Category Archives: China

Engulfing Natuna: Indonesia and the 9-Dashed Line

Last month, a small fleet of Chinese fishing vessels escorted by the Chinese Coast Guard began fishing the waters of the Indonesian island of Natuna, making it the latest center of tension in the South China Sea. Natuna and the exclusive economic zone around it sit very close to the infamous 9-dashed line China claims as its maritime boundary in the region, raising the risk of confrontation over where Beijing decides it can send its trawlers. Though Indonesia denies it is a South China Sea claimant, Jakarta is discovering the South China Sea controversy may claim Natuna anyway.

Origins of the Dispute

Though territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not new, the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1986 codified an array of customary international laws regarding maritime boundaries. While this solved a great many problems, it created others. One of those was the need for China (and others) to establish their baselines in the South China Sea. China did this by reviving an old map featuring nine dashes in a line extending far to the south of Hainan Island, the now infamous 9-dashed line.

The South China Sea is now one of the world’s most heavily disputed areas. No fewer than six states have overlapping claims on all the resources within exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles from their UNCLOS-defined baselines. Not only does the 9-dashed line put China at odds with all of these claimant states, the ambiguity of using a dashed line as an international boundary enables Beijing to flexibly interpret its claim, including the EEZ around Natuna.

Claims in the South China Sea that affect NatunaShortly after the Chinese flotilla arrived in mid-December, Indonesia registered a complaint with the Chinese ambassador. The response from Beijing provided no legal argument, saying that their fisherman “have long been active in the area.” This, however, is not the first time Jakarta faced problems with Chinese encroachment. Since October 2014, the administration of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has sunk well over 500 foreign vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. Most of those were destroyed in spectacular controlled explosions broadcast on the internet to maximize their deterrent effect.

Though, the vast majority were not seized near Natuna, nor were most of them Chinese. Still, Beijing has been careful to avoid triggering Indonesia’s inherent right to self-defense through the use of tools like the Chinese Maritime Militia, a fleet of civilian craft that operate in a coordinated manner to disrupt and intimidate non-Chinese shipping. The ambiguous status of the Maritime Militia protects it from military responses and instead pits it against coastal law enforcement agencies that are less well-equipped to deal with them. The deployment of the Chinese Coast Guard – rather than the Maritime Militia – from the outset of the Natuna drama suggests Beijing does not believe ambiguity will protect it from Indonesian reprisals.

Jakarta’s Natuna Response

The Indonesian response was substantial despite being slow to gather. After receiving the unsatisfactory reply from Beijing on January 1st the Jokowi administration increased naval patrols in Natuna on January 3rd. Then it dispatched two additional warships followed by four F-16 fighter aircraft to Indonesia’s brand-new military base on the island. By the time of Jokowi’s visit on the 8th, where he delivered a defiant speech in defense of Indonesian sovereignty, Natuna was host to the F-16s and seven warships, more than double its usual complement.

Though China withdrew its flotilla to the boundary of Natuna’s EEZ on January 9th, Indonesia’s Chief Security Minister, Mahfud MD, announced the Navy would sustain increased patrolling for a time. Additionally, in a move that echoes the ambiguity of China’s Maritime Militia, the Indonesian Fisherman Association sent some 500 fishing vessels to Natuna to deter further incursions. Though it is not clear exactly how this will work or how effective this type of response will continue to be in the future, for now, Jakarta has made the point that it does not take incursions into its waters lightly. That it did so without regional partners suggests this will not be the last time China attempts to push the limits.

ASEAN Leadership

Many observers believe a strong Indonesian response will stiffen the resolve of other claimant states to stand up to China. Still, that kind of unity on South China Sea issues has been elusive at best. China adopted a divide and conquer strategy early on, insisting on negotiating disputes bilaterally. Beijing wields its economic power as a foreign policy tool, granting or withholding commercial assistance in accordance with its priorities. As this element of Chinese influence grows, so, too, does its impact and effectiveness on its rivals. The strategy has been successful thus far. ASEAN has been unable to agree on a declaration regarding the South China Sea and still hotly debates a less muscular “code of conduct.”

