In a vivid illustration of how dynamic the status quo in the South China Sea can be, an apparently new Spratly island, formed by the forces of nature, has become a source of tension between China and Malaysia.
Luconia Breakers (Hempasan Bantin / 琼台礁) is just over 100km north of James Shoal, the shallow patch of ocean that Chinese people are routinely taught is the southernmost point of their country’s “territory“, despite it being several metres underwater.
As this post will show, unlike James Shoal, the territory at Luconia Breakers actually exists above the waterline. This is significant because if the PRC ever needs to clarify the nature of its maritime claims under international law, it could end up adopting the “new” feature as its southernmost territory.
Topping off the intrigue, the train of events leading to the current Sino-Malaysian standoff may well have been set in motion by an adventurous Chinese magazine team.
Below is a piece published at The Diplomat, running through what the “status quo” is in the South China Sea, and the difficulties encountered in trying to define it. Aside from identifying some key metrics of the current situation in the disputed area, the aim was generate some debate, or at least second thoughts, about the usefulness of the “status quo” as a normative standard. The concept has proved useful in diplomacy over Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere, and (arguably) in international relations theory. But given the complex, watery nature of the South China Sea dispute, i argue it’s not likely to help in establishing the kind of clear-cut, universally recognized standards the region needs to forestall escalation there.
The term’s broad-brush vagueness – it simply means “the existing situation” – may make it appealing for practitioners of diplomacy, but the lack of clarity limits its usefulness as an analytic tool. More troublingly, being such an all-encompassing term, its use as a normative standard is inevitably selective, resulting in inconsistencies that risk breeding misunderstanding and mistrust. Unless used with care and nuance, it is a term that is more likely to undermine than underpin a “rules-based order” in maritime Asia.
The U.S. position on the East and South China Sea disputes, as Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other officials have frequently reiterated in recent months, is that it opposes changes to the status quo made through force or coercion. Senior U.S. military and civilian officials have used this standard formulation frequently since mid-2013, most prominently in relation to the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and its well-publicized island-construction project in the South China Sea.
Claimants in the disputed seas have also embraced the idea of defending the status quo from Chinese advances. The leaders of Japan and the Philippines on June 4 affirmed their opposition to “unilateral attempts to changes the status quo.” Vietnam maintains a slightly subtler position that stops short of outright opposition, as typified by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s call for countries to refrain from “actions that would complicate the situation and change the status quo of rocks and shoals.”
There was a post here last year about the KD Pari, a Malaysian Navy fast attack craft that sort-of-sank while allegedly chasing a Chinese ship near Swallow Reef. It still continues to attract traffic from the search engines, which hints at a general dearth of information on the Malaysian dimension to the South China Sea disputes.
Malaysia usually gets little noticed in the Chinese media too, when it comes to the South China Sea issue, but that changed with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Amin’s comment on August 12 that Southeast Asian states should sort out their South China Sea claims before negotiating with China. At a press conference right after his meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi (who wasn’t in attendance), Anifah said:
There are overlapping claims by member countries. Let us discuss these among ASEAN countries first before we talk to China . . . We can only achieve this objective in the South China Sea if all parties agree. Then China can appreciate this and realise it is ASEAN’s wish.
Although Malaysia’s official Bernama news agency did not report these comments, they were still picked up, translated and introduced into the Chinese media by the Huanqiu Shibao. This led in turn to the following report from Yunnan TV. As the summary translation indicates, it struck an indignant tone that painted Malaysia as yet another addition to the list of hostile anti-China forces.
Summary translation follows after the jump…
The Global Times last week picked up an interesting story from the Malaysian New Straits Times newspaper:
Malaysian patrol boat almost sinks while chasing Chinese-flagged vessel
According to a September 19 report in the New Straits Times, the Malaysian Navy patrol boat KD Pari sustained a dislodged shaft and nearly sank while pursuing a Chinese-flagged vessel near Danwan Reef 弹丸礁 in the Spratly Islands.
The report claimed that when water started filling the KD Pari’s engine room it was forced to abandon its pursuit of “a foreign vessel violating Malaysia’s territorial waters”.
The story itself is a very significant one, and it has still not appeared anywhere in the international media. (Another Malaysian newspaper has a brief report here.)
But the Global Times‘ treatment of the translation is even more interesting: for a start, the reference to a Chinese vessel that the Global Times emphasizes was actually just a single sentence in the original story.
RMN chief Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar said the crew of the Fast Attack Craft-Gun (FAC-G) vessel KD Pari heard a ‘loud bang’ soon after it had departed the island westward to pursue a China-flagged vessel, believed to be a frigate, spotted at Gugusan Semarang Peninjau in the South China Sea at 2.53pm.
This can probably be attributed to the GT’s translators/editors needing to find a local angle to attract Chinese readers’ interest.
But the Global Times‘ direct quote referring to “a foreign vessel violating Malaysia’s territorial waters” is simply nowhere to be found. Malaysia has not accused China of violating its territorial waters.
This too may be explained by the commercial imperative to play up the conflict and create a dramatic crisis narrative of China being encroached upon from all sides. But putting such menacing words into other countries’ mouths like this seems very irresponsible for a People’s Daily-owned, Beijing-based newspaper.
Perhaps the Global Times editors thought the fact that the Malaysian patrol boat had broken down would be entertaining or encouraging for readers. It did indeed capture attention from the Chinese public, in fact it was the fourth-most discussed news story on Phoenix last week, but the focus was certainly not on the Malaysian Navy’s shortcomings. Here are the top-rated comments from the Phoenix discussion, involving 81,854 participants and 1,819 comments:
[China gets] chased in its own territory, yet still comes away self-satisfied. [16593 recommends]
The good thing is that the Chinese ship was fast, otherwise it might have been the one to sink. 
[. . .]
A great country gets chased down in its own traditional waters by a little country’s little ship…ironic! 
First time I’ve heard of being chased away by another country’s navy in our own territorial waters! How can we face all those ancestors! 
Use our country’s aircraft carrier to lure the Malaysians to Sanya [in Hainan Province], then let the Sanya chengguan destroy them! 
So who would stand to benefit from blowing up a story like this? It probably doesn’t do much for hardliners advocating a stronger stance in the South China Sea, since the idea of yet another Southeast Asian country opposing China’s presence might make military measures seem even more futile. But stories about Chinese ships being chased out of the South China Sea by “little” neighbouring countries obviously does nothing for the cause of foreign policy moderates either.
What is clear is that by confirming the strong domestic narrative of China being encroached upon from all sides, stories like these feed a public perception that the government in Beijing is weak, and is even allowing China to be violated, bullied and humiliated. At a time when China is supposed to be ascending to a position of greatness in the world, it is perfectly understandable if many Chinese people find this hard to accept.
Update 29/11: An “alternative explanation” for this incident that appeared on a Chinese forum and has attracted a moderate amount of interest, and much agreement. The “netizens” claim, or rather, wish, that the KD Pari was actually sunk by the Chinese warship, but that Malaysia was too embarrassed to admit this, so it claimed instead that the boat had….simply failed.