Natuna Crisis: Is South China Sea a Fisheries Dispute?

Mahesh Kumar Kamtam, Research Intern, ICS

The recent crisis in the South China Sea erupted in December 2019, when a group of nearly 30 Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied by the Chinese Coast Guards (CCG) intruded the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) of Indonesia around the Natuna Islands, a part of the sovereign rights guaranteed by the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS). China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, accompanied by its large fleet of fishing vessels and maritime militia, brings new challenges to the region and the sustainability of South China Sea.

South China Sea has been at the centre of dispute since China began asserting its sovereignty over the entire sea as part of its historical claim of the “nine-dash line”. This claim not only makes it an expansionist power but presents a challenge to the sovereignty of the neighbouring coastal states with overlapping jurisdiction (see the map below). The Natuna crisis and China’s aggressive postures has irked the eye of many ASEAN member states. Nevertheless, I would argue that the crisis presents not only a security threat for the neighbouring coastal states but also challenges the sustainability of the entire South China Sea ecosystem.

South China Sea Ecosystem

Source: South China Morning Post

The South China Sea dispute must be viewed from the perspective of fisheries development and the conflict for fishing grounds in the region.  A report by the Centre for Strategic International studies (CSIS) has shown that the region is dangerously overfished and over-capacitated with the fishing boats. For instance, the report cites a paradoxically worrying trend with South China Sea accounting for 12% of the global fisheries and more than 50% of the gross fishing boats of the world present in the region. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images captured by Asia Maritime Initiative depict this trend in the region (see image below). This shows that there is sheer overcapacity in the region in terms of fishing which has further led to aggressive behavioural tactics by countries involved in the South China Sea dispute.

SAR images

          Source: White Shipping Data, Asia Maritime Initiative

Tactics to intimidate the fishing community are adopted frequently by the CCG in the region to deter the non-Chinese fishers from fishing in the South China Sea region. Chinese fishermen, with the support of CCG and Chinese Navy, have also displayed aggressive behaviour in the cross-fishing activities in the disputed waters. One of their tactics includes ramming foreign boats and sinking them. For instance, a Filipino boat was sunk by the Chinese fishermen leaving 30 Filipino sailors at the mercy of others for rescue. Gregory Poling, Director of Asia Maritime Initiative describes this approach as a “constant exercise of low-intensity warfare”.

The Natuna crisis comes in the context of the departure of Indonesia’s Minister for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, whohas a strong track record of adopting tough policies on the protection of ocean ecosystem and the crackdown on illegal fishing activity in the Indonesian waters. With the departure of Susi, China is probably testing Indonesia’s ability to confront CCGs in the Natuna Sea. However, it is also aware that Indonesia stands as the fulcrum that connects the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it is seeking not to escalate the dispute further which can lead to a “crisis situation” in the region. Moreover, Indonesia has no conflicting claims in the South China Sea, unlike its neighbours.

China has for long claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea by arguing that “it is part of Chinese historic traditional fishing grounds” and expanded its naval presence through aggressive tactics. The Chinese Navy and the CCG are at the forefront by providing security and accompanying the Chinese fishing vessels, survey ships, and other mineral exploration activities in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, these activities are not confined to the “traditional fishing grounds” alone. Chinese ships have often crossed the established “nine-dash line” to either assert their control over fishing grounds by driving out foreign fishers or to test the neighbouring states’ potential and their capabilities in handling the crisis in a “matured” manner. Both the tactics are working in China’s favour to steadily extend its influence in the region.

