In January 2013, senior US Navy intelligence officer Captain James Fanell described China's maritime strategy and ambitions as 'hegemonic' and aggressive, and said China 'bullies adversaries'. This unusually blunt assessment made news around the world. Sam Roggeveen, who broke the story for The Interpreter, described Fanell's comments as 'bracing.' 

While it did not receive quite as much media attention, Captain Fanell gave another presentation at the same conference this year, beginning with an admission that his previous comments were 'provocative, even controversial in January 2013.' Rather than concede the point, however, Fanell goes on to state that in light of recent developments, the previous year's assessment 'now seems obvious, even conservative...It sounded so aggressive then to simply state the facts. What a difference a year makes.'

There may be disagreement on whether to categorise Fanell's position as 'conservative', particularly amid reports that the Pentagon has distanced itself from other recent comments he has made.

But this should not overshadow the fact that the core of Fanell's assessments regarding developments in the South China Sea over the last several years are now reflected in statements by senior US civilian officials, quoted by Fanell in this year's speech. 

Furthermore, evidence to support his argument is readily provided by the Chinese themselves in publications funded and approved by the Communist Party, as part of what Fanell described as 'a $6.6 billion project to increase China's propaganda footprint around the world.' The recent release of an eight-part documentary on China's activities in the South China Sea by the state owned CCTV4 network is a case in point.

I have written elsewhere about some of the details contained in this documentary, which provide strong evidence for Fanell's assertion last year that 'China is knowingly, operationally and incrementally seizing maritime rights of its neighbours.' What Chinese officials describe as 'maritime rights protection' is, according to Fanell, in reality 'a euphemism for coerced seizure of (the) coastal rights of China's neighbours.'

The documentary shows the patrol patterns and missions undertaken by vessels from Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies including China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and the Bureau of Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC), as well as the Maritime Safety Agency (MSA). It includes the dates and often geo-location information for a number of incidents at sea that resulted from these missions.

Fanell's observation in 2013 that CMS 'has no other mission but to harass China's neighbours into submitting to China's expansive claims' is borne out by the footage in the documentary. CMS patrols filmed by the CCTV4 crew show them conducting continuous close-in surveillance of disputed features in the South China Sea and harassing opposing forces via radio through what are referred to as 'shout outs' asserting China's 'indisputable sovereignty' over the features these forces are 'illegally' occupying. 

CMS is described by its own personnel in the documentary as 'neither a military nor a police force', which according to them provides the necessary flexibility to perform its mission in 'more sensitive waters.' Yet the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions it undertakes in these disputed waters resemble much more closely those of a military organisation than they do that of a coast guard or police force.

Even ostensibly more traditional 'law enforcement' organisations such as FLEC are also focused singularly on 'maritime rights protection' missions. According to the documentary, FLEC's strategy for fulfilling these tasks has evolved over the last several years from patrolling to direct escorts of Chinese fishing vessels into the furthest reaches of China's claims in the South China Sea. This has included the maritime areas off the Natuna islands that Indonesia considers to comprise its EEZ, leading to a number of serious incidents over the last several years whereby FLEC vessels overtly threatened the use of force to coerce Indonesian navy and coast guard agencies into submission

Taken together, the patrol patterns and resulting incidents displayed in the documentary support Fanell's assessment that 'if you map out their harassments you will see that they form a curved front that has over time expanded out against the coast of China's neighbours, becoming the infamous nine-dashed line.' 

The parent organisation of CMS, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), clearly regards the entirety of these claims as comprising its rightful area of operations. This is visibly demonstrated by comments made by the Deputy Director General of SOA's South China Sea Bureau, who states in the CCTV documentary that 'our patrol area mainly falls within the whole nine-dashed line.' In case there is any mistaking his comments, superimposed on a monitor behind him is a map featuring the nine-dashed line (see from 11:30 here and a still from the video below). 

These comments are particularly significant because when the various maritime law enforcement agencies were reorganised last year as the China Coast Guard (CCG), they were placed under SOA's administration. According to Fanell, the only thing that has changed since the formation of the CCG is the paint on the ships. SOA remains 'the civil bureau fronting Beijing's expansionist activities' and instead of FLEC or CMS, the CCG is now 'playing the role of antagonist, harassing China's neighbours.' 

Recent comments by senior officials in the Obama Administration, including Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel, seem to echo Fanell's core assessment on the South China Sea. In testimony earlier this month, Secretary Russel stated (video above): 

There is a growing concern that this pattern of behavior in the South China Sea reflects an incremental effort by China to assert control over the area contained in the so-called 'nine-dash line,' despite the objections of its neighbors and despite the lack of any explanation or apparent basis under international law regarding the scope of the claim itself.

As a result, the US has now made explicit that which was implicit: that the Chinese 'nine-dashed line' map is contrary to international law. In order to prevent any perceptions of unilateral intent, the US is likely now to ask the same of its allies and partners in the region, including ASEAN and Australia.

Many nations have already come to this conclusion, and a number of ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, are on record to this effect. Now is the time for all of them to step up publicly, not in opposition to China, but in support of the rules and norms that serve as the foundation of the global maritime commons.