Relations between the Philippines and China have changed?

thediplomat-ace-10-1350x900-386x257At the start of his presidency in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte quickly initiated the resumption of friendly relations with China, saying that “the friendship and cooperation that have overcome many obstacles between thePhilippines and China would not only bring about prosperity and economic development to both countries, but also create a unique culture nourished by harmony and diversity”. He also urged citizens of the two countries to cultivate the values and ideals that fuel a strong resolve to usher in a period of greater peace and understanding and rise above the challenges ahead.

Who is "making trouble" in the South China Sea?

On March 1, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to the Philippines just one day after the DPRK-US Hanoi Summit between President Donald Trump and Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. In the Philippines’ capital of Manila, the US Secretary of State made several statements on the South China Sea and US - Philippine relations which attracted much interest of the public opinion and were immediately protested by China. China accused the US of trying to "make trouble" in the South China Sea. What has happened and is the US "making trouble" in the South China Sea?

China's ambition of "monopolizing control of the South China Sea" and risks of its execution

In Chinese leaders’ eyes, the South China Sea is critical to their strategy of expanding China’s influence and making China a world power. Politically speaking, the South China Sea is where China can deploy its "soft border" doctrine and its "Look South" policy, a "vital" way for China to overcome surrounding countries such as India, Russia, Japan and Republic of Korea to expand its influence in the world, a "gateway" for China to get out of the US containment and restraint to become a world power. In economic terms, the South China Sea is abundant in natural resources which can be exploited to make an important contribution to the rapid economic development of the most populous country in the world that is falling into a serious shortage of natural resources, particularly oil. With one of the world’s busiest maritime and air routes through the South China Sea, so "who controls the South China Sea will control economic development in East Asia”. From the military angle, the South China Sea is the entry into the Asian continent for US and Japanese naval forces, which is the passage for warships from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The South China Sea is also home to many important islands with strategic and tactical significance at sea to keep traffics and other activities at sea in control. Islands in the area can be developed into military bases which can serve as a starting point to attack enemies as well as a belt at the frontline to defend the mainland from afar. Therefore, with control over the South China Sea, China will expand its defensive space, pushing the battlefield far away from China’s mainland. More military bases in the islands will allow China to monitor and possibly threaten military operations of Southeast Asian countries, including controlling the US military operations. In addition, controlling the South China Sea also helps China to gather strength of millions of Chinese in Southeast Asian countries, strengthening national cohesion, supporting the unification and recovery of Taiwanese territory.

Beware of China’s actions and attempts to invade the South China Sea

The sovereignty dispute over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea between Vietnam and China has lasted for 45 years, which is one of the longest disputes between claimants over the same islands. This is also a complicated dispute without any legal or political solution so far, somehow more complicated with repeated tensions and settlements followed by growing flares up since the Chinese side attempts to change the status quo by deliberately changing the form of the islands, expanding long-term occupation in more and more waters in order to gain control of the trade flows in the South China Sea. At the same time, China deliberately seeks to take the Paracel Islands as a naval base for protecting its mainland from far away, or as a springboard to attack its neighboring countries.

China's deep intentions in the forced seizure of the Paracels in 1974

Revisiting the battle of 1974 at the Paracel Islands, it could be seen that China’s action had a deep calculation. Although forced seizure does not create a title of sovereignty over Paracel Islands because it is contrary to international law, China still decided to take action to serve its long-term strategy of becoming a regional power.

Indonesia's protection of its legitimate sovereignty in the South China Sea: Solution and action

Since the early 21st century, China has broadened its ambition to control the South China Sea to the entire sea area. They not only made statements and took actions to exercise sovereignty over the seas of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, Scarborough or Luconia Shoals but also claimed overlapping sovereignty and dispatched fishing boats backed and protected by Chinese maritime surveillance, coast guard, and navy vessels to the area of Indonesia's Natuna in the southern South China Sea. This directly impacts Indonesia's national sovereignty and interests, forces the country to take a number of measures and actions on different fields to curb China's ambition.

The modern creation of China's 'historic rights' claim in the South China Sea

There are several layers of disputes in the South China Sea: disputes over the ownership of islands, disputes over rights in the waters between the islands, disputes over the regional balance of power and disputes about the future of global governance. What makes them difficult to resolve is that many details of the rival claims remain obscure.

China publishes maps without the Paracel and Spratly Islands

The map “Huangchao zhi sheng di yu quan tu” published by China in 1905 clearly shows that China’s territory ends at Hainan Island. The Paracel and Spratly Islands belong to Vietnam.

How China is eyeing and encroaching Indonesia's exclusive economic zone

China's ambition to "monopolize control" of the South China Sea is not only having command over the waters adjacent to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia... in the South China Sea but also controlling waters thousands of kilometers away from China such as those close to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. Although Indonesia has been vigilant, reacting fiercely and striving to protect its territorial sovereignty, it seems that their measures are not strong enough to stop China's ambition.

