TAIPEI, TAIWAN - China confirmed its lead this year in Asia's biggest maritime sovereignty dispute by sending nonmilitary ships to waters normally controlled by other countries, allowing it to flex muscle without conflicts or diplomatic losses.
Pushback from Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam kept Beijing from adding artificial islets or control over existing features in the resource-rich South China Sea in 2019, analysts say.
Citing dynastic-era maritime records, China claims 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer tropical waterway that stretches from Hong Kong to Borneo, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim waters that overlap China's. They all value the sea for fisheries, fossil fuel reserves or both.
"Compared to the previous years, there was relatively less militarization by China," said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, a Manila research organization. "Still we see standoffs taking place, so there are still challenges."
China was once more aggressive. Vietnam and China clashed in two deadly incidents in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2012, Chinese ships entered into a prolonged standoff with the Philippines at a shoal near Luzon Island and eventually took control of it. Two years later, Vietnamese and Chinese ships rammed each other over the location of an offshore Chinese oil rig.
Over the past decade, China has alarmed the other claimants by using landfill to create or expand three tiny islets, in the sea's Spratly Islands and others in the Paracel chain. Some of those islets now support hangars and radar equipment.
"You had two, maybe three, cable-cutting incidents, you had over the years Chinese fishermen being rapacious with Vietnamese, boarding ships and seizing things," said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia, recalling a more assertive China 10 years ago. "That seems to have died down," he said.
Pressure without firefights
Chinese coast guard ships, survey vessels and informal fishing boat flotillas still appear in the sea tracts claimed by other governments. China used all three this year to assert existing claims but occupied no new islets and got into no firefights.
To avoid angering the other claimants, China worked with them economically, for example by financing infrastructure construction in the Philippines. That cooperation lowers odds that the other governments will grow cozier with the United States, which has the world's strongest armed forces and resents Chinese maritime expansion, analysts have said.
China, however, positioned vessels this past year in the waters within 370 kilometers of Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, possibly to flex muscle. That distance normally gives coastal nations an exclusive economic zone.
Around Malaysia, "they've sailed ever more closely to our platforms, so that particular aspect has changed," said Shahriman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the research organization the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. "They've not interrupted operations, they just sail closer, that's all. It's more a show of force rather than anything else."
For much of the year, China's coast guard made its presence felt in waters claimed by Malaysia, the most active explorer of undersea natural gas in the disputed region.
In January, China moved as many as 90 ships around the Manila-controlled Thitu Island to monitor construction of a beaching ramp. A Chinese fishing boat sank a Philippine vessel in June near the disputed sea's Reed Bank, raising questions about whether the capsized boat was rammed.
Vietnam and China got into the most heated dispute of the year.
It started when a Chinese energy survey ship began patrolling in July near Vanguard Bank and a seabed tract about 352 kilometers off the coast of southeastern Vietnam. The patrol circled an oil and gas block on the Vietnamese continental shelf, also within China's claim. A standoff followed and ended in October when the survey ship left, apparently after completing a mission.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed has asked China to clarify its intent in the sea and this month his government submitted documentation to the United Nations suggesting it extend rights over a larger part of the continental shelf. China protested. Mahathir's government also set aside a railway project funded by China, but it resumed in late 2019.
In the Philippines, legislators and military officials want President Rodrigo Duterte to step up resistance to China; however, his administration has agreed with Beijing to joint oil and gas development. The two sides started intergovernmental committee talks this year to oversee projects. They separately pledged to investigate the ship collision.
Vietnam contacted numerous Western nations about the Vanguard Bank standoff, Thayer said.
Much of Southeast Asia still expects the United States will keep China in check, as needed, by sending naval ships into the sea, Lockman said. Washington calls the events "freedom of navigation operations" and carried out several in 2019.
China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes four maritime claimants, often discuss the maritime disputes but made little headway this year. They are due to talk eventually about signing a code of conduct that would help avert mishaps.
"I wouldn't say there's been reconciliation," said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "It's been a fluid situation and the jury is still out."