Chinese activities in the South China Sea have expanded in the recent past with an expansive military build-up, transforming the “ecologically fragile coral reefs” into a military outpost in order to establish their continuous presence in the region as a strong naval power. The modernization of the Chinese Navy and the inclusion of the indigenously built aircraft carrier, “Shandong” is an example of China’s growing capabilities in the region and its quest to become a “naval superpower”. Nevertheless, the disrespect for international laws and non-compliance with international norms can have possible implications not just for the maritime security in the region but also severely affects the livelihood of fishing communities who are solely dependent upon the ocean resources. The data compiled on the marine fishery production in the region by the Pearson Institute of International Economics shows dangerous levels of fishing activity in the region (see graph below). The Chinese fisheries community along the coast, being overwhelming dependent on fishing as their sole occupation, has put China in a compelling position to venture into the extra-territorial waters of other countries.

Fishing activity in the region

    Source: Pearson Institute of International Economics

So, where are we heading towards in the South China Sea dispute? It seems, for the time being, China is trying to carve out its extra-territorial geographical expansion through a multi-prolonged strategy, with CCG and fisheries at the forefront of China’s expansionist agenda. However, the military escalation and the disturbance to the ecological fragility in the region may bring many livelihoods to standstill, ultimately affecting the region’s ecology and economy alike. This presents a long-term challenge to the region that risks human security at the cost of national security. Countries in the region and especially China, should be cognizant of the consequences that follow. Therefore, countries need to redefine the concept of security in the context of growing livelihood challenges.

Understanding US responses to the South China Sea Dispute

Saurav Sarkar, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

The National Bureau of Asian Research, an American non-profit research institution, recently published a study titled ‘Tenets of a Regional Defense Strategy: Considerations for the Indo-Pacific’. The study comprehensively outlines multiple challenges facing American policymakers in the near future in the Indo-Pacific region – ranging from tensions between India and Pakistan to the militarisation of the South China Sea (SCS).

While the study in itself deserves a read to better understand the present situation and potential crises in the region, there was one particular footnote that demands particular attention. In it, Admiral (Retd) Jonathan Greenert, former Admiral in the United States Navy, talks about his interactions with Admiral (Retd.) Wu Shengli, former Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), who made it clear to Greenert that China expected a more ‘forceful’ reaction from the US when it first began building islands in the SCS. The Barack Obama administration’s response, apparently, was not robust enough, which further emboldened China.

On 1 October in New Delhi, a conversation was held between former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, on ‘Shift in Power Balance – India, US and China’. Continue reading “Understanding US responses to the South China Sea Dispute”

Post Shangri La Dialogue: Powerplay in the South China Sea

Mr. Saurav Sarkar, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

Just a day before the commencement of the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue (SLD) (1-3 June), the United States military’s Pacific Command changed its name to the Indo-Pacific Command. This name change came after the US had disinvited China from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise as a consequence of its continued militarization of the South China Sea (SCS). The US-China relations have hit a new low in recent months as China perceives American activities in the SCS to be aimed at countering its growing presence in what it considers to be its sovereign waters.

Lieutenant General He Lei, head of China’s military delegation to the 2018 SLD, reportedly drew a parallel between China’s militarization of the SCS to the deployment of troops to Hong Kong in 1997 to project its sovereignty. The US, however, expects China to adhere to international law in the SCS before engaging with it in any military exercise hence the reason for disinviting China from RIMPAC. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has defiantly insisted that the US would continue its freedom of navigation operations to enforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China, however, does not view cessation of its military activities in disputed areas of the SCS (which it perceives to be completely legal) as a pre-requisite for participating in war games like RIMPAC. Hence, it has developed significant military capabilities in the SCS in an attempt to enhance its power projection capabilities in the region and beyond.

Implications of militarization in SCS islands

In the backdrop of this strained period in China-US relations, the military activities of both countries in the SCS are significant. Woody Island occupied by China in the disputed Paracels is now capable of conducting takeoff and landing of the H6-K strategic bomber which can even carry nuclear weapons. However, its nuclear capability is secondary to its primary role of conducting aerial attacks on approaching enemy ships using air-to-ground cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles. Woody Island is in close proximity to the Yulin naval base in Hainan province which is home to the People Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet. About 1028 km south from Yulin is Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. This makes the defences at Fiery Cross Reef important as it sits in the middle of the southern access zone to the SCS and will, therefore, be vital to disrupting enemy movements into the SCS. In addition to Fiery Cross, there are air and naval defence platforms on Mischief and Subi Reefs as well. This arc of military installations from the Paracels to the Spratlys is designed to protect the Yulin submarine base using anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons as Yulin is critical for the PLAN’s ability to break through US defences around the First Island Chain. This is because the SCS has favourable conditions for submarines and makes it easier to disguise their movements.

