What's in China's New South China Sea Inroads?
Plus Southeast Asia's giant scam networks; Indonesia's big global partnership delay; Myanmar's deepening humanitarian crisis & more.
Welcome to this edition of the weekly ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this iteration, we are looking at:
Assessing the implications of new evidence of Chinese inroads in the South China Sea;
Mapping of regional developments including the Philippines’ new China envoy, advances in digital economy framework talks in ASEAN and Myanmar’s deepening humanitarian crisis;
Charting evolving trends such as Southeast Asia’s giant Mekong scam networks and U.S.-China “extreme competition”;
Tracking and analysis of industry developments including what’s behind Indonesia’s big global partnership delay and what’s next for China’s high-speed rail ambitions;
And much more! ICMYI, check out our review of a new book on Myanmar and its post-coup future.
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New China Envoy for the Philippines; ASEAN Digital Pact Talks; Myanmar’s Rising Humanitarian Crisis & More
What’s in China’s New South China Sea Inroads?
Evidence of new Chinese construction on a disputed South China Sea island has once again raised concerns regarding Beijing’s inroads there and the potential geopolitical implications for rival regional claimants and international stakeholders.
What’s Behind It
Evidence has surfaced regarding new inroads in China-occupied Triton Island in the Paracel Islands close to Vietnam. Widely-reported satellite images indicate new activity that likely began just a few weeks ago, and this includes some construction material, containers and a marked strip of land, in addition to existing facilities China has already constructed there like a helipad and harbor (see image above, including the long, rectangular strip of land running through)1.
The inroads mark the latest sign of China’s continued inroads in the South China Sea. China seized the Paracel Islands in 1974 from Vietnam, one of four Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea (the others being Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines). Tensions have continued to flare up periodically between Beijing and Hanoi over the South China Sea, most seriously in 2014 during a standoff when a Chinese oil rig began drilling in Vietnamese waters. Over the past decade or so, China has gradually built and militarized several manmade islands in the Spratly Islands in a bid to enforce its nine-dash line claim over nearly all of the South China Sea at the expense of others and in violation of international law. That experience has naturally meant greater scrutiny on even incremental inroads Beijing subsequently makes in the South China Sea, with ripple effects for areas including diplomacy, alignments and security networking.
Why It Matters
China’s plans on Triton Island could have implications for its overall South China Sea approach. Triton currently lags other bigger China-occupied militarized islands like Woody Island, the biggest of the island group which has features like a large airbase with fighter aircraft and bombers already spotted, along with the administrative center Sansha City China set up back in 2012 to help legitimize its claims. Yet that could begin to change with Beijing’s advances.
Select Recent South China Sea Developments in 2023
China’s behavior has implications for the wider geopolitics of the South China Sea as a flashpoint. As observed previously on ASEAN Wonk, the South China Sea situation remains quite dire for Southeast Asian claimants, and China has continued to utilize its greater control of the South China Sea to enforce its claims through various moves in 2023, including intruding into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone for weeks at a time, using blinding lasers and water cannons on Philippine vessels and expressing concern about energy exploration efforts by Malaysia (along with Indonesia, which technically does not consider itself a claimant2). China rhetorically supports bilateral talks and negotiations with ASEAN as a bloc, but there is a glaring gap between Beijing words and its actions on the water that is noticed even by interested, non-claimant states.
Where It’s Headed
How China’s construction progresses in the coming months on Triton Island will be important to monitor. While it is evident that Beijing is keen on expanding its presence on Triton Island, the exact shape of that remains unclear. Some have argued that there is already evidence that China is building an airstrip, but others believe the description fits more of an elevated roadway of sorts connecting the base on Triton Island to new planned facilities to facilitate construction and manage regular flooding.
This will take shape amid wider shifting dynamics in the South China Sea. In terms of individual claimant states, Vietnam looks to be heading to elevate its relationship with the United States, which, though a major step in Hanoi’s broader alignment balance, may in turn mean navigating choppier waters in ties with China, including in the South China Sea. More generally, as in the past, though other claimant states may not necessarily be able to stop Beijing entirely from new inroads, revelations about its actions can also affect China’s own calibration of its South China Sea approach with claimant states and ASEAN as a bloc, along with its wider strategy in Southeast Asia and reactions by the region.
The Geopolitics of Southeast Asia’s Giant Mekong Scam Networks; Singapore and US-China “Extreme Competition;” Philippine Options in a Major South China Sea Flashpoint
“Though geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China may get in the way, a coordinated regional approach to addressing criminality should be a top political priority,” urges a new report on Southeast Asia’s giant, cross-border scam networks centered in the Mekong subregion. The report, published by the International Crisis Group, calls for some aspirational efforts such as greater U.S.-China coordination in the Mekong, but also notes that “China is by far the most influential actor and could play a critical role if it chose to” in addressing criminality there (link).
Map of the Golden Triangle Section of the Mekong Subregion
“In the security world, we think very hard about the collateral damage that’s associated with dropping a bomb…now we are seeing full-spectrum competition across economic and financial areas, but…it’s not straightforward to assess the collateral damage that will be inflicted with the use of these tools,” Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong noted on the consequences of U.S.-China “extreme competition” in an event. The event was organized as part of a wider commemoration of the country’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s 100th birth anniversary, only part of which is available as a full written transcript (full audio, partial transcript).
“Manila needs to swallow hard and accept some calculated risks” as it thinks through next steps in Second Thomas Shoal, notes a post over at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s blog The Strategist. The piece considers several options given the beleaguered state of the BRP Sierra Madre garrison, Chinese heavy-handedness as well as the shadow of events related to the Scarborough Shoal and U.S. commitment in 2012. These include more robust resupply missions and support from U.S. allies like Australia and Japan (link).