A Chinese show of force to remember in the South China Sea

Greg Torode says Beijing has shown, this time with the help of a landing ship, that it has no qualms about pressing its South China Sea claims

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

Amid the daily cut and thrust surrounding the disputed South China Sea - a dangerous arena clouded by diplomatic bluster and military posturing - some events are more telling than others.

The PLA Navy's recent deployment of a fully equipped amphibious task force to stage a neatly choreographed show of sovereignty at an isolated shoal in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia is one move that will not be easily forgotten.

James Shoal is also claimed by Malaysia - it is just 80 kilometres off its coast and also close to Brunei - and is well south of the Spratlys archipelago, which can be seen as the epicentre of the broader dispute that involves Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei as well as Malaysia and China (and Taiwan). It is a territorial tangle that now resonates internationally.

For several years, Philippine and Vietnamese officials have expressed quiet frustration that they must constantly take the lead in confronting China over the "nine-dash line" that is the basis for its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, while Malaysia and Brunei remain in the shadows, according to regional security scholar Ian Storey.

However, the James Shoal mission - unprecedented in scale and led by the 200-metre-long, state-of-the-art landing ship Jinggangshan - draws Malaysia back into the fray, whether it likes it or not. It is a less-than-subtle reminder from Beijing that perceived diplomatic reticence is no defence against being drawn into its enforcement of sovereign claims.

Brunei officials had no idea of the presence of the Chinese task force until they were privately informed about gushing Xinhua reports of the operation, according to diplomats.

Malaysian foreign ministry officials quoted naval and maritime officials as saying they had not reported any sightings of Chinese ships in its waters - a response that raises more questions than answers. It can be difficult, after all, to formally protest about something that you did not see and, as some regional scholars have noted, Malaysia has more pressing domestic issues to deal with.

Reports of Malaysian and Bruneian ignorance also serve as a reminder that China did not apparently inform either country of the operation, despite the requirements of the landmark 2002 declaration of conduct on the South China Sea signed between Beijing and the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

This declaration, comprising a mix of restraining and confidence-building measures, has never been effectively implemented. The diplomatic effort to create, out of its ashes, a binding code of conduct appears deeply troubled if not entirely doomed. An Asean ministerial meeting to be held in Brunei this week is not expected to see any breakthroughs.

On this score, China has plenty of excuses to continue playing for time. But when it comes to dramatic assertions of sovereignty over the South China Sea, from the Paracels to Scarborough Shoal and now down south to James Shoal, Beijing is wasting little time.


Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent. greg.torode@scmp.com