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Territorial disputes in South China Sea on the increase as China flexes muscles

Tension was running high on the South China Sea on June 23, some 105 kilometers northwest of Laut Island in Indonesia's Natuna Islands. A large, white Chinese fishery administration vessel, which was ordered to evacuate from the area by an Indonesian Navy ship, threatened to attack unless a Chinese fishing boat that had been seized by Indonesia was released. A large-caliber machine gun was pointing at the Indonesian Navy ship, which was getting ready to counterattack.

The showdown on the water was triggered by a group of more than 10 Chinese fishing boats operating in the area the day before, when an Indonesian patrol boat seized one of them. It was within Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and other countries cannot operate there without permission, according to official sources. However, two white Chinese fishery administration vessels appeared some 30 minutes later, insisting over the radio that they did not recognize the area as Indonesia's EEZ and that the seized Chinese vessel be released.

A video recording of the scene, which was obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun, shows that the bow of one of the Chinese fishery administration ships bears the vessel's name, "Yuzheng 311," in Chinese characters. The ship is a former military vessel converted in March last year into China's largest fishery administration vessel to operate in the South China Sea, with a displacement capacity of 4,450 tons. Though the white vessel belongs to China's Agriculture Ministry, which oversees the nation's fishing industry, it still bears air of a military vessel.

Complying with China's demand, the Indonesian patrol boat released the Chinese fishing boat, but it recaptured the ship the following morning after the Indonesian Navy ship arrived in the area. Undaunted, the Chinese fishery administration vessel still remained on the offensive. The Indonesian patrol boat, made of carbon fiber and vulnerable to gunshots, ended up releasing the Chinese fishing boat.

This wasn't the first case to hit the area. The Chinese fishery administration vessel had earlier forced Indonesia to release a captured Chinese fishing boat on May 15, and according to an Indonesian government official, that was the first case of Chinese fishing boats operating illegally in the area accompanied by an armed escort ship.

The South China Sea has been an arena of territorial disputes between China and other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, over the sovereignty of the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. A Taiwanese Navy official testifies that there is a rich underwater oil reserve north of the Natuna Islands, indicating that China is possibly pursuing underground resources rather than fishing stock in the area.

In fact, Beijing explained to visiting U.S. officials -- Jeffrey A. Bader, senior director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, and Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg -- in March this year that the South China Sea is a "core interest" for China, according to a report by The New York Times in April. It was the first time for China to use the term -- "core interest" -- for an area other than Taiwan and the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. The South China Sea is indeed China's "lifeline," with its national security and securing of resources at stake.

The Xinhua News Agency, China's state-run media organ, has reported that a Chinese fishing boat and its nine crewmembers were seized near the Spratly Islands on June 22 and that they were eventually released after negotiations, without ever referring to China's confrontation with the Indonesian Navy ship on June 23.

In a reply to an inquiry by the Mainichi to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in writing that China bears inarguable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their surrounding waters and that China has addressed conflicts properly through amicable discussions and negotiations with concerned countries, hoping for peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Indonesia, meanwhile, has not publicized the incident, apparently in consideration for its economic and other ties with China. However, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono admitted during a Cabinet meeting on July 22 that new tension was arising in the South China Sea, near the Natuna Islands. The president's abrupt reference to the islands apparently shows his concerns for conflict with China.

The United States has long been said to have controlled the Seven Seas since the end of World War II. Now, China is emerging as a new seafaring country.

(Mainichi Japan) August 2, 2010

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