South China Sea: Beijing must learn to lead and share in disputed waters, experts say

Minnie Chan

Retired maritime inspector Zhang Jie finds it hard to believe how much the Spratly Islands have changed in recent years.

The former deputy director of the Hainan Maritime Safety Administration said it used to take him two days and nights to get from his office in Sanya, the southernmost city on the Chinese island province, to the South China Sea archipelago.

“The only option was to go by boat,” he said.

But things began to change in 2013, as Beijing embarked on a programme of island-building and infrastructure development to transform the cluster of tiny islets and reefs into a centre for maritime research and, to the concern of several of its neighbours, a base for its military.

“I was shocked when I saw pictures of civilian aircraft landing on Fiery Cross Reef [in 2016], which was just a tiny rock emerging from the sea when I’d visited it a few years earlier,” Zhang said.

“It’s incredible how they turned it into a huge land mass with a 3,000-metre airstrip.”

In the years since those first flights, the development of the Spratlys has continued apace. Neighbouring Mischief and Subi reefs also now have airstrips capable of accommodating large aircraft, while dotted about the rocky chain are lighthouses, hospitals, weather observation stations and radar systems. There is also an array of buildings and facilities suitable for either military or civilian use, and several – like hangars for fighter jets – with a less ambiguous purpose.

It is the presence of the latter that has caused the most unease among rival claimants to the various land formations – and their associated fishing and resource exploration rights – scattered across the South China Sea.

While Beijing claims about 90 per cent of the disputed waterway as its sovereign territory, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines have competing claims.

Likewise, the United States and many of its European allies have criticised what they see as China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the region.

But Zhang, who since leaving the maritime safety administration in 2017 has worked as a researcher at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said it was not always like that.

In his more than 30 years at the agency, the 63-year-old said he was involved in scores of collaborative research projects with scientists from across the region, as well as many life-saving search and rescue missions.

“We built up a comprehensive communication mechanism and worked together to save countless numbers of people,” he said.

“It didn’t matter if they were Chinese or Korean or Vietnamese, or whatever. In the eyes of rescuers, lives matter, not where they come from.”

Although Beijing has repeatedly said that its island-building programme is for the global good, benefiting not only passing merchant ships but also fishermen from across Southeast Asia, many observers are less than convinced.

“What has happened in recent years has been very telling,” said Zhang Mingliang, an associate professor specialising in South China Sea studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou.

“Except the lighthouses, use of all the other public services that were offered by China has been very limited, while the number of stand-offs between Chinese fishermen and their rivals from neighbouring countries has been steadily rising.”

In April, Hanoi claimed that a Vietnamese fishing boat with eight crew members on board had sunk near the disputed Paracel Islands after being struck by a Chinese coastguard vessel, while three months earlier, Indonesia accused a Chinese fishing fleet of entering its economic exclusive zone near the Natuna Islands and raiding its stocks.

“These disputes and stand-offs are the result of an outdated concept by which many Chinese regard the resources of the South China Sea as an exclusive benefit that shouldn’t be shared,” Zhang said.

“But the more sustainable option is for China, as the largest and most powerful country in the region, to share those resources, and in doing so help to maintain long-term peace and stability.”

Chinese coastguard vessels have been involved in several clashes with boats from other countries in recent months. Photo: Reuters

Professor Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Society for Intelligence and Security Studies, agreed that China should be more open to other countries.

“The South China Sea is a common area and claimants should be able to share its resources to benefit their people,” he said.

“But this requires cooperation and joint development by all parties, without prejudice to their respective claims.”

Zhang Jie, a South China Sea expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that as well as allowing foreign scientists to take part in maritime studies on the artificial islands, Beijing should consider providing technical assistance on fishing issues to its Southeast Asian neighbours.

“Chinese and Filipino fishermen have already started working together in some areas, which is a good start,” she said.

“In the future, maybe Chinese shipbuilders can pass on some of their knowledge to help the Philippines build bigger and better fishing boats.”

Such a goal might still be some way off, however. Last month, the National Development and Reform Commission – China’s top economic planning agency – said that resource exploration would continue to be a key element of the country’s economic development plans as it sought to become a great maritime power.

Also, a Chinese military source with knowledge of the South China Sea island-building programme, said that besides People’s Liberation Army transporters, the new airstrips in the Spratly Islands were hardly being used.

“There is only about one take-off and landing each week,” he said. “And the main users are military transport planes carrying supplies to the islands or people back and to from the mainland.”

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