Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are slowly developing a tripartite coalition against China in the South China Sea fishing war.
– The three South-East Asian states increasingly view China as their main rival in the competition for fishery resources
– The three countries are advancing more frameworks of fishery cooperation to manage their rivalries with each other
– The tripartite coalition is likely to remain defensive due to their reluctance to provoke China
Recent developments in the South China Sea fishing disputes seem to suggest the emergence of a tripartite coalition between Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. This coalition is driven by two important trends: growing awareness of China as the primary rival disrupting their access to fishery resources, and increasing bilateral maritime cooperation between these three countries.
CHINA’S RECENT ASSERTIVENESS
China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea has become increasingly felt in recent years. Despite reassurance by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2015 for a dual-track approach to resolve disputes, rivals in the South China Sea, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, have witnessed continued threats and confrontations with Chinese fishing vessels and coastguards.
In late 2017, China was accused of threatening to attack Vietnamese vessels and facilities in the Spratly Islands if the Vietnamese-backed energy company Repsol did not stop its drilling operations. Although both countries have held talks to rebuild trust through bilateral negotiations on dispute settlement, China has continued to step up its maritime control over the Spratly Islands. This has recently resulted in a week-long confrontation between Vietnamese and Chinese coastguards, which was provoked by the intrusion of a Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 into waters near the Vietnamese-controlled Vanguard Bank.
China’s fishing rivalry is not limited to its contest with Vietnam. Earlier last month, a Filipino vessel was rammed and sunk by a Chinese vessel in reed bank, which represented the first serious bilateral incident since Manila and Beijing improved their bilateral relations under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. China’s unwillingness to address the provocation — it called the incident “only an accidental collision” — further added salt to the wound. This event sparked demonstrations in Manila, with Filipinos seen burning Chinese flags and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana “condemn[ing] in the strongest terms the cowardly action of the Chinese fishing vessel and its crew for abandoning the Filipino crew.” Indonesia has also suffered intrusions from Chinese illegal fishers for several years, although its ‘Sink the Vessels Policy‘ is not limited to China alone.
According to Gregory Poling from the Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington, China’s tactics in the South China Sea represent a “constant exercise of low-intensity violence and intimidation” short of military confrontation. Nguyen Thanh Trung, the director of Saigon Center for International Studies, also noted China’s greater capacity for the harassment of smaller fishing vessels and coastguards, due to the more advanced Chinese fishing vessels equipped with Beidou satellite technology. Such tactics have forced smaller rivals into acquiescence, such as Vietnam’s decision to give up its traditional fishing ground in the Paracel Islands.
Greater awareness of China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea might have encouraged smaller dispute parties, especially Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, to overcome their individual discord in order to focus their attention on the bigger rival.
In 2017, Vietnam and Indonesia inked a letter of intent to cooperate between their coastguards and manage the treatment of fishermen and maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. Later in 2018, both countries further agreed to establish mechanisms to coordinate the protection of fishing vessels and fishermen. Although this agreement has yet to produce substantial results, especially in light of the continued alleged crimes committed by Vietnamese fishers against Indonesia in early-to-mid 2019, both countries have been inclined to hasten the delimitation of their overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZ). During the 34th ASEAN Summit held last month, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi noted that the Indonesian and Vietnamese authorities will be coordinating “provisional common guidelines” to temporarily prevent fishing incidents amidst their current negotiation. Meanwhile, Indonesia has taken its own initiative to contest China’s claims in the southwest part of the South China Sea, by renaming that area as the North Natuna Sea and developing a fishing zone that overlaps with China’s claims. Vietnam has also called on ASEAN member-states to outlaw China’s activities.
Besides the Indonesian-Vietnamese bilateral cooperation, Indonesia and the Philippines recently ratified their 2014 agreement on the EEZ boundary in Mindanao and Celebes Sea. This ratification is considered significant as it is the first maritime boundary agreement between the Philippines and Indonesia. However, while the agreement provides legal certainty on their EEZ boundary, there is no certainty that the boundary will be enforced since the treaty has not been passed into domestic law in either country. Nonetheless, it does suggest a willingness on the part of both authorities to calm the seas amidst the occasional allegations of illegal fishing and to focus their attention on other rivals in the South China Sea.
As for the Philippines and Vietnam, this bilateral relationship has undergone a dramatic reversal since 2017. According to Richard Javad Heydarian, a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015), both countries used to be de facto allies in the South China Sea, conducting their first naval port call in 2014 with a high-profile goodwill visit and allowing their military personnel to party on the disputed island, Southwest Cay. Hanoi also supported Manila’s arbitration case against Beijing and considered seeking legal assistance from Manila for a similar case against China. However, while Duterte offered Vietnam a gesture of goodwill upon his presidency by releasing 17 Vietnamese fishermen jailed for illegal fishing, recent events have soured the Vietnamese-Filipino relations. These developments included the killing of two Vietnamese fishermen by the Philippines Navy in 2017, Duterte’s departure from joining hands with Vietnam to oppose China, and increasing awareness of Vietnam as a threat by influential commentators in the Filipino media.
The growing discord between Hanoi and Manila seemingly contradicts the prospect of bilateral cooperation on their management of fishery dispute. However, the growth of China’s maritime assertiveness could potentially unite these two rivals once again. For instance, during the sinking of the Filipino fishing vessel on June 9, Vietnamese fishers came to the rescue. Following this incident, the Duterte administration thanked Vietnam for the assistance, whose “act of kindness and compassion will always be remembered by the Philippines and our people.” Such acts, if continued, are likely to draw the Philippines’ attention away from Vietnam toward China as the primary rival disrupting its access to fishery resources in the region.
PROSPECTS FOR A TRIPARTITE COALITION
The improving relationships between Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, amidst the growing awareness of the China threat, suggest that smaller dispute rivals in the South China Sea are now aligning with each other to balance a far stronger rival in the fishing war. However, this tripartite coalition remains broadly bilateral in nature rather than truly coalitional. A possible reason is the absence of a trilateral fishery management regime, the lack of which has “served to push fishers from these three countries into more confrontations with each other’s patrol ships as well as China’s in a race for depleted fish stocks,” Nguyen Thanh Trung notes.
The current tripartite coalition resembles an entente, in which each party in the dispute seeks to reduce tension by partitioning areas of control to avoid competition. An entente offers no formal commitment to joint assistance, only an ambiguous assurance that is less provocative to the common adversary but enough to exercise a deterrent effect. This fits the Indonesia–Philippine–Vietnam relationship in the South China Sea, as no pairing has yet formalised a joint commitment to confront China. It is also unlikely that they will do so in the near future: the states do not view China as an explicit threat despite China’s growing maritime assertiveness. Beijing is an important economic partner and could use its burgeoning economic weight to coerce the three rivals.
The unwillingness to formalise any commitment suggests that the tripartite coalition is likely to remain broadly defensive, flexible and subject to further revision. As intra-coalition relations improve, expect Hanoi, Manila and Jakarta to jointly confront Chinese vessels and coastguards in ways that do not overtly provoke Beijing, such as by engaging in joint navigation assistance and search-and-rescue missions, rather than conducting a joint offensive fishing operation.
Tommy is a member of the East and South East Asia team. He covers strategic and crisis developments pertaining to the use of force, with a concentration on flashpoints in East Asia.