due to the advanced construction of Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Polling said the islands provide forward basing for Chines ships, effectively turning Indonesia and Malaysia into front line states.
“On any given day, there about dozen coast guard ships buzzing around the Spratly Islands, and about a hundred fishing boats, ready to go,” he said.
The South China Sea is one of the most contested regions in the world, with claims from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Beijing’s territorial claims, known as the nine-dash line — are by far the largest and encompass almost the entirety of the sea, from Hainan Island down to the top of Indonesia. But under international law, China’s claims have no basis were found to be invalid in a 2016 international court ruling, though China dismissed the ruling.
Despite the ruling, from about 2015 the government of China began to bolster its territorial ambitions by building artificial islands on shoals and reefs in the South China Sea and then militarizing them with aircraft strips, radar facilities, and harbors.
Polling said: “These (islands) are bristling with radar and surveillance capabilities, they see everything that goes on in the South China Sea.”
In the past, China didn’t know where you were drilling but now they certainly do, he added.
Beijing has created Chinese fishing vessels and an armada of coast guard that can be deployed in the South China Sea to harass other claimant’s ships or sail in politically sensitive areas.
The confrontation over the Malaysian drill ship was not the first aggressive act by China in the region in 2020.
In the beginning of the year, there was a standoff Natuna Islands on the far southern end of the South China Sea, territory claimed by Indonesia and China. Both countries’ vessels were involved in the standoff, when Chinese fishing vessels started to operate inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
Indonesia then deployed naval ships and F-16 fighters to the islands and President Joko Widodo personally flew to the area, in an unusual show of strength from the country.
A Chinese maritime surveillance vessel in April rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
The act prompted Vietnam to send a diplomatic note to the United Nations restating its sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in response said China would take “all measures necessary” to safeguard Beijing’s interests in the region.
Geng said: “I want to stress this: attempts by any country to negate in any means China’s sovereignty, rights and interests in the South China Sea and to reinforce its own illegal claim are bound to be fruitless.”
China has long history of harassing other countries’ vessels in the South China Sea, mostly from the Philippines and Vietnam and occasionally from Indonesia and Malaysia.
In the past, Chinese diplomats have helped soothed aggrieved parties, but experts say the fallout from the coronavirus and the rise of so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy in Beijing have removed any circuit breaker in the relationship between China and its regional rivals.