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New alignments are looming in the South China Sea


The ability of Southeast Asian countries to push back against China’s coastguard, maritime militia, and navy is small, but a more coordinated response could be emerging.

Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency has invited counterparts from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam to ‘share experiences and foster brotherhood’ as the six Southeast Asian countries most affected by China’s activities in the South China Sea. The gathering next month appears to have been triggered by reports of Chinese coastguard ships harassing Indonesian oil and gas exploration.

Indonesia has long acted as if it were not involved in the South China Sea disputes but is now forced to recognize that Chinese companies and state agencies covet the oil, gas, and fish resources available off its coast, and so finds itself in the same boat as its Southeast Asian neighbours. This seems to have caused a reassessment of how to respond to China.

Back in 2020, Vietnam was forced to pay around $1 billion to international energy firms after cancelling offshore energy contracts following Chinese pressure. In 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte told journalists President Xi Jinping had warned him there would be ‘war’ if the Philippines attempted to develop a gas field off its own coast. And Malaysia and Brunei have also come under similar pressure not to develop energy resources.

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