Woody Island is also capable of landing J-11 and FC-1 fighter jets which could be used to gain air superiority and in conducting aerial bombings in the SCS. The same warplanes and even strategic bombers like the H6-K can also be stationed at Fiery Cross Reef which has a 3 km long airstrip and multiple hangers as observed via satellite images. This would allow the PLA to use the island as a force multiplier and an offshore power projection platform, something it had earlier lacked in the SCS. On 5 June the US Air Force conducted a flyby of the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal from Guam using B-52 bombers as part of a routine ‘Continuous Bomber Presence’ mission in a deliberate attempt to project American power. The flyby not only raised tensions but also elicited a response from China who accused the US of sabre-rattling. This is understandable due to the fact that B-52s are nuclear capable and form part of the US strategic bomber fleet at Guam.

A day after the B-52 fly-by, according to ImageSat International, HQ-9B surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries had been removed from Woody Island which reappeared in the same positions on 8 June. This shows that the PLA is capable of quickly moving and deploying sophisticated military hardware on its offshore facilities. HQ-9Bs have been deployed in the Spratlys as well along with YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles. HQ-9Bs are medium to long range SAMs and would be effective in engaging with the US Navy’s fighter jets like F/A-18s but their effectiveness in dealing with stealth aircraft like F-22s and F-35s and cruise missiles remain doubtful. The YJ-12B anti-ship missiles, however, would be dangerous to US aircraft carriers especially if launched in large numbers to overwhelm their short-range defences.

In the current scenario, the PLA could conduct operations in the SCS unilaterally and get an upper hand against all regional actors but not without escalating the stakes involved and risking a direct confrontation with the US. A direct contest with the US, however, would be an uphill task for the PLA due to the experience and superior capability of the US Navy in amphibious warfare and support from its allies. This is one reason why China has still not engaged in a direct show of strength as it knows it still has a long way to go to counter the US fully. For the moment China seems to be abiding by Deng Xiaoping’s ‘bide our time, hide our capabilities’ dictum in its strategic designs. How it all plays out in the long term remains to be seen as neither country seems willing to compromise on their respective stances regarding the dispute.

Competing for Influence: China’s Strategic Constraints and Challenges in the Indian Ocean

Chetananand Patil, Research Intern, ICS

The Indian Ocean is increasingly becoming a platform for the new emerging competition between major powers with China making its forays into the region, India seeking to preserve its dominance and the US keen to contain rise of China. Conventional wisdom perceives Chinese presence as a threat for the region and especially for India as it challenges Indian supremacy in its own backyard. Although China’s increasing presence cannot be overlooked or seen in idealist terms, there are certain limitations to its expansion which places Beijing in a strategically disadvantaged position vis-à-vis India.

The most important aspect that needs to be taken into account regarding China and the Indian Ocean Region is that China has no maritime territorial claims in the IOR and the region is not its strategic backyard. For Beijing, to protect maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea is the first priority Continue reading “Competing for Influence: China’s Strategic Constraints and Challenges in the Indian Ocean”

Interpreting Ma Ying-jeou’s Visit to Taiping Island

Jabin T. Jacob, Assistant Director and Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to Taiping/Itu Aba Island in the Spratly Islands on 28 January 2016 was justified among other things on the grounds that he visited men and women in uniform before every Lunar New Year and that he was seeking to clarify the legal status of the island.[1]

Continue reading “Interpreting Ma Ying-jeou’s Visit to Taiping Island”