US’s role in China’s invasion of Paracel Islands of Vietnam 45 years ago

Forty five years ago, in Jan 1974, China attacked and occupied the Paracel Islands of Vietnam. The incident took place when Vietnam was still being divided with southern Vietnam under the administration of the Republic of Vietnam headed by Nguyen Van Thieu, a close ally of the United States. The Paracel Islands was under the effective control of Nguyen Van Thieu administration. The question is why the Republic of Vietnam, a close ally of the US fought the Paracel battle alone and lost it to China’s hands. It is necessary to revisit history to learn the lesson about friends and allies.

Indonesia's protection of its legitimate sovereignty in the South China Sea: Solution and action

Since the early 21st century, China has broadened its ambition to control the South China Sea to the entire sea area. They not only made statements and took actions to exercise sovereignty over the seas of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, Scarborough or Luconia Shoals but also claimed overlapping sovereignty and dispatched fishing boats backed and protected by Chinese maritime surveillance, coast guard, and navy vessels to the area of Indonesia's Natuna in the southern South China Sea. This directly impacts Indonesia's national sovereignty and interests, forces the country to take a number of measures and actions on different fields to curb China's ambition.

In terms of foreign affairs, Indonesia implemented an "organizational balance" solution by assigning various domestic and overseas agencies to counter and prevent China’s activities violating its sovereignty, in combination with "risk protection" measure connecting regional countries and major powers to address threats as well as emergencies. On regional and international fora, Indonesia firmly rejects China’s statement on the "Nine-dash line" and disapproved Beijing's assertion that "China and Indonesia have overlapping claims on maritime rights and interests in the Natuna Islands". Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi emphasized: "We never recognize the 'Nine-dash line' and he said that Indonesian diplomatic agencies need to send signals on their determination of sovereignty and territorial integrity protection and to ensure that this message is not misinterpreted by anyone because Jakarta has stated it is not to participate in the disputes in the South China Sea. On August 16, 2016, after an inspection trip to the Natuna Islands, Indonesian President pledged to protect every inch of land and territorial sea of the country, to prevent illegal encroachment of Chinese fishing boats into Natuna's exclusive economic zone. In the event of the Arbitral tribunal established under Appendix VII of the 1982 UNCLOS on the Philippines vs. China case regarding the South China Sea, President Joko Widodo said Indonesia would actively participate in the dispute resolution between parties through peaceful negotiations, opposing the use of force.

In its relations with China, the Indonesian government is determined to persistently and actively pursue a moderate policy to deal with related matters. Indonesia still hopes China will keep their commitment to Jakarta from the 1990s, saying that "there is no dispute over ownership of the Natuna Islands because the islands belong to Indonesia". Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan affirmed: "We are still friendly with China and other regional countries, but we must protect ourselves".

In the incident of June 17, 2016 when Indonesian Navy seized Chinese fishing boats and fishermen in Natuna waters, Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Chinese Ambassador to explain and clarify the case. In particular, when the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the exclusive economic zone of the Natuna Islands is China's "traditional fishing ground" and the two sides have "overlapped interests and maritime rights", Indonesia immediately responded with a diplomatic note of objection. The Indonesian government and authorities also issued a public statement that strongly opposed the militarization and presence of Chinese warships in the southern South China Sea, near the Natuna Islands.

Economically speaking, the Indonesian President proposes a comprehensive economic development strategy for the Natuna Islands focusing on promoting fishing, aquatic exploitation, commercial shipping, tourism development, calling for oil and gas investment, combining economy with national defense and security, etc. According to him, it is now essential to give priority to economic development in the Natuna Islands, not only to ensure national interests but also protect large sea area in the North. Thus, Indonesia will invest, develop an integrate marine and fishery center in the region, and plan to send about 6,000 fishermen to catch and exploit seafood around the Natuna Islands. On the energy issue alone, former Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Sudirman Said confirmed that 16 oil and gas blocks have been designated in this area, of which 5 are in production and 11 are in the phase of exploration and testing. One of the most potential gas fields in the Natuna Islands located in the East area, is considered the largest gas field in Asia, with total reserve estimated at 46,000 billion m3. Currently, Pertamina oil Corporations (Indonesia), Exxon Mobil (USA), Total (France) and SA PTT Exploration (Thailand) are interested in investment cooperation for oil exploitation.

On the legal aspect, on June 20, 2016, the Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs made a two-point argument: (1) Indonesia has a clear and internationally recognized maritime border and its claim over the sovereign rights in the exclusive economic zone of the Natuna Islands is fully based on the provisions of the UNCLOS 1982; (2) Indonesia has no dispute with other countries in the South China Sea because Jakarta does not claim any geographic feature of the South China Sea such as islands, reefs or lagoons which are dispute-causing features. Therefore, there is no overlapping area between Indonesia and China. Minister Marsudi affirmed: "This world is organized based on international law rather than on statements based on history. UNCLOS is the law. History cannot deny the law but the law can deny history.

