A tri-nation approach to South China Sea row


Early this week in Manila, the defense chiefs of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia wound up discussions they began last month in Vientiane, Laos. They agreed to conduct “trilateral maritime and air patrols” in their “maritime areas of common concern,” particularly in the Sulu Sea where the three countries share borders.

They will establish a working group that will identify the operational directions of tri-nation patrols, with each country putting up a maritime command center responsible for deploying its military assets for the patrols.

Rising criminality, piracy, kidnapping, and smuggling in the Sulu Sea are major problems, thus the need to enhance collaborative efforts against these concerns. A Department of Defense statement said the defense chiefs “reaffirmed the need, commitment and collective responsibility of the countries to address such threats that undermine peace, security and prosperity in the region.”

Other steps agreed on: coordination of military activities on maritime security and putting up joint military command posts in specific locations; setting up a transit corridor – with designated sea lanes for ships entering the area of common concern; and establishing a trilateral database, information and intelligence sharing mechanism.

Although the ministerial-level accord particularly applies to the Sulu Sea, it can be upgraded and applied to the South China Sea. How so? One may point out that the Philippines and Malaysia (plus Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei) are involved in maritime-claim disputes with China over portions of the South China Sea, however Indonesia is not.

But given the increasing incidents of confrontation and clashes – three times already within this year – between Indonesian naval vessels and Chinese Coast Guard ships guarding fishing boats poaching in Indonesian waters, the latter may soon be sucked into the maritime disputes.

The areas of intrusion are waters around the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. For years, Indonesia saw no ground to complain as China had been stating that it recognizes Indonesia’s sovereignty over the islands. This supports Indonesia’s rightful assertion that the surrounding waters are part of its exclusive economic zones under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

However, after the third confrontation/clash last June 17, China’s foreign ministry said “China and Indonesia have overlapping claims for maritime rights” in the surrounding waters of Natuna Islands. In effect, China is now claiming its rights over Indonesia’s EEZ in that section of the SCS. But there was no fooling the commander of the Indonesian Navy fleet, whose warships confronted China’s Coast Guard vessels in Natuna waters, fired warning shots and detained a Chinese fishing boat and its crew. He aptly described the fishing intrusion as a “ruse” to stake a claim over the waters.

“They need a presence, and their way to do it is with fishing boats,” said Rear Admiral Achmad Taufic, adding: “We suspect that this is structured activity because they were guarded, which means that it was blessed by the [Chinese] government.”

Flexing Indonesia’s military muscles and sending China a stark message of his determination to assert sovereignty in the Natunas, President Joko Widodo, with his foreign minister and armed forces chief, last Thursday visited the place aboard a naval warship with fighter jets flying overhead.

These incidents follow a pattern: A few years earlier, Chinese fishing boats had repeatedly poached in the Philippines’ Panatag (Scarborough) shoals. Then China claimed rights over the area. Worse still, since 2012 it has actually taken occupation of the shoals.

Indonesia now finds itself in the same boat (so to speak) as the Philippines vis-à-vis China’s aggressiveness in laying claim over almost all of the South China Sea, via its so-called nine-dash line map that encroaches on the maritime claims of its neighbors.

In 2013 the Philippines filed a case challenging China’s claim before the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, in accordance with UNCLOS-prescribed procedures for resolving such disputes. The tribunal is reportedly set to issue its ruling in July – generally expected by observing nations to be in favor of the Philippines’ stand. But China, which refused to participate in the court proceedings, has repeatedly declared it will not recognize any ruling, insisting that bilateral negotiations with each claimant-nation is the only acceptable means of resolving the various claims.

While China is a signatory to the UNCLOS and is morally bound to abide by the tribunal’s decision, its obdurate stance owes to the fact that the tribunal has no clearly defined power to enforce its rulings. Nonetheless, if the Philippines wins the case, it will attain a moral high ground for winning over other UN member-countries to back up a diplomatic campaign to pressure or convince China to abide by the ruling.

In light of these developments, the incoming Duterte administration can very well start by convincing the Malaysian and Indonesian governments primarily to work closely together, trilaterally as they have agreed to do in the Sulu Sea – while seeking common cause with Vietnam and Brunei.

It’ll be instructive to review what happened to the short-lived Maphilindo (Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia), formed in Manila in July 1963. Initiated by President Diosdado Macapagal, the confederation aimed to deal with post-colonial concerns through mushawarah (regular consultations). Notable was the three nations’ agreement not to allow foreign military bases to be used, directly or indirectly, to subvert the national sovereignty of any of them, and to abstain from using collective defense agreements to serve the particular interest of any of the big powers (read: the United States).

But with Malaya emerging as Federation of Malaysia — a development manipulated by the British and the Americans, and which practically scuttled the Philippine claim to Sabah — mushawarah gave way to Indonesian President Sukarno’s konfrontasi (confrontation). Soon after, Maphilindo was gone.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in The Philippine Star
June 25, 2016

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