TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Chinese coast guard vessels spent 70% of the past year patrolling in a tract of the South China Sea claimed by Malaysia, an American think tank says. Malaysia did little to push back.
The coast guard presence, especially long-term for a Chinese mission in the widely disputed South China Sea, followed by Malaysia's muted response gives China an ever-stronger upper hand over the Southeast Asian country and more clout in a broader six-way maritime dispute that has grabbed attention as far away as Washington. China already has a military and technological edge in the dispute.
In Malaysia, "they do monitor, but I don't think they do the shooing them away kind of thing, because China is simply too powerful for doing so," said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Chinese coast guard
At least one Chinese coast guard vessel was broadcasting from Luconia Shoals on 258 of the past 365 days, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report September 26.
Most of the shoals are under water, but a reef called Luconia Breakers may include a small sandbar that protrudes above water at high tide, the think tank initiative says.
The Chinese coast guard also patrolled around the disputed sea's Scarborough Shoal for 162 of the past 365 days and Second Thomas Shoal for 215 days, the initiative report says. China disputes both with the Philippines and controls Scarborough. China started patrolling around Luconia Shoals in 2013, according to the report.
Other countries see China's coast guard as a paramilitary force just short of its navy.
China and Malaysia
The mission to Luconia Shoals appears aimed at proving China's heft over Malaysia and at locking in Chinese claims to about 90% of the sea, scholars say. Malaysia is the most active developer of undersea oil and gas among the governments with claims in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. But the country lacks China's coastal patrol hardware.
"Most of the MMEA (Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency) craft were pretty small," said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "They could not actually go that far out to Luconia Shoals, because when you are further out there, the sea state, the weather wouldn't have been conducive for those craft anyway.
"And furthermore, it's not just the size," he said. "The maintainability and the operational readiness of a number of these craft are actually suspect."
According to think tank initiative data, two Royal Malaysian Navy warships each patrolled near the Chinese coast guard vessel Haijing 3306 at Luconia Shoals for at least two days in September and October 2018. But in May this year, a Chinese coast guard vessel engaged in intimidation of a Malaysian drilling rig near Luconia Breakers, the think tank initiative's report says.
Malaysia seldom spoke out before Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took office in 2018 with calls to review Chinese investment in his country and avoid use of warships in the disputed sea. Malaysia also laid plans in 2017 to modernize its navy, but its forces haven't matched those of China.
The Philippines and fellow South China Sea claimant Vietnam often use formal diplomacy to challenge China's past decade of island-building and militarization in the waterway. Brunei also claims part of the sea, and Taiwan claims nearly all of it. The sea stretches from Borneo to Hong Kong.
China has amassed more manpower over the past few years to patrol around the clock, Koh said. The government in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is pushing now for its own marine police unit, he noted.
Show of sovereignty
China might be using its coast guard as pressure on Malaysia to negotiate but almost certainly as a way to remind the outer world of its maritime claims, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
"I think it's still all about stretching a claim to sovereignty," Huang said. "I wouldn't dare say there's no possibility of cooperation, but that location would appear to lean toward 'claim my sovereignty.'"
The U.S. think tank initiative calls Luconia Shoals "a symbolically important series of reefs ... which China seems determined to control without physically occupying."
Chinese leaders feel they should show strength at sea to keep the United States and its allies away, experts have said since 2017 when U.S. President Donald Trump stepped up naval voyages into the South China Sea. The U.S. helps train Philippine troops and moved in 2016 to resume sales of lethal arms to Vietnam.
If Malaysia acknowledges China's claim to sovereignty, the two sides could work together on joint energy exploration, Oh said. "It's a "delicate dance going on between China and Malaysia in this respect."