What is happening?
On Tuesday, November 14, a Chinese destroyer subjected divers to sonar pulses while clearing fishing nets from the propellers of the HMAS Toowoomba frigate of the Australian Navy. Toowoomba was in the exclusive economic zone of Japan, conducting a mission in support of UN sanctions enforcement. The Australian government condemned the incident as an unsafe and unprofessional conduct. China declined the accusations.
What is the broader picture?
Chinese assertive and often perilous behavior in the international waters and air space is increasingly common. Several of China’s provocations escalated and were close to collisions.
Incidents happen most frequently in the South-China Sea, where China draws its nine-dash line. Beijing effectively claims sovereignty over virtually the entirety of the region, including exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan. Interestingly, the South China Sea became a matter of disputes and clashes only recently. In 2012, the Chinese Communist Party reclassified the South China Sea as a “core national interest,” recognizing the strategic area with rich natural resources, including oil and gas, fishing areas, important trade roads, etc. Since then, China has started building artificial islands, ports, military installations, and airstrips, mainly in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.
In 2016, the Philippines won the arbitrage under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, invalidating Beijing’s claims on the entire South China Sea. Even though China is a signatory of the treaty establishing the South China Sea Tribunal, it refused to participate in the arbitration and rejected the decision, which it continues to ignore.
In August this year, a Chinese coast guard ship used a water cannon against a Philippine vessel delivering supplies to BRP Sierra Madre, a rusted World War II warship grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal. Based within the Philippine 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and more than 800 nautical miles from the Chinese coast, it is an outpost for a small Philippine Navy crew asserting Manila’s sovereignty over the Spratley Islands.
The Chinese Coast Guard regularly obstructs supplies to Sierra Madre, accusing the Philippines of illegally carrying construction materials, and causes clashes when it uses military-grade lasers to impede the supply delivery. More recently, Chinese vessels rammed into a Philippine Coast Guard ship and supply boat. The US is now advising the Philippines on the repair of Sierra Madre. Washington and Manila also decided to restart joint patrols, which stopped under President Duterte, the incumbent Marcos’ predecessor.
Incidents do not happen only in the sea. Earlier this year, a Chinese Shenyang J-11 fighter jet almost collided with a US Air Force B-52 plane over the South China Sea when it approached it at an “uncontrolled excessive speed, flying below, in front of, and within 10 feet of the B-52,” says the US military. Chinese jets also regularly enter the Taiwan air defense identification zone, with their presence increasing during significant political events, such as high-level visits to Taiwan.
The U.S. and its allies regularly conduct maritime maneuvers or fly aircraft over the “disputed areas” to emphasize that these are international waters and airspace. Last week, Australian Toowoomba transited through the Taiwan Strait.
Why it matters?
Made-in-China geographic claims such as the “nine-dash line” (which even made it into a Hollywood blockbuster) undermine definitions of coastal zones. Additionally, they are self-made justifications for Chinese exploitation of ocean resources which belong to other states, or obstructing freedom of navigation. These rhetorical exercises have been angering and troubling many, particularly China’s neighbors.
Beijing aims to challenge Washington and its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Its increasingly assertive behavior in the international space, which clearly undermines the international liberal order, has been described as “dangerous and very disturbing” or “unsafe and unprofessional”. Through its belligerent stance, China increases chances of military conflict or collision in the region.