Indonesia is the largest ASEAN member state in almost every measurable way. While its leadership in the region is real and significant, Natuna is not even a unifying issue within Jokowi’s government. While he and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi focus on the sovereignty of Indonesia’s EEZ, the powerful Defense Minister, Prabowo Subianto, downplays the issue and frames it as an economic one. Prabowo’s rhetoric when he ran for President against Jokowi positioned him as a virulently anti-Chinese candidate. His transformation illustrates the sensitivity of this issue to domestic politics.

Indonesia, like every other South China Sea claimant state, must determine how to defend its sovereignty against an increasingly powerful and assertive China. Bandwagoning with other ASEAN member states is clearly not an option. Balancing behavior and alliances with regional and global powers can help prevent the situation from escalating to armed conflict. Still, both are problematic for the island nation with a defiantly independent tradition. In Natuna, Jakarta elected to employ a show of military force as a deterrent, and it worked…this time. However, Beijing has proven adept at applying all its elements of national power to achieve its goals. As the 9-dashed line creeps forward and the South China Sea dispute threatens to engulf Natuna, Jakarta will find its military power stretched in ways it is not designed to operate.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

How the Pro-Democracy Election Victory Could Calm Hong Kong

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

Nearly 3 million of Hong Kong’s 4 million registered voters expressed their disapproval of the city’s current government in a decisive local election on Nov. 24 that reduces the Hong Kong authorities’ political potency and also gives the opposition and protest movement a mandate to push against Beijing’s control. In theory, the huge electoral victory gives only a marginal political boost to the opposition in an institution that is otherwise heavily tilted in favor of the pro-establishment forces and ultimately controlled by Beijing. Nevertheless, the opposition now has much stronger backing to promote its pro-democracy agenda.


The Big Picture

Hong Kong voters went to the polls for the first time since the city’s latest political crisis began in an election to select local representatives. The vote, coming six months into a protest movement that has gripped Hong Kong, amounted to a referendum of the city’s Beijing-backed leadership. An overwhelming victory for pro-democracy candidates significantly altered Hong Kong’s political landscape and dealt the current government a blow, weakening the key pillar Beijing relies upon to exercise control.

See China in Transition


According to Hong Kong’s Registration and Electoral Office, opposition pro-democracy parties won 77 percent of the 452 total seats up for grabs, giving them control of 17 of the city’s 18 districts. This is a sharp reversal of the pro-establishment’s near-dominance of the district councils (those groups held 70 percent of total seats and controlled all districts since 2015). The record-high turnout of 71 percent, compared with the 40 percent average for previous district council elections, reflects high political awareness among the city’s residents, who were energized by the protest movement and undeterred by street battles between protesters and the police leading up to the election and the strong security presence during Hong Kong’s only direct and democratic election.

A Symbolic Landslide

The district councils traditionally hold little political power beyond decisions over local community affairs. But six months of persistent — and increasingly violent — protests effectively transformed this year’s election into a proxy battle along partisan lines, with the defeat of the pro-establishment camp apparently weakening a key pillar of governance supporting Beijing’s control in the city. The result also energizes the opposition, boosting its prospects in next year’s Legislative Council elections and could give it as many as 117 additional seats on the 1,200-member election committee that will choose Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2022. Even with the momentum from the district council vote, it’s unlikely the opposition will be able to capture a majority in either the Legislative Council or on the election committee.

But the results do send a clear measure of the strength of societal approval for it to pursue pro-democracy measures. Ultimately this means the central government will be forced to address opposition demands in some fashion or risk drawing an even stronger reaction on the streets as well as more international scrutiny. The number of opposition candidates who take seats in the local councils, however, will also lead to political impasses with the Beijing-friendly city administration over community affairs, likely leading to gridlock over local enforcement for years to come.

