The Hainan province of China has recently authorized maritime patrol units to board and potentially detain foreign vessels it deems to be acting illegal in its territorial waters.
The province of Hainan, China’s southernmost province and the location of numerous tropical resorts and a large naval base, passed the legislation which has regional neighbors clamoring for an explanation. The seemingly aggressive decree, along with the unclear nature of how it will be enforced, has caused regional tensions to skyrocket.
The South China Sea is a key area of activity for more than 10 different countries, and has recently been the subject of fierce maritime border disputes between China and the Philippines, which refer to disputed body of water as the West Philippine Sea. Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also claim disputed areas of the sea.
The fact that the province of Hainan appears to have acted unilaterally is concerning. There is, as of yet, no word from Beijing as to what the higher levels of government think of the declaration. Additionally, little action has been taken on the part of the Chinese– the enforcement exists in theory only, for the moment.
While there has been much squabbling over fishing rights and oil and natural gas exploration, there has yet to be any kind of tense showdown or an attempt at detaining a vessel from Hainan patrols. The Chinese have maintained the broad and vague authority to stop any vessels acting illegally in its waters, which could include anything from fishing to disseminating propaganda or interfering with communications equipment.
But it’s the waters that China claims as their own that are at the heart of the problem. The country recently drew the ire of ASEAN, the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations, after printing a territorial map on Chinese passports that included disputed areas of the sea. The passports were issued for normal citizens only, and the passports for government officials have not been changed.
One of the main issues in the dispute is the confusion regarding the Chinese position. Many of the agencies, including the Military and the Foreign Ministry among others, have appeared disjointed in their statements regarding these maritime border disputes.
Experts in the region support this assertion. Many have cited varying positions given by different Chinese organizations, leaving everyone scratching their heads. There is a mysteriously demarcated dashed-line that appears to highlight China’s territorial claim, yet nobody from the government can clearly explain exactly what the line means.
China has even refused to offer exact coordinates of where its claims lie, leading many to believe the unclarity is intentional. Essentially, China has issued vague orders to detain boats violating vague restrictions in areas of vague territorial claims. This offers the country unparalleled wiggle room to either escalate the situation if desired, but more likely to offer some kind of compromise in order to decrease tensions.