By U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Michael George DeSombre
As the world focuses on the fight against COVID-19, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is exploiting others’ distraction to extend its bullying campaign in the South China Sea.
The tactics of coercion, subversion and disinformation used in the South China Sea raise questions on how the PRC may use these tools elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.
On April 1, Beijing declared a new maritime law enforcement campaign called “Blue Sea 2020.” Its announced purpose was to “enhance marine environmental protection,” but its real purpose was suggested a day later, when a PRC ship sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel.
Beijing has bolstered its military bases in the contested Spratly Islands with new aircraft deployments and “research stations,” dispatched an energy survey vessel and armed flotilla to intimidate Malaysian offshore oil and gas work, and provoked Indonesia by sending hundreds of fishing boats and escorts into waters off Indonesia’s Natuna Island. Beijing warned that anyone bucking its ridiculous claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea is “doomed to fail.”
These actions fit a pattern. Where the PRC goes, it can increasingly be expected to flout the rules, make up its own facts, and break its promises. Thais are now seeing this clearly along the Mekong River, where a historic drought belies earlier PRC promises that they will share the river’s bountiful water resources with countries downstream.
Instead, we see evidence that the PRC’s spree of upstream dam building has enabled its hydropower companies to control downstream flows for greater profits.
The Mekong River’s water levels, currently the lowest in a decade, are linked to the PRC’s decision to shut off water upstream. The PRC’s plans to blast and dredge riverbeds have correctly been opposed by the Thai government.
Yet, PRC authorities still operate extra-territorial river patrols along the Thai border, and we see a push to craft new Beijing-directed rules to govern the river, thereby weakening the Mekong River Commission – the only treaty-agreed multilateral forum covering the Mekong River. We support the Thai people and the Thai government’s call for transparency and accountability from the PRC to prevent a repeat of last year’s devastating drought and protect the well-being and livelihoods of Thai communities.
Similarly, the PRC’s actions in the South China Sea also have a direct impact on Thailand. Thailand is not a South China Sea claimant, yet Thailand’s interests in free navigation within the SCS are among the most pronounced in the region.
Consider this: the value of Thailand’s trade in goods regularly exceeds 80 percent of GDP. That’s nearly a half trillion U.S. dollars’ worth of goods. And much of that trade passes through these very waters. Thailand’s farmers, its manufacturers, and its consumers rely on free navigation of these waters, which facilitates the trade that keeps the Thai economy humming.
The reckless actions to assert control over the South China Sea threaten to undermine regional stability and limit the freedom of navigation that has been a key driver of growth for Thailand and the region.
The PRC’s maritime claims in the South China Sea have no basis in international law. Some even lack any basis in reality, such as its absurd insistence that James Shoal is the southernmost tip of China.
James Shoal, which is more than 1,000 miles from China, is fewer than 50 miles from Malaysia—and 70 feet underwater, so it isn’t territory at all. Beijing’s sovereignty claim appears to derive from an old British atlas and a translation error suggesting the underwater shoal was actually a sandbank above the waves. It isn’t – yet Beijing continues pushing maritime misinformation.
Southeast Asian Leaders issued a strong statement at the June 26 ASEAN Summit that South China Sea disputes must be resolved in line with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The message was timely, given the July 12 anniversary of the powerful 2016 ruling by the South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal which rejected Beijing’s maritime claim as a violation of international law.
The PRC, as party to UNCLOS, was obligated to comply, but instead dismissed the ruling as a “scrap of paper.” Beijing meanwhile put advanced missiles and aircraft on contested outposts in the Spratlys, in clear violation of Xi Jinping’s 2015 pledge to a White House press conference not to militarize these features.
Beijing’s conduct in the South China Sea reflects its complete disregard for the sovereign rights of other nations.
Its arbitrary fishing bans and harassment of ships at sea block Southeast Asian nations from accessing the resources off their coasts, including some $2.5 trillion in oil and gas and some of the world’s richest fisheries. This is the patrimony of Southeast Asian nations, the lifeblood of their coastal communities, and the livelihood of millions of their citizens.
At the root of all these actions is a belief within the PRC that “might makes right,” and that rules don’t apply to them.
Beijing’s repeated use of economic coercion against smaller countries – whether letting Philippine agricultural imports rot on Chinese docks to protest Manila’s pursuit of arbitration over the South China Sea, implementing sanctions against Norway for the Nobel Committee’s awarding of its Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, or cutting trade with South Korea for deploying the THAAD missile defense system to strengthen its deterrence vis a vis North Korea – reveals their world view clearly.
So did the words of Beijing’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in 2010 when he told his Southeast Asian counterparts: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
All this shows what they think of multilateralism. Yang Jiechi made his comment at an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, after all, which is meant to foster cooperation among countries irrespective of military or economic power.
This sort of subversion of multilateral forums and the principles they are meant to uphold – free and fair trade, transparency, openness, respect for rule of law – are also seen in Beijing’s actions toward the World Trade Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, Interpol, and the UN.
International laws and norms have brought tremendous prosperity to East Asia – and in fact much of the world — over the past half century.
Supporting a free and open rules-based order and upholding the sovereign rights of all states regardless of size, power, and military capabilities, will ensure that prosperity continues for the next half century.
About the author
Michael George DeSombre is the U.S. ambassador to Thailand. He is a former partner at the internationally recognized law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell in Hong Kong, where his duties include negotiating with Chinese counterparts. DeSombre is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and speaks some Korean and Japanese.