Malaysian authorities have released all crew members of six Chinese-flagged fishing boats whom it had detained for allegedly trespassing in its territorial waters off southern Johor state earlier this month, a senior Malaysian security source told BenarNews on Thursday. The six boats and 60 crew were intercepted in territorial waters off Tanjung Setapa, on Johor’s southeastern coast on Oct. 9, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) said at the time. Three days after the vessels and crew were detained, China asked Malaysia to carry out a fair investigation in accordance with the law. “All the Chinese fishermen have been released last week. Because this issue is related to diplomatic relations, it cannot be revealed to the public. We will not be issuing any statement,” the security source told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Thursday. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to speak to media on the matter. However, it was not immediately clear whether Malaysian authorities had also released any of the Chinese fishing boats. The source did not respond to further questions. The MMEA had said in a statement after detaining the boats that the crew would be investigated under Malaysia’s Fisheries Act 1985 and the Merchant Shipping Ordinance (OPS) 1952. The former governs foreign fishing vessels entering Malaysian waters without notice and the latter penalizes for anchoring without approval. If found guilty, the crew members would have each faced two years of jail time. Additionally, each vessel’s captain would have had to pay a maximum fine of 6 million ringgit (U.S. $1.45 million), and each crew member would have had to pony up 600,000 ringgit. The source declined to comment on whether the crew was investigated and fined. Officials at the MMEA, the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur and the Malaysian foreign ministry also declined to comment when BenarNews contacted them on Thursday. Malaysian maritime authorities are very serious in ensuring that country’s waters are always protected, and will not compromise with any party that violates the law, MMEA regional director Mohd. Zulfadli Nayan said in a statement after the six boats were detained. Just days after Malaysia detained the six Chinese vessels, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi arrived in Kuala Lumpur on a tour of five Southeast Asian nations last week. In a joint press statement, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Wang “underscored the importance of maintaining peace, security and stability, as well as freedom of navigation and overflight above the South China Sea.” But the two foreign ministers did not tell reporters whether they had discussed the fate of the detained Chinese fishing boats. Competing claims This latest incursion of Chinese boats into Malaysian waters came a little more than two months after Malaysia said it had rejected China’s “nine dash line” that roughly demarcates its claims to most of the South China Sea. Its statement was a response to China protesting Malaysia’s initial claim last December, in a submission to the United Nations, to an extended continental shelf in the South China Sea. In July, Malaysia’s Auditor-General said Chinese coastguard and navy ships intruded into Malaysian waters in the disputed waterway 89 times between 2016 and 2019. These Chinese ships often stayed in the area despite the Malaysian navy telling them to leave, the Malaysian government said. Six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone. Malaysia has rebuffed both Chinese and U.S. activity in the South China Sea this year. It rejected China’s “Nine-Dash Line” in July, but also expressed displeasure when the U.S. Navy sent warships near where Chinese vessels were harassing a Malaysian oil exploration effort in April. At that time, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin signaled in a statement that such deployments could increase tensions and lead to destabilizing “miscalculations.” In August, as both China and the U.S. were lobbying Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia, for support, Hishammuddin said on his social media accounts that matters relating to the South China Sea must be settled by following international law, including the United Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. China rejects the application of UNCLOS to the South China Sea and has never accepted a 2016 international tribunal’s verdict denying most of its claims in the South China Sea. Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Japan has agreed in principle to supply Vietnam with military equipment, in a significant deepening of security cooperation between a key U.S. ally and a South China Sea claimant as their leaders met Monday. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc welcomed his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga, who was making his first overseas trip since taking office last month -- a sign that Suga’s administration is prioritizing Southeast Asia. "The fact both sides basically agreed on the transfer of defense equipment and technologies is a major development step in cooperation,” Suga was quoted as saying by state-run VN Express after the two leaders held talks in Hanoi. “I believe defense and security cooperation between the two countries will continue to grow." While the defense export agreement has yet to be signed, it points the way for Japan to sell military equipment and technology to Vietnam. Until now, Japanese security assistance has been to civilian agencies like the Vietnamese coastguard, not its military. Japan, which has a pacifist constitution, has only just completed its first-ever foreign military sale of defense equipment. That was to another South China Sea claimant, the Philippines, in late-August, selling that country a mix of long-range and mobile air surveillance radars. Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, called Vietnam a “natural partner” for Japan. “It shares Japan's concern about China's maritime ambitions in East Asia,” he said. “Given that both Japan and Vietnam worry about the same potential opponent in the same domain, it makes sense for them to cooperate on maritime security. Japan does not have much experience with provision of security assistance, but it has a huge amount of experience with overseas development assistance that can be critical in this regard.” According to Reuters, Phuc told the news conference that, "Vietnam welcomes Japan, a global power, to continue to actively contribute to regional and global peace, stability and prosperity.” During Monday’s talks, the two sides discussed the South China Sea, and Suga also referred to it during in a speech to the Vietnam-Japan University, where he vowed to work “hand-in-hand” with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish the “rule of law in seas and oceans.” “Japan is strongly opposed to any actions that escalate tensions in the South China Sea. Japan has been consistently supporting the preservation of the rule of law in seas,” Suga said, also calling for peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to force or coercion. China claims nearly the entirety of the South China Sea on the basis of “historic rights,” a position unsupported under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone. Suga travels to Indonesia on Wednesday. Although Japan is a close U.S. ally, which shares Washington’s concern over China’s assertive behavior, Cooper contrasted Tokyo’s approach to engaging Southeast Asia to that of America. “I think Japan is stepping up by playing a more proactive regional role since the United States is seen as somewhat distracted at the moment,” he said. “Washington has been playing bad cop with Beijing, but Tokyo can play good cop in Southeast Asia by highlighting both its development assistance and its investment across the region.” China has not responded officially to the announcement of heightened Japan-Vietnam defense ties. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi finished a tour of five Southeast Asian countries – Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand - on Friday. Alexander Vuving, a professor with the Hawaii-based Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, believes China views Vietnam as something of a lost cause for its diplomatic initiatives in the region. “The goal of Wang Yi's trip is to influence the Southeast Asian hosts, particularly in the conclusion of the negotiations for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” he said. The code is a proposed blueprint, currently being hashed out between ASEAN and China, that would govern behavior between competing claimants in the South China Sea. China hopes for negotiations to be concluded in 2021. “The countries Wang is visiting this month include most of the swing states in ASEAN regarding the [Code of Conduct], while Vietnam is not,” Vuving said. “Vietnam is seen by China as the bulwark against Chinese domination of the South China Sea. I think China hopes to persuade these countries to swing closer to China's version of the [Code of Conduct], as well as to veer closer to the Chinese side in the larger strategic competition with the United States.”
China has built 380 internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region since 2017, and is still constructing facilities, despite claims by Chinese authorities that the “re-education” program is wrapping up and the trainees have “graduated” and returned to society, an Australian think tank has found. Using the latest satellite imaging, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified 380 detention centers established across the XUAR since 2017 -- 100 more than previous investigations have revealed. ASPI found newly constructed detention facilities and extensions to several existing ones, with at least 61 detention sites undergoing new construction and expansion work between July 2019 and July 2020 and at least 14 facilities still under construction in 2020, according to new satellite imagery. “The findings of this research contradict Chinese officials’ claims that all ‘trainees’ from so-called vocational training centres had ‘graduated’ by late 2019,” wrote ASPI researcher Nathan Ruser. “Instead, available evidence suggests that many extrajudicial detainees in Xinjiang’s vast ‘re-education’ network are now being formally charged and locked up in higher security facilities, including newly built or expanded prisons, or sent to walled factory compounds for coerced labour assignments,” he wrote. Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of camps since April 2017. Beginning in October 2018, China acknowledged the existence of the camps, but described them as voluntary “vocational centers” set up to combat radical Islamic terrorism. RFA’s Uyghur Service has found that detainees are mostly held against their will and forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination. As international criticism mounted, China doubled down on assertions the program was winding down. China's claims contradicted by data In a July 2019 press conference, XUAR Chairman Shohret Zakir told reporters that more than 90 percent of internees from “vocational training centers” had graduated from their “studies” and been placed into jobs. Early this month in Paris, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated the claim that all those sent to the camps have been released and placed in employment. “The rights of all trainees in the education and training program, though their minds have been encroached by terrorism and extremism, have been fully guaranteed,” he said during a conference at the French Institute of International Relations. “Now all of them have graduated, there is no one in the education and training center now. They all have found jobs.” “But this claim is contradicted by the new evidence in this database,” writes Ruser of ASPI, which has published its findings in an online database, the Xinjiang Data Project. RFA reporting from several parts of the vast XUAR has also shown many camps still in operation, holding tens of thousands of inmates. Last week RFA found many as eight internment camps may be operating in Turpan (in Chinese, Tulufan), the ancient Silk Road city where parts of Disney’s new U.S. $200 million live-action version of the popular 1998 animated film “Mulan” were filmed. ASPI found that Dabancheng, the XUAR’s largest documented camp near the regional capital Urumqi, saw new construction in 2019 run for more than a km (0.6 mil) and is now a complex of 100 buildings, while a new detention center in the Kashgar has 13 five-storey residential buildings spread over 25 hectares (60 acres), surrounded by a 14-metre-high wall and watch-towers. ASPI breaks the camps into four different tiers, reflecting levels of security and controls on inmates: lower security re-education camps, dedicated re-education camps, detention centers, and maximum security prisons. “We suspect that there’s an administrative difference between these levels of detention; however, the opaque nature of Xinjiang’s carceral system makes it difficult to ensure that our different tiers correspond to any official classifications or types of detention facility,” said Ruser’s report. 