Last week, China’s ordered an administrative reorganisation of its South China Sea territories, injecting new discord in an already tense region. Beijing instituted two new municipal districts, carving up the governance of the Paracel and Spratly island groups, earlier managed by the local administration of Sansha — China’s southernmost city of Hainan province – between two sub-authorities.
Xisha and Nansha (Chinese names for the Paracel and Spratly Islands) will now function as separate administrative units with jurisdiction over their respective island chains. Aimed ostensibly at strengthening control over the disputed South China Sea, the move has been criticized by security analysts who say the shift in administration of the disputed Spratly group to Fiery Cross Island – one of China’s three military grade artificial islands in the region – raises the possibility of regional conflict[*].
China’s neighbours may well have anticipated the gambit. Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia have in recent months sought to offer pushback to Chinese aggression in their near-seas, employing administrative, legal and operational means.
In December last year, Malaysia approached the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf claiming waters beyond the 200-kilometre limit of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the northern part of the South China Sea – a move prompted by China’s extended presence in and around the Luconia Shoals. Weeks later, Indonesia deployed warships and a submarine in the waters off the Natuna Islands after an encroachment by Chinese fishing boats and coastguard ships.
Earlier this month, Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to the United Nations protesting the PRC’s sweeping assertions in the South China Sea, after a Chinese ship rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat.
The effort hasn’t counted for much. An irked China has doubled down on its territorial claims, sending in more militia and coast guard vessels into disputed regions. China’s bullying behavior has been most visible in the waters off Vietnam and Malaysia, where a stand-off is brewing between the Malaysian coast guard and a Chinese government survey ship.
The Chinese vessel and its coast guard escorts have been accused of harassing an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company. The United States has rushed to respond, ordering the USS America – an amphibious assault ship – and guided missile warships USS Bunker Hill and USS Barry in the region.
Amid fears of an impending confrontation with China, an Australian warship, the HMAS Parramatta has joined the US warships in exercises close to where Chinese ships are stationed.