Washington DC [USA]: Without vying much attention of South-East Asian countries, China has discreetly initiated a maritime law enforcement initiative aimed at enhancing marine environmental protection and combating "illegal activities in key areas", including offshore oil exploration as well as shipping and related operations.
The US-based Diplomat magazine, in its report, said that China's Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Ministry of Transport and China Coast Guard, in a joint statement released on April 1, had announced the commencement of an eight-month-long "Bihai 2020" (or "Blue Sea 2020") initiative.
According to the joint statement, which is available only in Chinese, the Bihai 2020 initiative, which is stipulated to last from April 1 to November 30, focusses on combating illegal activities in eight key areas -- marine engineering construction, offshore oil exploration, dumping of marine waste, shipping and related operations, sea sand mining and transportation, marine protected area, land-based pollution and marine ecological environment.
The media reported that the seemingly uninteresting and mundane Bihai 2020 announcement was overshadowed by the rising tensions in the South China Sea in recent months. So far, none of the 10 ASEAN member states has responded to the initiative, at least in public. However, the academic debate on China's possible motivations and the implications of the initiative is also notably lacking.
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.
"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," the report said.
While 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.
"South-East Asian countries should place more attention on the Bihai 2020 initiative before it turns into another source of conflict," the report warned.