Push back against China’s attempts to dominate South China Sea

China is accelerating moves to expand its maritime interests in the South China Sea. Its efforts to push ahead with unilaterally changing the status quo under the facade of fishing activities violate international law and cannot be accepted.

Many Chinese fishing boats have massed around the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea — where China, the Philippines and other countries are competing for sovereignty — and have been moored there for one month. The Philippine military said it has also spotted structures that have been constructed in the waters.

There is a strong possibility that these fishing boats could be manned by armed “maritime militia personnel” consisting mainly of Chinese veterans and fishermen. It is clear that China aims to make its territorial claims in the area a fait accompli.

China has claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea by setting up a legally unfounded border, but this claim was entirely rejected in a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal. China should respect the rule of law.

The Chinese side has said the fishing boats have gathered to avoid the wind. But bad weather is unlikely to last as long as a month. It is also doubtful whether the fishing boats are actually used for fishing.

The Philippine government said the structures have been set up within its exclusive economic zone, in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is also calling for the immediate removal of the fishing boats.

At the same time, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has often taken China into consideration in his words and actions, to secure Chinese vaccine against the novel coronavirus and promote economic cooperation with China. It cannot be denied that China is taking advantage of the weakness of the Philippines.

Using fishing boats and maritime militias to advance aggressively into the sea has become a common approach for China. Militias are considered an “armed organization” along with the military and armed police under China’s national defense law.

The involvement of maritime militias has been noted in the past — when China strengthened its control over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea with its fishing boats anchoring around the area, and when Chinese fishing boats gathered off the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

It is extremely problematic to send to disputed waters personnel whose actual status as soldiers or fishermen is unknown, and to make China’s presence a norm and violate sovereignty while the other country involved struggles to crack down on such personnel.

The coast guard legislation that went into effect in February stipulates that the China Coast Guard, the country’s maritime security organization, can use weapons if China’s sovereignty is judged to have been violated. If another country excludes Chinese fishing boats, China intends to have its coast guard intervene under the pretext that its sovereignty has been violated and threaten to use force.

Rather than being a maritime security organization, the China Coast Guard can be seen as a de facto “second navy.”

There are fears that a similar approach will be used around the Senkaku Islands. Japan must continue to urge China to refrain from provocations while improving its response capabilities to deal with all kinds of situations.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 14, 2021.