Despite the strong performance by opposition candidates, the raw vote totals do not necessarily translate into a sweeping popular endorsement of the protest movement, especially its more violent elements. The opposition candidates won 57 percent of the total popular vote, an improvement from their average 40 percent share of vote totals in the previous two district elections in 2011 and 2015, but not a dramatic one. Critically, this year’s election outcome will not appease the city’s more radical protesters, whose confrontations with authorities have persisted largely irrespective of the city’s political process. But the strong performance of pan-democracy politicians could restore the prominence of the protest movement’s more moderate voices.

What Could Happen Next

The local election results could effectively infuse the city’s political institutions with the spirit of Hong Kong’s street battles. The election may also provide a window of temporary respite in Hong Kong, but it likely will not last much more than a matter of days or weeks. Several major developments in the near future could signal whether the election result will lead to spikes in protest activity or whether the opposition’s demands will be channeled into political action, even as the broader protest movement is set to stay. Here are the signs to watch.

What the Protest Movement Does Next: Protest-related violence notably ebbed on election day, reflecting a degree of unity in the protest movement. One test of that unity will be whether the opposition’s electoral gains will help moderate protest groups and pan-democracy leaders discourage the more radical elements in the movement from resuming their violent tactics. It also raises the question of how the election results will be used as leverage to push forward the protesters’ demands. In particular, a scheduled protest on Dec. 8 by the Civil Human Rights Front will be important to monitor. What happens surrounding that protest will show whether protesters of all stripes can maintain a collective front on the pro-democracy demands. Another key question is whether the radical wing of the movement will maintain the peace as it did over election weekend or whether there is a quick return to disruptive action.

The loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals.

How Hong Kong Authorities Respond: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she and her government would “seriously reflect” on the Nov. 24 results, but ultimately, Beijing will determine how she and her government respond. As happened in 2003, when mass protests led to a similar defeat of pro-establishment forces and the resignation of several key officials, the election results will almost certainly cause more fissures within the administration and possibly prompt a few officials to resign. There is also a possibility that Lam’s administration could make political concessions to try to appease moderate protesters. Anything short of those gestures, however, will only deepen the political crisis.

What Beijing Does Next: The Chinese central government has issued no official responses to the election outcome beyond making convenient accusations, blaming “outside interference” for the result. Nonetheless, the loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals. Thus, it may find the more expedient course of action will be to isolate itself from the mess by scapegoating the Hong Kong authorities and forcing the resignation of some Cabinet officials — and possibly even Lam herself. Beijing may even go as far as to influence the Hong Kong authority to pursue an inquiry of police actions during earlier protests — a key demand of protesters that the Admiralty rejected out of hand. Beijing certainly doesn’t want whatever concessions it grants to further embolden the protesters and the pro-democracy movement. But its more hard-line alternatives — especially the disqualification of a few of the recently elected pro-democracy candidates — would immediately inflame protests and push a resolution of the city’s crisis even further away.


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Islands of Conflict: Where Trade and Security Collide

On Tuesday, July 23rd, a combined Sino-Russian air operation nearly sparked a four-way air battle over the Sea of Japan by coming provocatively close to the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands. Sometime in the middle of the day, the Republic of Korea scrambled fighters to intercept a large flight of Russian and Chinese bombers plus fighter escorts and a control aircraft that approached the sensitive airspace. The Korean jets fired warning shots, causing the intruders to change course. A few minutes later however, the package returned and was again intercepted by the Koreans. This time, Japanese fighters also responded, leading to a very dangerous situation and a formal protest from Tokyo. 

