[Analytics] Three-way fray spells toil and trouble in South China Sea

Tensions have been growing between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

A new three-way dispute has broken into the open in the South China Sea, one that brings two Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) members into conflict along with China over coveted energy resources. Richard Javad Heydarian specially for the Asia Times.

Malaysia, Vietnam and China have for weeks been locked in a quiet naval standoff in a disputed southwestern area of the sea, marking a new source of acrimony in ASEAN and Beijing’s latest bid to block Southeast Asian claimants from tapping the maritime area’s rich bounty of oil and gas.

Beijing has deployed its so-called “monster” China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels to an area it considers part of its continental shelf. Of the trio involved in the remote sea standoff, China has by far the greater naval firepower.

Malaysia triggered the showdown by unilaterally exploring for energy resources beyond its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank.

Based on ATMI’s satellite imagery, Malaysia deployed the West Capella, a British drillship contracted to state-owned energy giant Petronas, in December to blocks ND1 and ND2, both of which fall within the Malaysia-Vietnam Joint Defined Area (JDA) as well as China’s nine-dash line that lays claim to some 90% of the sea.

In response, ATMI says, both Vietnam and China have deployed significant naval firepower to the area to disrupt and stop Malaysia’s energy exploration activities through intimidation.

Malaysia’s surprise move, launched under then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, appears to violate the 2009 joint Malaysian-Vietnam extended continental shelf submitted by both sides to the United Nations (UN), whereby they agreed to avoid any unilateral action in their overlapping claim areas.

The decision also coincided with Malaysia’s recent bolt-from-the-blue new extended continental shelf submission to the UN, which reaches northwards into areas also claimed by China and Vietnam.

Caught off-guard by Kuala Lumpur’s new assertiveness and ambition, Hanoi has deployed militia vessels to the area. Beijing has responded by launching the China Coast Guard’s (CCG) Haijing 5202 and 5203 and the monster 4,000-ton Zhaoduan-class vessel 5305 to the disputed maritime region.

Malaysia doubled-down on its initial move by deploying the Royal Malaysian Navy’s KD Jebat 2,270-ton guided missile destroyer to protect the West Capella’s operations, forcing the CCG vessel (5203) at one juncture in January to stand down.

Malaysia has followed up with increasingly assertive naval maneuvers, including the deployment of the Kedah-class patrol vessel KD Kelantan to defend its drillship.

Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency also joined the fray by deploying a 45-meter patrol vessel, the KM Bagan Datuk, as part of a growing flotilla assembled to protect its energy exploration activities.

Vietnam, for its part, has reportedly stationed two 40-meter boats from its maritime militia forces directly between the Malaysian and Chinese vessels, asserting its own claim in the area while apparently shunning further escalation.

By mid-February, China had also deployed its own maritime militia forces, stationed in Hainan island, to watch over the West Capella.

Upping the ante, CCG vessels have simultaneously initiated a showdown with Malaysia at the Luconia Shoals, where Beijing maintains a near-constant presence off the coast of Malaysia’s eastern Sarawak state.

The CCG is also waging a campaign of intimidation against Malaysian energy development projects at oil and gas block SK408, currently operated by Sapura Energy with joint investment from Sarawak Shell and Petronas.

As of late February, there were no signs of de-escalation or resolution as all three rival claimants maintained their positions in the energy-rich area.

“The West Capella and its offshore supply vessels continue to operate in block ND1. Vietnamese militia vessels remain on-station monitoring and likely demanding it halt its work,” AMTI said in a recent analysis based on months-long collection of satellite images.

“Chinese militia and law enforcement ships continue to approach dangerously close to the rig and supply vessels, creating risks of collision as they have during other oil and gas operations over the last year,” the ATMI report added.

While Malaysia’s pursuit of energy development in the sea signals a new resolve by smaller states to counter China’s recent expansionism, it simultaneously threatens to undermine already fast-fraying ASEAN solidarity.

Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and most recently Indonesia all have competing claims with China in the sea, with certain disputes burning hotter than others.

Malaysia’s activities “undermine whatever solidarity Southeast Asian parties might hope to build in their oil and gas disputes with Beijing,” the ATMI report says.

All three nations have so far kept the situation under secretive wraps, preferring to wage their fight over energy resources in the shadows and without lodging public diplomatic threats or statements.

With Vietnam serving as ASEAN’s rotating chairman in 2020, the South China Sea disputes were widely expected to take center stage. To date, the three-way spat to which Vietnam is a party has not been broached.

Vietnam’s previous chairmanship, in 2010, coincided with a historic shift in regional geopolitics as the United States and key bloc members started to push back against China’s expansionism in the maritime area.

Vietnam leveraged the leadership role then to encourage its former battlefield adversary the US to take a tougher line against China, with then-top diplomat Hillary Clinton inserting the US in the middle of the spats.

“The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” Clinton said at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in speech that signaled America’s coming shift on the issue.

Presaging Beijing’s harder line, then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechie uncharacteristically lashed out at Southeast Asian states, warning in what has since become an often repeated line, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

The region’s top diplomats had vowed to forge greater unity on the festering disputes at a meeting in Hanoi in January, while welcoming the since postponed US-ASEAN Leaders Summit in Las Vegas as an opportunity to build strategic cooperation.

But with Malaysia and Vietnam locked in a sea showdown with China firmly in the middle, individual state interests are clearly taking precedence over collective bloc ones in the troubled and crucial waterway.

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