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23/08/2019
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The South China Sea conflict - China vs the rest

  • As China further militarise the sea, the risks of conflict grow
  • China is pressing its claims over islands claimed by Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan and Brunei. Some of them are being occupied by force

Manila, March 26.─ For years China has sought to divide and rule in the South China Sea. It worked hard to prevent the countries challenging it over some or all of its absurdly aggrandising territorial claims in the sea from ganging up against it. So when tensions with one rival claimant were high, it tended not to provoke others.

Not any more. In a kind of united-front policy in reverse, it now seems content to antagonise them all at the same time. This is both encouraging closer co-operation among neighbours and driving them closer to external powers including India, Australia, Japan and, above all, America.

The latest fight China has picked is with a country with which—unlike Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam—it has no territorial dispute: Indonesia. 

On March 21st the chargé d’affaires at China’s embassy in Jakarta was hauled in to receive a stiff protest. A Chinese coastguard vessel had rammed free a Chinese fishing boat as it was towed into port after being caught allegedly fishing in Indonesian waters. The crew of eight was already in detention. In a similar incident three years ago, Indonesia released detained crew members when confronted by an armed “maritime law-enforcement” vessel belonging to China’s fisheries bureau.

Since that incident Indonesia has elected a new president, Joko Widodo, one of whose trumpeted policies has been to look after the interests of fishermen. To deter illegal interlopers, Indonesia now impounds and blows up foreign vessels caught poaching. In this case, it seems clear that the Chinese were in Indonesian waters. Indonesia claims that the boat was just four kilometres off the Natuna islands, well within Indonesia’s 12 nautical-mile territorial limit, let alone its 200-nautical-mile “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ).

China explicitly acknowledges Indonesian sovereignty over the Natunas. Yet instead of apologising, China’s foreign ministry demanded the fishermen’s release ...

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