Though the scramble of fighters is not uncommon in these waters — Japan did so 390 times in 2017 — the discharge of weapons is a very serious incident, especially over disputed airspace. What remains uncertain however is whether the intrusion was an accident or a deliberate act intended to cause discord between two US allies. Russia initially denied culpability, accusing the Koreans of “hooliganism in the air” and questioning the legitimacy of the Korean air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Later that day however, Moscow blamed it on a technical glitch and promised to launch an investigation. Statements from the Chinese defense ministry on the other hand, contradicted the Russian stance; claiming the flight was executed as planned and insisting their aircraft did not violate Korean air space. Deliberate or not, the incident exposed widening cracks in US-led security arrangements in Northeast Asia and exacerbated a growing trade dispute between Japan and the Republic of Korea.

The Dokdo/Takeshima Islands

The tiny islands called Dokdo by the Republic of Korea and Takeshima by Japan have been an irritant in Japanese-Korean relations since the Second World War. Occupied by Korea but claimed by Japan, the rising economic and military power of Korea in the past 20 years increased the islands’ importance as a symbol of national sovereignty and pride. As a result, the frequency and intensity of squabbles over them also increased. Depending which source one consults, the islands were officially recognized as Korean in the 17th century but annexed by Japan during their colonization of the Korean kingdom beginning in 1905. Though not specifically mentioned in the San Francisco Treaty that ended American occupation of Japan, the islands were mostly forgotten until Korean forces occupied them in 1952 where they remain to this day. Despite recognizing the islands as Japanese, the US-led occupation government (still operating at that time) in Tokyo muted Japanese protests in order to maintain a unified front in Northeast Asia against the rise of Communism there. 

The islands became important again in 1994 when the UN convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) came into force. UNCLOS drastically increased the economic importance of even the smallest of maritime terrain features as states all over the globe used them to delimit the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Since then, Dokdo/Takeshima has become more than just a point of pride, it is the key to some of the world’s best fishing grounds and any other economic riches that may lie within the 200 nautical mile EEZ surrounding it.

The Sino-Russian air operation on Tuesday also touched on how Beijing and Moscow believe boundaries should be drawn and security administered in Northeast Asia. The Korean ADIZ, for example, is not completely recognized by China or Russia, though they have different reasons to dispute the boundaries of that airspace management tool. For its part, China also has territorial disputes with both Japan and Korea in the East China Sea. By ensuring their air patrol also came close to the Socotra Rocks in the East China Sea (disputed with Korea), China and Russia managed to irritate the allies on a number of touch points simultaneously.

Routes followed by Chinese and Russian aircraft on 23 July
The Japanese Ministry of Defense released this map depicting the routes flown by Russian and Chinese aircraft on 23 July. Note their proximity to disputed islands.

Connections

The incident over Dokdo/Takeshima took place at a time when Japan and Korea are involved in an escalating trade dispute. Faced with an upper house election last week and falling tech exports due to the ongoing US-China trade war, Japan tightened its approval process on tech-related chemicals critical to Korean manufacture of memory chips. The Koreans, whose semiconductor industry makes 2/3 of the world’s memory chips for smart phones, accused the Japanese of retaliating for a Korean court decision demanding compensation to victims of forced labor during the Second World War. Japan rejected this claim but took steps to prevent World Trade Organization (WTO) sanctions by invoking national security, citing cases of inappropriate export of the chemicals in question to North Korea. Tokyo then doubled-down on their position by threatening to remove South Korea from a “white list” of countries with whom Japanese companies can trade with minimal oversight. Korea argues, with some justification, such a move would have devastating impact on the global supply chain that supports smart phone manufacture.

All these complex escalations took place in the two weeks leading up to the incident at Dokdo/Takeshima. Whether or not Japanese trade sanctions and the Korean responses to them are actually connected to ongoing disputes over wartime labor or a tiny set of islands, the dangerous incident in the skies over the Sea of Japan puts the convergence of all this disruptive maneuvering into a very disturbing context. If nothing else, it highlights the connections between politics, trade, and security in Northeast Asia. To the extent this was the intent of Russia and China, it will be interesting to see whether the United States plays a constructive role in cooling the temperature amid its own contentious trade disputes in the region. 


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC