Armed guards and fishermen in the South China Sea

Vietnam is the most assertive in responding to Chinese actions. China is no longer alone in using weaponized fishing boats as others countries follow. Beijing, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur are at standoff. A code of conduct between the parties is increasingly at risk.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Fishing boats sailing the disputed waters of the South China Sea with military personnel on board to patrol and gather information on rival military movements has now become the norm. China started this practice; Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia followed.

Beijing began using fishing boats to hinder US Navy movement in the sea. Reacting to the situation, Washington said last week that it would treat Chinese "civilian" boats as warships.

According to Peking University’s South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, at least 34 Vietnamese boats sailed in January in the waters off the island of Hainan, home to the Chinese Navy's South Sea Fleet.

Vietnamese boats often sail within the 12 nautical mile territorial limit. For Chinese observers, they are probably spy ships.

China claims sovereignty over almost the whole South China Sea, an area where goods worth US.3 trillion transit in ships. The sae is also rich in fish as well as oil and gas deposits.

Chinese claims are contested by other countries in the region, most notably Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.

For years, the US Navy warships have sailed near a series of coral islands and reefs that Beijing turned into logistical and military outposts. For the US, the goal is to assert the principle of freedom of navigation and overflight in waters claimed by China.

But China is not the only target. Satellite images analysed by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) show Vietnamese fishing vessels monitoring Malaysia's naval activities as well.

A Malaysian ship is involved in hydrocarbon exploration in an area in the southern part of the sea where Vietnam and Malaysia have made a joint submission.

Recently, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel been positioned itself in the area, which is off the coast of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. AMTI reported that a three-way stand-off lasted for more than a month.

The Chinese use extensively their Coast Guard to control the South China Sea, intimidating civilian or military boats from other countries. The latter have responded with similar operations to assert their claims.

The repeated maritime incidents considerably have considerably reduced the chances that the parties will soon reach any agreement on a code of conduct for contested waters. Negotiations to reach an agreement on such a code have been dragging on for years now.