When West Capella, a drill ship hired by Malaysia’s national oil company Petronas to survey for oil in the South China Sea completed its activities last week, the US Navy ship Gabrielle Giffords left its base in Singapore to sail past it. It was the third time in recent weeks that the United States had conducted “presence operations” in the resource-rich waters, which has been the site of renewed tensions between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours over the latter’s oil exploration and fishing activities. Beijing claims a massive section of the South China Sea that extends roughly 1,000 miles from its southern shores. It has used Chinese government survey vessels, coastguard ships and fishing militia boats to maintain a presence there. While Beijing has said the vessels are carrying out normal activities, Washington has accused China of “bullying tactics”. In 2018, Vietnam – which has territorial claims in the disputed waterway along with Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines – suspended oil drilling projects by Spanish firm Repsol, reportedly due to Chinese pressure. Among Asean countries, Hanoi has been most vocal in its opposition to Beijing’s claims and activities, followed by Manila. Vietnam accuses Beijing of ‘seriously violating’ sovereignty in South China Sea The remaining eight Asean members have remained largely reticent and when they have commented, remarks have focused on the importance of avoiding conflict and maintaining regional stability. Analysts believe that individual countries will not publicly quarrel with China for fear of affecting trade and investment ties, especially amid an economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic . Joseph Liow Chin Yong, who is an expert on Asia-Pacific geopolitics at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the preference of Asean states was to engage in behind-the-scenes diplomacy, which allowed them to defend their integrity without burning any bridges with Beijing. SOVEREIGNTY IS KEY Hanoi’s decision to clash with Beijing head on reflects the neighbours’ complex relationship, where a concerted effort to boost bilateral trade has not dampened its assertions of national interest. Last week, it publicly opposed China’s annual summer fishing ban and urged its fisherman to keep up their activities around the Paracel Islands. Last month, the smaller Communist nation protested China’s decision to establish administrative districts on the Paracels, and another on the Spratly Islands, which are contested by Hanoi, Manila and Beijing. That came after Vietnam blamed China and lodged an official protest for sinking its fishing boat though the latter accused the vessel of ramming a coastguard ship. Hanoi is used to bilateral ties with Beijing turning sour, so it would rather protect its sovereignty than worry about fuelling hostilities Trung Nguyen, Vietnam National University Trung Nguyen, head of the international politics department at Vietnam National University, said Vietnam had opposed the fishing ban since it was introduced in 1999 and while it was aware of the risk of punitive action in the form of trade disruptions or travel restrictions, Hanoi wasn’t “too concerned”. “Hanoi is used to bilateral ties with Beijing turning sour, so it would rather protect its sovereignty than worry about fuelling hostilities,” he said. “Vietnam does not tolerate the fact that a neighbouring giant can impose a fishing ban in their waters, as stipulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Over in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration supported Vietnam after its fishing boat was sunk. Manila also filed diplomatic protests against China after a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ship pointed a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship and Beijing set up new administrative districts to govern the Paracels, Spratlys and Macclesfield Bank. Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law expert and associate professor at the University of the Philippines, acknowledged Manila was expressing a stronger position “which hasn’t been done recently”, but did not anticipate things getting more heated. Philippines expresses concern after China-Vietnam incident in South China Sea “Under the Duterte administration, the Philippines prefers to carry out diplomacy by submitting protests without announcement to the public to accommodate China’s desire for affairs to be handled quietly,” Batongbacal explained. This is in contrast to the previous Benigno Aquino administration, which took Beijing to court in 2013 over its territorial claims. After The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in 2016, Duterte was criticised for failing to enforce the decision as he pursued Chinese aid and investment deals. “I do not expect Manila to take any drastic action towards Beijing unless the PLA physically takes over Philippine-occupied islands,” said Anna Patricia Saberon, faculty member at Ateneo de Naga University. “The Philippine leadership is visibly pro-China and that will continue until Dutere’s term ends.” Similarly, Malaysia has met China’s veiled threat that energy exploration should not take place without Beijing’s participation with a measured response. When the months-long stand-off between Chinese and Malaysian vessels over West Capella’s activities peaked in April with US and Australian warships entering the area, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein warned of “miscalculations” that could affect stability and peace in the region. In his first official remarks on the stand-off, he said Malaysia was committed to safeguarding its interests and maintained “open and continuous communication” with all relevant parties, including China and the US. Two US warships in South China Sea during China-Malaysia stand-off Malaysia has moved to demonstrate its territorial interests though, last year claiming an extended continental shelf in the northern part of the South China Sea that Beijing opposed. Indonesia , which is not a claimant state but maintains an exclusive economic zone in the Natuna islands on the edge of the South China Sea, has challenged China’s efforts to fish in the region. Earlier this year, it protested against a Chinese coastguard vessel escorting Chinese fishing boats in the area and deployed fighter jets and warships on patrols. SO WHAT NEXT? Critics say Asean’s hesitance to take a united approach after years of simmering tensions in the disputed waters could embolden China to do more to stake its “historical rights” to the waters. This is especially because talks to finalise a code of conduct in the disputed waters have been pushed back because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past six years, China has built artificial islands and facilities in the South China Sea that can be used for military purposes. It has sparked a countermove by the US, which has no maritime claims in the waters, to maintain a strong presence through freedom of navigation operations and military flights, also as a means of showing support for its Asian allies. Trung Nguyen from Vietnam National University believes Washington’s assistance should be welcomed. “Washington’s commitments of upholding international law are what Asean nations need to protect their rights in the face of China’s assertive behaviour,” he said. The South China Sea is a regional concern but it’s left to each claimant state to find a solution. Asean was never meant to be involved in conflict resolution. Joseph Liow, Nanyang Technological University But Liow of NTU said that while US patrols are instrumental to regional security, no Asean state would ever declare that because they do not want to be seen siding with Washington against Beijing. Nguyen Quang Dy, a former Vietnamese foreign ministry official, has suggested a new regional security architecture to thwart future Chinese maritime expansion. One idea could be a “Quad-plus” arrangement, in which the US, Japan, India and Australia work closely with Asean countries, he wrote in a note published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which is funded by Canberra and foreign governments including the US. There is little indication though that the status quo is set to change. “The South China Sea is a regional concern but it’s left to each claimant state to find a solution,” Liow said. “Asean was never meant to be involved in conflict resolution.” Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.