South China Sea Watch No. 2

South China Sea Watch No. 2
Photo Credit: AP / 達志影像

What you need to know

An overview of key developments in the South China Sea this week.

The Indonesian defense minister on June 20 confirmed that an Indonesian warship had fired warning shots at Chinese fishing vessels and detained one of the vessels along with seven of its crewmembers on June 17. The incident took place off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna islands. China said one crewman involved in the incident was injured, a claim that Indonesia denies.

Although the islands are not included in China’s territorial claims, Indonesia’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone extending from the islands overlaps with China’s nine-dash line, the South China Morning Post reports.

On June 22, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced plans to visit Natuna on June 23 to demonstrate Indonesian sovereignty over the islands, the Jakarta Post reported. Widodo said during the visit that he wants to prioritize the islands in development over fishery and energy sectors, according to Republika.

President Widodo’s move mirrored former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) visits to Itu Aba (Taiping Island), an island administered by Taiwan in the South China Sea, in January, and to Pengjia Islet in the East China Sea in April.

China plans to send tourists to the contested Spratly Islands on regular cruise trips by 2020, Hong Kong Free Press reported on June 23. A provincial tourism official from Hainan Province called the Spratlys “virgin territory for China’s tourism industry.”

Chinese companies already operate cruise trips for Chinese nationals to the disputed Paracel Islands since 2013. The BBC reports that many people who embark on the cruise trips do not intend to enjoy themselves. A woman who was getting onboard a cruise to the Paracels told the BBC, “We’ve been educated since birth that it’s our motherland’s sacred territory. It’s our duty to go and see.” Chinese citizens take part in patriotic events such as a national flag raising ceremony during their time on the Paracel Islands.

"It is practical to stimulate the local economy through development of tourism, logistics and infrastructure facilities," the chairman of COSCO Shipping, one of the companies operating cruises to the Islands, told China Daily.

China has been using its financial wealth to shift international opinion in its favor. The newly elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, announced his government’s willingness to conduct bilateral negotiations if China agrees to build a railway from the capital Manila to Clark, a city north of Manila. His stance veered from that of his successor, Benigno Aquino, who sued China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea at the Court of Permanent Arbitration in the Hague.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on June 22 announced his support for China’s claims in the South China Sea, CRI reports. Zimbabwe has been receiving substantial development aid from China for years and has even adopted the renminbi as an official currency.

Simon Denyer of the Washington Post described how China used its “financial clout” to force ASEAN to retract a statement addressing South China Sea tensions. He says China was able to take advantage of disunity in ASEAN, forcing Laos to withdraw from an initial joint statement.

First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Edward White