To provide legal support for the protection of its territorial sovereignty, the Government of Indonesia agreed on naming of unnamed islands, first of all, the ones on the border with Timor Leste, Australia and some small islands in the Natuna Islands. Currently, of a total of more than 17,000 islands, 8,844 islands have been named; among the islands with names, only 922 ones are inhabited. The naming of unnamed islands was determined by Indonesia to reinforce its baselines claim, "to prevent neighboring countries from claiming sovereignty" and to help naval forces protect their national maritime areas more easily.

Besides, Indonesia declares it planned to rename waters around the Natuna Islands to "Natuna Sea", covering the entire maritime area in the South-West of the South China Sea, between the Malay Peninsula, Kalimantan and Sumatra islands. If the "Natuna Sea" is officially recognized by the United Nations, the border will run from the Natuna and Anambas Islands in the north, passes by Karimata and Gaspar Straits to Java Sea in the south, and is bordered in the west by the sea between Bintan Island and Malay Peninsula, connects to Singapore Strait and Malacca Strait. According to the Indonesian Government, the policy of renaming the sea around the Natuna Islands to "Natuna Sea" is to: (1) Assert maritime sovereignty, rejecting the so-called "historic interests" and "Nine-dash line" claim of China; (2) Strengthen control at sea, especially the exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands, to deploy oil and gas exploration and exploitation, use and management of the seabed and natural resources; (3) Contribute to increasing transparency of maritime sovereign rights, demonstrating its stance to enforce the law on prohibiting illegal fishing, strengthening effective management of government agencies; (4) Justify the legal basis for announcing the "Regional natural resources and oil and gas exploration map around the Natuna Islands and related areas".

In terms of military, in 2002, Indonesia lost Sipadan and Ligitan islands to Malaysia. This is the reason why Jakarta does not want to "a history repeated" in the Natuna Islands, especially when China always claims "historic sovereignty" over this maritime area. President Joko Widodo affirmed that the Indonesian government is determined to protect the islands at its best, taking strict measures against territorial intruders.

In the immediate, in addition to strengthening patrol forces, sending high capacity law enforcement vessels to protect, resolutely arrest and sink or burn any violating foreign fishing boats, the Indonesian Navy would establish the Satgas 115 - a task force - to combat illegal infringement activities. Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti stated: "Indonesia will not care about which country the ships or ship owners belong to. If they catch our fish, we will punish them straight away irrespective of bilateral relations in such situation”. In 2017, Indonesia's maritime functional forces seized and burnt many illegal foreign fishing vessels, including three Chinese ones. On June 28, 2017, the Indonesian parliament (DPR) approved the 2017 budget for the Ministry of Defense at USD 8.25 billion, an increase of approximate 10% compared to that of 2016. Part of this budget is used to upgrade the existing air base, to build a new port in the Natuna Islands that will allow various warships and aircrafts. Since 2016, Indonesia has conducted many prolonged, large-scale air, naval and army exercises in the Natuna Islands with the participation of thousands of soldiers, aircraft, warships, anti-ship missiles and special forces.

In the long term, Indonesia would strengthen its defense system in the Natuna Islands in response to China's plan to control the South China Sea. It is expected that in the coming years, Indonesia's Ministry of Defense might build radar stations in the Natuna Islands to control the whole area; deploy four more task forces in several islands with important positions; set up a number of small-scale military bases to form a defense system; build two new air bases in Ranai Island and Anambas Islands, permanently deploy Su-27, Su-30 and F-16 jet fighters; increase warehouse facilities, logistics services; deploy a number of multi-purpose air defense artillery complexes, etc. In addition, to strengthen protection of its sovereignty, Indonesia is also keen to develop its naval forces as well as promote defense cooperation with the United States. The two sides have reached policy consensus that the United States would provide technical assistance on equipment for the Indonesian military to build a supposedly largest radar system in the region, with an expected wide range of covering entire the South China Sea and its vicinity.

It can be said that sovereignty and interests competition between China and Indonesia in the surrounding areas of the Natuna Islands have complicated developments, with a potential of turning into fierce clashes. Although the Indonesian government has issued many new guidelines on improving management capacity, diplomatic, military, economic measures and strengthening legal bases, it is difficult to change China's ambition in the South China Sea in general and the Natuna Islands in particular. Therefore, if Indonesia is to protect its interests at sea, it needs to continue to take strong actions against China’s violating sovereignty acts in the Natuna Islands and raise its voice in support of neighboring countries in solving sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea.

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