The Trump administration has rammed home its tougher line on the South China Sea.
Jakarta/Sydney | The Trump administration's careful emphasis on maritime matters rather than territorial claims in its emboldened stance against China in the South China Sea has given Indonesia a new ally in its ongoing fight over fish.
In a speech delivered on Tuesday (Wednesday AEST), a senior US official expanded on the declaration by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the day before that China's claims to offshore resources in the region were unlawful.
In Tuesday's speech, David Stilwell, Assistant Secretary of the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, made it clear that, on the fourth anniversary of an international tribunal finding that had ruled the People's Republic of China out of bounds, the US was coming to the party.
"The PRC has no lawful maritime claim vis-a-vis the Philippines over waters determined by the tribunal to be in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone or on its continental shelf. Within those areas, Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development is unlawful," he said.
The speech made clear the US would continue to avoid taking sides on which nation has sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. But it is emphatically siding with nations that have maritime disputes over resources outside of these disputed territories. Stilwell name-checked those other than the Philippines: China's claims in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), Natuna Besar (off Indonesia), and in the waters off Brunei’s economic exclusion zone.
"Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development – or to unilaterally carry out such activities on its own – is unlawful. Period," Stilwell said.
He also called attention to the use of state-owned enterprises by China to make these claims.
"Numerous PRC state-owned tourism, telecom, fisheries and banking firms invest in ways to enable Beijing’s unlawful claims and bullying. PRC fishing fleets in the South China Sea often operate as maritime militia under the direction of China’s military, harassing and intimidating others as a tool of violent state coercion.
"These state enterprises are modern-day equivalents of the East India Company," Stilwell said, a comparison bound to draw attention in Indonesia, where the East India company before and after nationalisation by the Dutch is regarded as plunderer-in-chief in the centuries before an independent Indonesia emerged in 1945.
More recently, Indonesia has fought China's claims to historic fishing rights in Natuna. In January, President Joko Widodo made a show of strength with fighter jets and warships after repeated incursions by Chinese fishing vessels.
When Chinese fishing vessels make their way to Natuna again – and the Indonesian government expects they will –Jakarta is likely to get more support from the US, noted Greg Poling from Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
"The next time a China Coast Guard ship plays chicken with an oil rig off Vietnam or a flotilla of Chinse fishing boats appears in Indonesian waters, the United States will likely speak up more forcefully to decry the illegal action. And that will have a proportionately greater effect on China’s international reputation. This approach will likely extend beyond November, as any future administration will find it difficult to walk back this new rhetorical position," Poling wrote in an analysis after the Stilwell speech.
The Philippines was quick to welcome the new position from the US. “We strongly agree with the position of the international community that there should be a rules-based order in the South China Sea,” said Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
The speed with which that statement was issued by Manila after the Pompeo announcement suggested the US had widely telegraphed what was to come. Others were more wary. Malaysia declined to comment and Indonesia described the US position as "normal".
Given Indonesia's position is based on the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, support by any other country for this position is normal, Indonesia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told The Australian Financial Review.
Indonesia's strong economic ties with China and its determinedly non-aligned status mean it has to be careful, as do its neighbours, said Malcolm Cook, visiting fellow at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
"One of the problems for south-east Asian nations' response to this clarified US position is that it is clearly part of the escalating US-China rivalry. South-east Asian countries are very uncomfortable about aligning themselves – or being seen to be doing so – in that rivalry," Mr Cook said.