South China Sea: US, Japan and Indonesia ramp up pressure on Beijing

Kinling Lo
·4-min read

The United States, Japan and Indonesia have stepped up pressure on China over its activities in the South China Sea following an ongoing row with the Philippines over a disputed reef which became public last week.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted on Monday morning that the US “stands with our ally, the Philippines” in the face of what he called China’s “maritime militia” amassing at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands. “We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order,” he wrote.

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Meanwhile, the Japanese and Indonesian defence ministers agreed at a meeting on Sunday to send a message that their two countries would strongly oppose any action by China that could escalate tensions in the contested regional waterway. According to Japan’s Nobuo Kishi, this will include a boost to their defence cooperation and a joint exercise in the South China Sea.

The escalating pressure follows a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing lodged last week by Manila, which said more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels it believed were crewed by militias had been moored at the reef since March 7. Beijing has denied the presence of any maritime militia, but reiterated China’s claim to the reef.

In a statement issued late on Saturday, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said aircraft would be sent daily to monitor the situation, and the military would also beef up its naval presence with “sovereignty patrols” to “protect Philippine fishermen”.

The reef is also claimed by Vietnam, which calls it Da Ba Dau. Hanoi has said the Chinese vessels are infringing on its sovereignty.

An international tribunal at The Hague in 2016 supported the Philippines’ claim to the reef as part of its exclusive economic zone, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the ruling was rejected by Beijing, which claims more than 90 per cent of the disputed South China Sea.

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At least US$3.4 trillion in annual trade passes through the contentious waterway, which is subject to competing claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam.

While Japan does not have a claim in the South China Sea, Tokyo has been in a similar dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea and has been voicing concern over a new law which gives China’s coast guard authority to fire on vessels intruding into what it considers its waters.

In a joint statement released following Blinken’s visit to Japan in mid-March, the US and Japan said they objected to China’s “unlawful” maritime claims in the South China Sea and underscored the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait – an issue Beijing has said is a red line issue. The two sides also discussed Xinjiang and Hong Kong, which China has said are internal affairs.

Kang Lin, a deputy director of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the pressure on Beijing over the South China Sea would continue to rise as the US rebuilds its alliances in the region under President Joe Biden.

“The South China Sea issue is obviously not one that the new Biden administration has identified as one that is looking for cooperation with China. It is classified as an area of competition or resistance. Different from Donald Trump’s unilateral approach, Biden adopts a ‘group-beating’ approach with its allies. Whenever an ally faces a challenge, the US will call upon its ‘friends’ to pressure China. Therefore, it can be expected that China will face bigger pressure in the South China Sea compared to Trump’s term.”

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