A Chinese naval soldier overlooks a rival vessel in the South China Sea in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

JAKARTA – Chinese propagandists have had a field day with a violent incident in the South China Sea which for once didn’t involve its own aggression.

On April 20, an intruding Vietnamese fishing boat capsized and sank with the loss of four lives after repeatedly trying to ram an Indonesian patrol craft.

Two other Vietnamese vessels and their crews were detained in the encounter west of the Natuna Islands. The incident had not been made public for a week as the two Southeast Asian neighbors sought to smooth the situation through diplomatic channels.

Both appear aware that China has sought to exacerbate the episode through social media, part of its divide and conquer strategy aimed at the four Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members bordering on the contested South China Sea.

The incident comes at a time of rising regional  tensions with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo accusing China of “exploiting” the world’s preoccupation with the Covid-19 pandemic by carrying out provocations in the maritime area.

His April 23 statement referred to China flying aircraft close to Taiwan and deploying a battle group led by the carrier Liaoning to the area at a time when the 7th Fleet’s only two Pacific-based flattops, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Ronald Reagan, are laid up in Guam and Japan by the spread of Covid-19.

The USS America in the South China Sea, April 2020. Photo: Twitter/US Navy

More than 800 of the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s 5,600 crewmen have been infected and sources familiar with its current status say it may take another month before the nuclear-powered carrier is ready to put back to sea after being sanitized and re-crewed.

The US was active as well by sending a task force through the sea’s disputed Spratly Islands and dispatching two B1-B Lancer bombers from Ellsworth airbase in South Dakota on a 32-hour round trip over the South China Sea, a demonstration of its new “dynamic force employment model.”

In pinpointing the location of the Vietnam incident, the Peking University Institute of Ocean Research, which lists a general and other military officers on its board, engaged in some fanciful re-drawing of the region’s boundaries.

In what one naval analyst called “amateur hour,” a map posted online by the institute’s South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) shows China’s Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) 150 nautical miles further south than it should be.

The map essentially mirrors the so-called nine-dash line, the vaguely-defined demarcation line China uses in its unilateral claim to sovereignty over a large swathe of the South China Sea, including the hotly-disputed Paracel and Spratly islands.

The re-drawn boundary brushes Jemaja, the westernmost island of Indonesia’s Natuna archipelago, tracks northeast of the small island of Laut, and then passes south close to the eastern coast of Natuna Besar, the group’s largest land mass.

Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute

Maritime experts believe Beijing is trying to press Southeast Asian countries into giving up their lawful rights under the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), of which it is a signatory, and share their 200-nautical mile EEZs with China.

China’s antics aside, it is not clear why Vietnam has been antagonizing both Indonesia and Malaysia by failing to stop its unruly fishing fleet from regularly intruding into their waters.

More than half of the 500 foreign fishing boats Indonesia seized between 2014 and 2019 were Vietnamese and on any given day as many as 180 Vietnamese craft are currently fishing on or near Indonesia’s maritime boundary.

Although simple fish poaching lies at the heart of the current situation, the two countries do have undefined border issues, with President Joko Widodo and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung agreeing in 2016 to accelerate efforts to find a solution.

“China may be having a field day with this, but why are the Vietnamese acting so aggressively?” asks one regional commentator, noting that the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) discussions have gone nowhere in the past three months.

That’s largely because the architecture of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) diplomacy has fallen apart in recent months. “There is a lack of information, a lack of candor,” he says. “They (ASEAN) are finding regional consultations difficult. They don’t resolve anything, but they do keep tensions at a manageable level.”

The latest incident came a year to the week since the last reported clash, filmed by the Indonesians, in which a Vietnamese fisheries protection vessel rammed an Indonesian Navy patrol craft as it sought to intercept an intruding fishing boat.

Indonesian Navy officers (left) target a Vietnam boat fishing held due to illegal fishing activities in Indonesian waters on Anambas island, Riau province on Dec 5, 2014. Photo: AFP

Indonesian crewmen can be heard shouting expletives and as one sailor uses a long pole to strike at the bridge of the smaller ship, another stands ready with an assault rifle. About a dozen Vietnamese fishermen were eventually detained.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry summoned Vietnam’s ambassador in protest, saying the incident had endangered the lives of crewmen on both sides and was not in accordance with the ASEAN spirit.

This time, the Indonesians claim a Vietnamese trawler acted “like a kamikaze,” trying three times to ram the 530-ton Orca 03, one of three home-built Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries patrol craft launched in 2014 to ramp up protection of the country’s rich maritime resources.

Tensions had begun to rise days earlier when the Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8, with an unusual escort of six armed coastguard and militia craft, was spotted heading for Vanguard Reef where Malaysia’s Petronas oil company has been drilling for oil and gas.

The same area on Malaysia’s extended continental shelf was the scene of a confrontation between China and Malaysia last December. This time, with US navy ships in close proximity, the flotilla steamed on to China’s militarized Fiery Cross Reef, 350 kilometers to the northeast.

After a Covid-19 related teleconference with ASEAN’s 10 foreign ministers on April 23, US secretary Pompeo blasted China for taking advantage of the health crisis by, among other things, announcing the creation of administration districts over the Spratlys.

A Malaysian naval officer looks out over the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

On the Malaysia stand-off, he said the Chinese vessels weredispatched “for the sole purpose of intimidating other claimants from engaging in offshore hydrocarbon development. “The US strongly opposes China’s bullying and we hope other nations will hold them to account too,” he added.

It was only a day later that navy technicians watching Indonesia’s maritime front door were alerted to the looming presence of the 67,000-ton Liaoning, which had left its home port of Qingdao, north of Shanghai, in mid-April.

After traversing the Miyako Strait separating Japan and Taiwan, the carrier and five escorts, including two missile destroyers, two missile frigates and a supply ship, then surged out into the southern reaches of the South China Sea, seemingly heading for Indonesian waters at flank speed. 

It soon transpired the fleet was shadowing a fast-moving US force comprising the amphibious assault ship USS America, the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, and the USS Barry, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer.

Joined by the Singapore-based littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Gifford and the Australian frigate RAN Parramatta, the American ships were conducting a so-called freedom of navigation patrol through the Spratlys, which China has always resented.

Chinese interest in the 45,000-ton USS America may have been intensified by the recent addition of 13 newly-deployed F-35B stealth fighters to the carrier’s inventory that also includes AV-8B Harrier II jump jets and MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

Both task forces are now heading back to their home ports. It is unclear why the American fleet’s deployment was so short, but the conventionally-powered Liaoning and its 1,960 sailors can only spend about 40 days at sea without replenishment.