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China’s ‘Water Grab’ and Its Consequences

BANGKOK – China’s pattern of regional conduct has come increasingly into focus. It is much less about maintaining the way things have been — otherwise known as the “status quo” — and much more about revising the established dynamics and contours in the region to its preferences.

China’s inchoate but inexorable “revisionism”, in turn, is likely to become the new and primary source of tensions and potential conflict in Southeast Asia. Nowhere are China’s revisionist aims more evident than its “land grab” in the South China Sea and “water grab” in the upper reaches of the Mekong River that straddles southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In the South China Sea, tensions are mounting because of Beijing’s controversial claims of a string of reefs and shoals and fishing areas that are closer to the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia than mainland China. In addition, China has made artificial islands out of these small rocks, placed military equipment on them and even used them for passenger flights as a way of cementing its claim and making a fait accompli.

The Philippines has tried to stand up to Beijing, but Vietnam has hedged and remained non-confrontational because Hanoi relies heavily on China for trade, investment and economic development. The other South China Sea claimants, namely Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia have mostly stayed away from Beijing’s ire.

But now even Indonesia can no longer stand by while its interests are at stake. Last week, when Indonesian authorities detained a Chinese fishing trawler and its eight-member crew for trespassing in the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone off the Natuna Islands, the Chinese Coast Guard intervened and rammed an Indonesian vessel to free the fishing boat. The incident sparked diplomatic outrage from Jakarta, embarrassing the Chinese. Yet it marks a similar trend of growing Chinese belligerence and its unwillingness to take part in drafting the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China.

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