China might be using the “Bihai 2020” initiative as another justification for the increased presence of Chinese law enforcement vessels in the disputed South China Sea, an expert has warned.
“Is the Bihai 2020 initiative as innocent as it seems? On the surface, the initiative appears to be solely aimed at enhancing marine environmental protection. However, as noted in the joint statement, law enforcement activities conducted under the initiative would involve coastal and sea patrols, as well as remote monitoring capabilities,” YingHui Lee, an Associate Research Fellow with the Maritime Security Programme, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University Singapore has said.
He added, “This presents a worrying possibility that the initiative could be used by Beijing as yet another justification for the increased presence of Chinese law enforcement vessels in the disputed South China Sea,” Ying said.
On April 1, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Ministry of Transport, and China Coast Guard in a joint statement announced the commencement of an eight-month long “Bihai 2020” (or “Blue Sea 2020”) initiative.
The initiative, which is stipulated to last until November 30, is the latest maritime law enforcement initiative by Beijing aimed at enhancing marine environmental protection.
According to the joint statement, which is available only in Chinese, the initiative focuses on combating illegal activities in eight key areas: (i) marine engineering construction; (ii) offshore oil exploration; (iii) dumping of marine waste; (iv) shipping and related operations; (v) sea sand mining and transportation; (vi) marine protected area; (vii) land-based pollution; and (viii) marine ecological environment.
On the surface, the initiative appears to be solely aimed at enhancing marine environmental protection. But, as noted in the joint statement, law enforcement activities conducted under the initiative would involve coastal and sea patrols, as well as remote monitoring capabilities.
Lee said: “The exact geographical scope of the Bihai 2020 initiative remains ambiguous at present. The joint statement gives no indication whether the law enforcement activities would be carried out only within China’s territorial waters or have a wider application in the disputed South China Sea.
“Nevertheless, one must not disregard the possibility of the Bihai 2020 initiative turning into another one of Beijing’s unilateral enforcement initiatives in the disputed waters, as in the case of China’s annual fishing moratorium in the South China Sea,” he added.
Lee is of the view that such unilateral actions are a part of China’s wider strategy “aimed at establishing de facto control and legitimizing its claims in the disputed waters”.
He warned that Southeast Asian countries should place more attention on the Bihai 2020 initiative before it turns into another source of conflict.