Four Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan, all of which lay claims to the contested, resource-rich South China Sea, are still grappling with incidents among themselves despite a focus on their common rival, China.
The suspected shooting deaths late last month of two Vietnamese fishermen in waters 34 nautical miles from the Philippines were a severe response to a common issue: Boats from one country test the limits of another to catch fish. But China, the most powerful claimant, is often not in the picture.
“Most fishing boats have GPS so they actually know their position and whether they’re approaching islands controlled by some other country but that they might not get caught,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the College of International Affairs at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “That’s how fishermen are.”
Gunfire was common in the 1990s
Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim nearly all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. Since 2010, the smaller governments have focused on resisting China militarily and diplomatically. They resent its reclamation of land for artificial islands, a buildup of military infrastructure and passage of coast guard ships far from its shores.
But the non-Chinese claimants also spar with one another because the end of the Cold War in the 1990s left it unclear how far vessels from one nation could go without infringing on one another, said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Warning shots and even more targeted gunfire were more common then as “Southeast Asia was trying to figure out bilateral maritime disputes,” he said.
In 1999 alone, the Philippines clashed six times with either Malaysia or Vietnam, according to a study by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in South Korea. The Philippine discovery of Malaysian features built on two reefs in the sea’s Spratly Islands that year had particularly inflamed tensions, it said.
The following decade, Southeast Asian countries began agreeing on legal boundaries as well as protocol for handling violators without the use of force, Koh said. Agreements between countries may specify how long fishermen can be detained before release.
Calmer now, but incidents still occur
But with fishery stocks under pressure, the estimated 1.72 million fishing boats that ply the South China Sea sometimes venture into waters farther from their own shores for better catches. By 2045, marine species common in the sea will decline 9 to 59 percent due to over-fishing, acidification of the water and carbon dioxide emissions, a University of British Columbia study found in 2015.
“The Vietnamese these days, they are actually building up a fishing capability and part of it is driven by competition from China,” Koh said. “And so we are seeing not just China but also seeing Vietnamese long-rang fishing fleets going further out.”
Today coast guards in the region normally use nonlethal methods to warn off foreign vessels. Around Taiwanese-controlled Taiping Island in the Spratly archipelago, for example, Taipei’s coast guard uses speakers and occasionally water cannons, Huang said.
Perceptions of trespassing still spark occasional destruction or violence.
Malaysia and Indonesia – which controls the sea’s Natuna Islands – have begun burning confiscated boats as a deterrent.
In 2013 a Philippine coast guard ship shot to death a Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters, setting of a diplomatic storm, including economic sanctions from Taipei.
The Philippine defense department indicated the shooting on Sept. 23 of this year was out of place. Naval personnel had chased a Vietnamese vessel caught “illegally” fishing in the Philippine exclusive economic zone of the South China Sea, the department said in a statement. They found two dead Vietnamese fishermen on board, sparking a police probe into “the circumstances of the fishermen's death,” the statement said.
A Philippine coast guard official stationed along the South China Sea told VOA in April that Vietnamese and Taiwanese boats turn up in his country’s maritime economic zone 370 kilometers from the Luzon Island coast.
Manila’s navy and coast guard may be “disregarding” regulations to chase foreign boats, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales in Australia.
Fishing boats still try their luck
Fishing boats do not always comply when asked to change course or to surrender, said Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
“If all sides stick to the law and the rules (imposed) on themselves, they should have not killed these fishermen,” Le said of the case last month. “But I think there are problems on the ground, for example fishermen may try to run away or they may ram the ships of the enforcement forces of these countries.”
Diplomatic protests sometimes still follow routine calls on fishing boats to leave a foreign-controlled island in the sea, Huang noted. Over the past 18 months, Vietnam has protested to Taiwan over its activities on Taiping Island, where Taipei’s coast guard says Vietnamese boats often come too close.
Vessels from other countries are less likely to test China because of its military might, including use of coast guard ships as escorts for fishing fleets, scholars say.
Incidents between the smaller claimants show no sign of hampering Southeast Asian countries' efforts, such as a proposed maritime code of conduct, to work with China on use of the sea.