China flexes maritime muscle

LARGELY ignored by the media, Beijing has been steadily strengthening its grip over disputed waters in the South China Sea. And it has been doing so without using the rising power of its navy.

Beijing has built a formidable force of "five dragons": These are the coast guard, the Maritime Safety Administration, Marine Surveillance, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command and Customs. Using a force of large and small vessels - armed cutters, frigates, hovercraft, patrol boats as well as aircraft - Beijing has been making the disputed waters a matter of domestic law enforcement. The idea is to show its sovereignty as a fait accompli.

Those who resist such assertions of Chinese sovereignty over the islands, reefs and shoals within its famous nine-dashed line that rings the South China Sea on Chinese maps find themselves in almost daily confrontation with the mainland.

During the early years of the dispute, China used its naval might to take control of islands in the Paracel and Spratly chains from Vietnam. In 1995, the Philippines woke to find China setting up structures on Mischief Reef, 240km off Palawan. Asean's vociferous opposition to such tactics later led to talks on a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

While the talks have sputtered on, the various contestants have been fighting a shadow battle for control, grabbing shoals, reefs and fishing grounds. In 2004, China promulgated its National Maritime Law requiring foreign vessels operating in waters administered by China to seek permission - thus laying the ground for enforcing this law over the seas it claims. In 2008, marine surveillance ships started to regularly patrol waters claimed by China.

In this shadow battle, Beijing has thus far emerged victorious. It has steadily expanded its marine law-enforcement operations, periodically arresting foreign fishermen, and moving to hamper foreign oil exploration efforts. Beijing has even frustrated attempts by Philippine marine archaeologists to recover ancient vessels.

Chinese enforcers have disrupted Vietnamese oil explorations by cutting seismic research cables. Recently, by deploying its own drilling rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, Beijing has signalled that oil companies can safely tap new energy resources only under Chinese protection.

One of the most notable recent events occurred in Scarborough Shoal, off the coast of the Philippines (and within the country's Exclusive Economic Zone), where the Philippine navy periodically arrests fishermen of other nations. All that changed in April 2012, when a Philippine attempt to arrest Chinese fishermen was thwarted by China Marine Surveillance and Fisheries patrol boats.

Manila has taken the issue to the tribunal of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But Beijing says nothing can change the fact that the territory is China's.

In June 2012, Beijing announced that all of the disputed South China Sea areas would fall under the jurisdiction of the newly created Sansha City in the Paracel islands. It sent four combat- ready marine surveillance ships to "enforce law and order" in the territory. On Jan 1 this year, the Hainan administration regulation requiring foreigners and foreign fishing vessels to notify the central authorities before entering China's waters went into effect.

Unlike in the past, Beijing now has the wherewithal not just to project power through its blue-water navy, air and space weaponry, but also to extend the muscle of its "five dragons" to assert control over the South China Sea.

China's President Xi Jinping recently promised the creation of a "Maritime Silk Road" in South- east Asia. Given the rate at which his government's agencies are extending the writ of law, future traffic regulations for the South China Sea could well be drafted in Beijing.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is editor-in-chief of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Centre, Yale University. He sits on Yale's Council on South-east Asia Studies.