'Potemkin-village-style tours' The think tank notes that half of the 60 facilities which have recently been expanded are higher security, “which may suggest a shift in usage from the lower-security, ‘re-education centres’ toward higher-security prison-style facilities.” The report has also found some 70 lower security camps that appear to have had security controls reduced, with internal fences and perimeter walls removed. ASPI said the low security camps had been opened to government arranged “Potemkin-village-style tours” by selected journalists to support the official line about re-education camps. “There is evidence that detainees ‘released’ from these camps have gone into either forced labour assignments or strictly controlled residential surveillance. Therefore, these facilities have classrooms and can support the misleading narrative that they’re designed to purely ‘educate’ or ‘train’ detainees,” said the report. The latest findings by ASPI come amid rising international scrutiny of Beijing’s sprawling network of camps in the XUAR, and follow moves in Washington including sanctions on Xinjiang officials, blacklists of companies suspected of exporting goods made with Uyghur forced labor, and debate on genocide charges. On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that would block imports from the XUAR, amid growing evidence that internment camps have increasingly transitioned from political indoctrination to forced labor, with detainees being sent to work in cotton and textile factories. From Germany, World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa told RFA that the ASPI project “has proven unequivocally that China continues to operate hundreds of concentration camps in spite of international condemnation of China’s crimes against humanity.” “It’s clear that China will not stop committing such crimes against Uyghurs until there is a robust and concerted international action. It’s high time the UN and EU followed the footsteps of the U.S. to take urgent actions to prevent China’s genocide of Uyghurs in front of the international community.” With reporting and translation by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia and accused China of “aggression” in the South China Sea and manipulating the flow of the Mekong River in a time of drought. Touting U.S. investment in the region and support for the COVID-19 response of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Pompeo said Washington will speak out in the face of China’s “threats to sovereign nations’ ability to make free choices.” “We stand with our ASEAN partners as we insist on the rule of law and respect for sovereignty in the South China Sea, where Beijing has pursued aggressive campaigns of coercion and environmental devastation,” Pompeo said in a statement released during a summit of top ASEAN diplomats held online this week and hosted by Vietnam. The top U.S. diplomat accused China of exacerbating the drought in nations downstream on the Mekong River. “We stand for transparency and respect in the Mekong region, where the CCP [Chinese Communist party] has abetted arms and narcotics trafficking and unilaterally manipulated upstream dams, exacerbating an historic drought,” Pompeo said. His statement did not provide evidence to support the allegation of the CCP aiding weapons and drugs smuggling. Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have been grappling with variable water flow on the Mekong that supports the livelihoods of tens of millions of people. While poor rains have caused the drought, environmentalists say dams that China has constructed on the upper reaches of the river have worsened the situation. Rising tensions Pompeo’s rhetoric underscores the rapid deterioration in U.S.-China relations on a raft of issues in recent months, including trade, the status of Hong Kong, the plight of Uyghur Muslims and China’s assertion of “historic rights” to most of the disputed South China Sea. On Thursday, Pompeo had urged Southeast Asian countries to reconsider business deals with the 24 Chinese companies that Washington sanctioned last month for their roles in constructing Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. In recent years, Beijing has undertaken major reclamation of disputed land features in the Paracel and Spratly island chains. ASEAN nations Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also have territorial claims in the South China Sea and seek to use resources in areas that China claims for itself. Beijing further claims parts of that sea overlapping the exclusive economic zone of Indonesia, the largest ASEAN member. For its part, Beijing this week accused the U.S. of interference in the region’s affairs. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the U.S. the “biggest driver of militarization of the South China Sea,” Chinese media reported. “The United States is becoming the most dangerous factor damaging peace in the South China Sea,” Wang said at the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Southeast Asian nations are uneasy about being caught in the war of words between the U.S. and China. In the ASEAN joint communique made public on Thursday, the bloc, which operates by consensus, expressed concern over increased tensions in the South China Sea and called for resolution of disputes in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. A day before that, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters that the group’s countries did not want to “get caught up in the rivalry between major powers.” Vietnam, too, said on Wednesday that the dispute threatens regional stability and that countries should settle the acrimonious row by adhering to international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. While Friday’s toughly worded statement from the U.S. was issued by Pompeo, the State Department public schedule showed that his deputy, Stephen Biegun, was the leading U.S. delegate at the ASEAN virtual meetings that day. Pompeo was traveling to the Middle East to attend the opening of Afghan peace talks. The ASEAN summit ends Saturday after the ASEAN Regional Forum on peace and security. The 27-member forum includes 10 ASEAN states, India, Japan, China, the U.S., Russia and the European Union. Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.