In a recent post here on The Strategist, Benjamin Schreer spoke of China’s ‘Achilles heel’ in Southeast Asia: its unwillingness to compromise in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. This is an excellent point and undoubtedly true, as concerns over China’s claims are longstanding in the region, though it’s also important to emphasise the ongoing incidents at sea as a driving factor in the strategic perceptions of ASEAN. In other words, it’s not just China’s claims that cause concern in Southeast Asia—it’s China’s seeming willingness and intention to enforce these claims that’s currently driving anxiety in ASEAN capitals.
While incidents between China and claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines in the northern part of the South China Sea have received their fair share of publicity (and rightfully so), there have also been a number of less publicised incidents in the south involving Malaysia and Indonesia. As the Director of Intelligence and Information Operations at US Pacific Command, Captain James Fannell observed earlier this year: ‘If you map out their (China’s) harassments, you will see that they form a curved front that has over time expanded out against the coast of China’s neighbours, becoming the infamous nine-dashed line.’
Several of these incidents, most recently in March 2013, have occurred between Indonesian and Chinese maritime security forces in Indonesia’s EEZ off Natuna Island. While Indonesia isn’t a claimant state to the disputes in the South China Sea as commonly conceived, Chinese claims as defined under the now infamous ‘nine dash line’ map do overlap with the Indonesian EEZ generated from the Natunas. Despite receiving comparatively little publicity, the incidents that have occurred in this area have been some of the most severe anywhere in the South China Sea, with direct threats of violence at times risking escalation. One particular incident illustrates this kind of encounter. The following is a summary extracted from an Indonesian incident report.
On 26 March 2013, the Indonesian vessel Hiu Macan 001 of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries encountered a Chinese fishing boat operating illegally in the South China Sea, roughly 200km northeast of Natuna Island in waters comprising the Indonesian EEZ. According to an after action report that appeared on an Indonesian military blog, Garuda Militer in September 2013, and was purportedly written by the Captain of the HM 001, the Chinese ship (numbered 58081) was subsequently boarded and all nine Chinese fishermen on board arrested. Despite having transferred these fishermen to his boat on orders from his command headquarters to transport them ashore for further legal proceedings, the Captain would later be forced to release his prisoners following threats and harassment by a Chinese maritime law enforcement (MLE) vessel, Yuzheng 310.
The Yuzheng 310 was preceded on the scene by the Nan Feng, listed as a 66 meter, nearly two thousand ton ‘fishery resources and environmental science research vessel’ of the Chinese Academy of Fisheries Science (CAFS), which began to shadow the HM 001 for several hours. Unlike the Nan Feng, which is unarmed, the Yuzheng 310 is reportedly ‘equipped with machine guns, light cannons and electronic sensors.’ (PDF) Upon arriving on scene, the Yuzheng 310 took command and immediately began to threaten the Indonesian vessel, demanding the release of the Chinese prisoners over bridge to bridge communications while signalling for it to stop with sirens. Outgunned and unable to reach his HQ via satellite phone (which had stopped functioning upon the Yuzheng’s arrival, and later functioned again following its departure), the Captain of the HM 001 made the decision to acquiesce to the Chinese demands out of ‘consideration for the safety of the crew’(Dengan pertimbangan demi keselamatan awak).
While the Captain doesn’t directly assert in his report that the Chinese ship threatened the use of force, his stated rationale of fearing for the safety of his crew implies a serious concern over the possibility that force might be employed by the Yuzheng 310 had he failed to meet its demands. Such threats wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for incidents that had occurred previously in that same area. In fact, a remarkably similar incident occurred in June 2010 (PDF), when the Yuzheng 311 reportedly ‘pointed a large calibre machine gun at an Indonesian patrol boat which had captured a Chinese fishing boat near the Indonesian held Natuna islands, and compelled it to release the boat.’ Other reports suggest another incident occurred earlier in May of that year, also involving Yuzheng 311, which ‘successfully threatened an Indonesian naval patrol that was detaining an illegal Chinese fishing boat.’ To my knowledge, these are the only incidents anywhere in the South China Sea involving a direct threat to use force by a Chinese MLE vessel, done with the clear intention of actively coercing, or compelling, another security vessel to reverse a law enforcement action it had already undertaken.
According to Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto at RSIS in Singapore, Indonesia doesn’t discuss such incidents publicly out of concern that it may ‘tarnish the image of a neutral party in the disputes.’ Such neutrality undoubtedly holds true for the Spratlys, but when the disputes in the South China Sea are conceived of in the wider sense of everything encompassed within the nine-dash line map, China’s growing enforcement of its expansive claims poses a direct threat to the national security of Indonesia. With this tension between neutrality and self-interest becoming more pronounced in recent years, analysts such as Supriyanto have begun to question whether this new dynamic may lead Indonesia to begin to ‘balance’ against China in the years ahead, along with its other neighbours. Indeed, there may be elements of such behaviour already becoming evident in Indonesia’s broader security strategy.
Following the publication of detailed first hand incident reports that include geolocation information, it’s no longer necessary to take Captain Fannell at his word: it’s clear that, along with increased Chinese presence, a growing number of incidents at sea are spanning out to the furthest reaches of the nine-dash line map, with China’s ‘Achilles heel’ now firmly stretching across the entirety of the South China Sea. All you have to do is look at a map.
Scott Bentley is currently a PhD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy, UNSW. His research focuses on security strategies in maritime Southeast Asia.