KUALA LUMPUR: An Australian is trying to surf, or rather dive, on the choppy waves of the South China Sea dispute.
However, Hans Berekoven, an amateur marine archaeologist recovering artefacts from a shipwreck for a Malaysian museum, is finding it difficult, with a China Coast Guard vessel checking on him.
Not only that, Berekoven, alleges that the China vessel is causing damage to the Luconia Shoals, claimed by both Malaysia and China.
“She’s got a massive anchor chain. Every time the wind changes or the current changes that big anchor chain is just making a hell of a mess of that reef,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
He said that on one trip, he had been harassed by the China Coast Guard vessel that has been stationed off Luconia Shoals for the past few years.
The shoals are a cluster of reefs and a tiny island called the Luconia Breakers, 84 nautical miles off Malaysia’s Borneo coast.
Berekoven told ABC: “They were trying to push us out. When we arrived there and started diving, they would up-anchor and sort of circle around us, sometimes really close. It was a sort of gentle intimidation.”
Berekoven, said the report, was preparing to return to Luconia Shoals to resume recovering artefacts for the museum from the nearby shipwreck. The report did not name the museum.
China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims over the South China Sea. The dispute has been a major flashpoint in the region, with accusations of China building artificial islands and damaging reef systems, according to the ABC report.
Since 1947, China has claimed a vast area of islands in the South China Sea, including the Luconia Shoals.
ABC quoted Professor Clive Schofield, an authority on marine jurisdictional issues, as saying that at 84 nautical miles from the Borneo coast, the Luconia Shoals were clearly on Malaysia’s continental shelf, and well within Malaysia’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), as defined by the Law of the Sea Convention.
“So if there’s any jurisdiction and rights over the feature [the Luconia Shoals], then they are Malaysian and not Chinese,” Professor Schofield said.
Once, according to the report, Berekoven protested the situation by raising the Malaysian flag on the tiny island.
“I took the curator of the museum that we’re working with, and a couple of other Malaysian friends, and a journalist from The Borneo Post,” he told ABC.
They mounted a stainless steel flagpole into a cement footing and raised the Malaysian flag, as the China Coast Guard vessel watched from about 500m offshore.
‘They must have got on the blower to Beijing and Beijing must have got on the blower to Kuala Lumpur, because suddenly there was a big kerfuffle in KL,” Berekoven said.
The next morning, a Malaysian aircraft flew low over Berekoven’s boat and the island.
“A Malaysian coast guard vessel was despatched. Went out there and unbolted the flag,” he told ABC.
Professor Schofield said he was not surprised at Malaysia’s action as Malaysia had traditionally dealt with issues by taking a quiet diplomatic route with China and avoiding public conflict.
Schofield was quoted as saying that a rare exception to Malaysia’s quiet diplomacy with China occurred earlier this year when about 100 Chinese fishing boats arrived at the Luconia Shoals.
“For Malaysia there was a relatively strong reaction calling in the Chinese ambassador to protest against that,” ABC quoted him as saying.
Malaysia also sent naval vessels to the Luconia Shoals to monitor the situation.