The Jakarta Post
Has China abandoned its policy of resolving the contentious South China Sea (SCS) issue through peaceful means? China's recent big brother behavior and unilateral military measures like naval blockades and xenophobic rhetoric have all given the impression that overconfident China is increasingly shedding its soft-power image in resolving both the East China Sea and SCS disputes.
China ' the world's second largest economy ' has already aroused deep suspicions among its neighbors by increasing its defense budget in 2014 by 12 percent to US$132 billion, making it second in the world only to the US's defense spending of $528 billion.
China's recent measures such as new fisheries laws, the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and, most recently, a naval blockade around Second Thomas Shoal, known in China as the Ren'ai Reef and in the Philippines as Ayungin ' which is in the SCS ' have aggravated the fears.
In the past, China has resorted to military options to occupy territories that were claimed by other countries. In the second week of March 1988, China deployed its troops to seize the reefs of Co Lin (Collins), Len Dao (Lansdowne) and Gac Ma (Johnson South) in the Spratly archipelago ' also known as Truong Sa in Vietnamese ' from Vietnam. China refers to Johnson South Reef as Chiguajiao, which is now under the control of Beijing.
Will China now resort to military options again to pursue its unilateral claim of the SCS? Nobody in Asia wants a war but China's recent words and deeds are not only alarming but are moving in that direction.
'On issues of territory and sovereignty, China's position is very firm and clear. There is no room for compromise,' China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the media earlier this month. 'We will not take anything that is not ours, but we will defend every inch of territory that belongs to us.'
But the main problem with China is that it claims almost all of the SCS as its own, based on a vague U-shaped line known as the nine-dash line, an assertion that is fiercely contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
Indonesia, which is not a claimant country, is now more worried about China's unilateral claims and its assertiveness, which could threaten peace and stability in Southeast Asia as well as the unity of ASEAN.
More alarmingly, China, according to an Indonesian defense official, has now included part of Natuna Islands waters ' within Indonesia's Riau Islands province ' in its territorial map based on the nine-dash line, which could be a serious threat to Indonesia's territorial integrity and sovereignty.
'China has claimed Natuna waters as its territorial waters. This arbitrary claim is related to the dispute over the Spratly and Paracel Islands between China and the Philippines. This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters,' said Commodore Fahru Zaini, the assistant deputy (defense strategic
doctrine) to the Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister on Wednesday, as quoted by Antara news agency.
The new map, according to Fahru, has even been included in the new passports of Chinese citizens..
'What China has done is related to the territorial zone of the Unitary [State of the] Republic of Indonesia. Therefore, we have come to Natuna to see the concrete strategies of the main component of our defense, namely the Indonesian Military [TNI],' Fahru added.
The SCS ' known in China as the South Sea, in Vietnam as the East Sea and in the Philippines as the West Philippines Sea ' is a region rich in fisheries and hydrocarbon reserves, which also provides the shortest route between the Indian and western Pacific oceans. Around $6 trillion worth of global trade flows through this region.
The SCS has four main island groupings: the Paracel Islands (claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan but occupied by China), the Pratas Islands (claimed by China but occupied by Taiwan), the Spratly Islands (claimed in their entirety by Vietnam, China and Taiwan and claimed partially by Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei but partly occupied by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines) and the Macclesfield Bank/Scarborough Reef (both of which are claimed by China and Taiwan, while just Scarborough Reef is claimed by the Philippines and both are unoccupied).
The problem with the claims of China and Taiwan ' both of which are based on the countries' so-called 'indisputable sovereignty' according to the 1947 nine-dash line map ' is that the claims are not clear, and the countries also never clarified with other claimant countries what that sovereignty covers. The legality and the precise locations indicated by the nine dashes are not clear.
'Both Beijing and Taipei have declined to explain what the nine bars signify, whether they are meant to claim sovereignty or some kind of maritime jurisdiction over the entire expanse of water that the lines encompass or only over the land features within the interrupted line,' Rodolfo C. Severino, an expert on ASEAN affairs, wrote in a newly published book titled Entering Uncharted Waters? ASEAN and the South China Sea.
Indonesian maritime expert Prof. Hasyim Djalal echoed a similar view. 'There was no definition of that dashed line, nor were there any coordinates stated. If you have any historical evidence [regarding the claim], please show us,' Hasyim said recently in Jakarta.
Given the tense situation and lack of convincing evidence from both China and other claimant countries, it would be better if all parties involved adhered to the path of a peaceful resolution to the SCS conflict.
For the time being, until a final solution to the impasse is reached (which is unlikely for a long time), there is a need for a mechanism to prevent conflict and promote cooperation among disagreeing parties. Dialogue is still the best way to solve this long maritime dispute.
The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.