U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his ASEAN counterparts attend the 26th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bangkok, Thailand Aug. 2, 2019.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his ASEAN counterparts attend the 26th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bangkok, Thailand Aug. 2, 2019.

TAIPEI - In May a Chinese vessel exploring for oil tried to stop the operations of a Malaysian contract drilling site in the South China Sea, a U.S. think tank says. In June and July, a Chinese boat entered a standoff with Vietnam over exploration in another tract of the disputed waters. 

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) expressed concern. The bloc, which includes Malaysia and Vietnam, brought up land reclamation plus other activities in the South China Sea, the site of Asia’s biggest maritime sovereignty dispute, saying in a statement those actions could “undermine peace.”

China’s reclamation of land in the South China Sea over the past decade makes it easier to launch ships and place oil rigs compared to countries without those resources. Beijing has a military and technological lead over the five other governments with claims to the disputed waters.

ASEAN usually takes a more upbeat tone at formal events such as the August 2 East Asia foreign ministers summit that produced the statement. The bloc now wants to show its exasperation with Chinese expansion without angering Beijing, a key ally, experts believe.

“It’s an interesting change in wording, probably related to recent events in Vietnam and Malaysia,” said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines. “It’s unusual that in the past months you had these incidents practically simultaneously taking place.”

ASEAN chairman’s statement

While the statement from the Bangkok summit avoids naming any one country, the wording implies China, analysts believe. 

“The ministers discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the August 2 document says.

Other parts of the statement include language that the United States and its allies have used in pressuring China to get along better with its maritime neighbors. ASEAN ministers, for example, advocate “freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea,” the statement says. 

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam dispute China’s claims to all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. Claimant nations prize the waterway for fisheries and marine shipping lanes as well as oil and gas reserves.

ASEAN, which also counts Brunei and the Philippines as members, had to come up with language that expressed worry without offending China, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. China ranks as a valued trade partner and core investment source for much of ASEAN.

“On the one hand, I think many of the claimant countries, they are concerned about land reclamations and increased frequency of patrols, but of course they don’t want to antagonize China,” Oh said.

Pressure on Malaysia, Vietnam

A Chinese coast guard vessel was patrolling waters in May close by Luconia Shoals near Malaysia and tried then to “prevent the operations” of a drilling rig, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the Washington DC-based research and policy group, the Center for Strategic & International Studies. 

Chinese coast guard vessels had also patrolled since mid-June around a seabed tract about 350 kilometers off the coast of southeastern Vietnam where the Southeast Asian country is exploring for energy, the initiative says. Vietnam eventually asked the Chinese boats to leave.

“China has intruded into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone to illegally conduct seismic surveys, fired high-pressure water cannons on Vietnam Coast Guard ships and crossed their bows at high-speed and harassed an oil exploration vessel,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor with The University of New South Wales in Australia.

China staying upbeat

Officials from China participated actively at the ASEAN ministerial events last week, said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. They have tried over the past three years to reach peace with much of Southeast Asia by offering investment and boosts in trade grounded in the world’s second largest economy.

China will “pretend everything is OK” and suggest that the region can “handle our differences,” Batongbacal said. 

China says it wants to sign with ASEAN a code of conduct aimed at preventing mishaps on the sea. The two sides discussed that code last week. “The Chinese now want more working group meetings to speed up the negotiation of the drafting,” Chalermpalanupap said.