China is deploying more surveillance and paramilitary ships to the South China Sea without a clear legal framework to assert its ambiguous territorial claims, risking more confrontations, a report said yesterday.
The bigger patrol ships sent by Chinese maritime surveillance and fisheries agencies have figured in major flare-ups, including an ongoing standoff with a Philippine Coast Guard vessel over a disputed shoal off the western Philippine coast.
At the same time, the nearly dozen Chinese government agencies handling Beijing’s claims compete over budget and power and operate with conflicting mandates and lack of coordination, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in its report.
Six countries — including Taiwan — are engaged in territorial rifts in the South China Sea, crossed by one of the world’s busiest commercial sea-lanes and accounting for about 10 percent of the annual global fisheries catch.
A map China submitted to the UN in 2009 claims virtually the entire area, but Beijing has so far refused to define the exact extent of its claims, causing confusion and fostering potential conflicts, the ICG said.
Some Chinese ships, according to the ICG, were unaware of the limits of the areas where they were supposed to assert sovereignty.
ICG said it interviewed an official with the Maritime Safety Administration in China’s Hainan Province who said he did not know what area to defend. The official was not further identified.
The China Marine Surveillance, an agency patrolling the South China Sea, plans to increase its personnel from 9,000 to 15,000 and the number of ships from 280 to 520 by 2020, the ICG said. Another agency, the China Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, plans to acquire more helicopter-carrying patrol ships. Such buildup is separate from the strengthening of China’s navy, according to the Brussels-based group.
Manila has asked Beijing to bring their disputes to the UN for arbitration, a process that will require both to delineate their claims. However, Chinese officials have insisted on negotiating with other claimants individually.
The latest confrontation erupted on April 10 when a Filipino warship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen, who were accused of illegally entering and poaching endangered species at Scarborough Shoal (黃岩島). Two Chinese surveillance ships prevented the arrests and the fishermen slipped away.
Also yesterday, the Philippines warned that China’s sweeping territorial claims in the region may eventually threaten freedom of navigation in the busy region and called on Western and Asian countries to take a stand against any such potential threat.
Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said China has claimed virtually the entire South China Sea for years. Now, they can aggressively assert its claims as shown by its actions at Scarborough Shoal, he told reporters.
“This is a manifestation of a potential threat to freedom of navigation as well as unimpeded commerce in the area,” he added.
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario said that with Beijing claiming almost everything in the South China Sea, “the message is [Beijing] can set the rules for anybody.”
“I think the current standoff is a manifestation of a larger threat to many nations,” Del Rosario told a local TV network in an interview. “They should be concerned if they’re interested in maintaining the freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce.”