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South China Sea Claimants Blur Lines Between Military, Civilians

FILE - Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the U.S. Navy, May 21, 2015.

Southeast Asian nations have tried for years to establish a code of conduct for shipping, fishing and exploring for oil in the South China Sea. The idea is to avoid a conflict in the disputed, and potentially lucrative, waterway.

But some regional experts say such a code may be pointless.

Collin Koh Swee Lean, a maritime scholar at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that’s because most countries with overlapping claims in the region believe their military buildups there are justified.

Koh said recently this militarization has become more “nebulous” in recent years. From pirates to fishermen, nearly everyone can be implicated if nations clash over ownership of the islands and waters in the South China Sea.

“You’ll find that it’s very difficult to define exactly what militarization is,” he said at a seminar hosted this week by the Saigon Center for International Studies in Ho Chi Minh City.

Civilian fishing vessel or military patrol?

China has rejected an international tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines over Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea. Other governments claiming parts of the waterway are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have airstrips, cargo planes, and surveillance aircraft in these waters, Koh said, and all but Vietnam have fighter jets there. China is the only country to have bombers available.

He said governments traditionally beefed up their militaries by deploying troops or arms. Now they are blurring the lines and investing in other ways, such as coast guards units.

As countries tussle over this territory, Koh said just about everything can be militarized. States build housing for their fishermen all across the South China Sea, as well as piers where they can refuel -- both of which can serve soldiers. Helipads, which might be intended for search-and-rescue missions, can be used to launch weapons.

In another sign that lines are blurring, Koh said fishing boats have attracted suspicion for being painted like navy patrol vessels. What if, he said, fishermen get drawn into the maritime nationalism and take on the role of vigilantes?

Some of the smaller countries hope Washington could limit Beijing’s reach if Asian neighbors ever come to blows. But historian Edward Miller of Dartmouth College suggested that could be difficult with the more recent focus on coast guards and fishing fleets, rather than traditional projections of military force.

“They are moving the conflict into an area in which the United States cannot directly participate,” said Miller, who has written on the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.

FILE - Filipino fishing boats that were sprayed with water by Chinese Coastguard are pictured while anchored at shorelines of the coastal town of Infanta, Pangasinan in northern Philippines, April 22, 2015.
FILE - Filipino fishing boats that were sprayed with water by Chinese Coastguard are pictured while anchored at shorelines of the coastal town of Infanta, Pangasinan in northern Philippines, April 22, 2015.

Koh described a Malaysian program in which the government asks citizens to report potentially criminal behavior at sea. On the surface, that could just mean fishermen reporting signs of piracy, smuggling or illegal fishing. But it also could get civilians entangled in military affairs.

Weighing utility of code of conduct

In this context, South China Sea claimants are unlikely to agree on rules of the road, which would be hard to enforce, Koh said.

“My personal thought of a binding code of conduct is, it’s useless,” he said.

Still, such a code could give smaller nations the benefit of strength in numbers, said Nguyen Khac Giang, a senior researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research.

For example, he said, if they write a document that clearly forbids building artificial islands, these countries would have a reference when complaining to China for doing just that.

“Southeast Asian countries prefer an international approach in the South China Sea because it’s easier for them to discuss with China in a group, within international law,” Giang said.

China has resisted discussing the South China Sea dispute in multinational gatherings, and says it will negotiate only bilateral agreements with individual states.

Koh doubted the value of this approach. He said nations have swifter military resources these days and can deploy weapons on short notice. So if they’re accused of violating the code of conduct and using force in the South China Sea, they can say the actions are temporary, rather than outright militarization.