South China Sea

9th July – South China Sea

Chinese muscularity in South China Sea

The Philippines invoked the dispute settlement mechanism of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2013 to test the legality of China’s ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea regarding the disputed Spratlys. In response, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague decreed in its July 12, 2016 judgment that the line had “no legal basis.” China dismissed the judgment as “null and void.”

The South China Sea (SCS) is important not just to its littoral countries. It has been a transit point for trade since early medieval times, contains abundantly rich fisheries, and is a repository of mineral deposits and hydrocarbon reserves.

The PCA verdict –

  • The PCA award undermined the Chinese claim and held that none of the features of the Spratlys qualified them as islands, and there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights and to the resources within the ‘nine-dash line’.
  • The UNCLOS provides that islands must sustain habitation and the capacity for non-extractive economic activity. Reefs and shoals that are unable to do so are considered low-tide elevations.
  • The award implied that China violated the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It noted that China had aggravated the situation by undertaking land reclamation and construction, and had harmed the environment and violated its obligation to preserve the ecosystem.
  • China dismissed the award as “a political farce under the pretext of law.”

ASEAN response –

Given that their economic ties with China are deepening, it may appear that the ASEAN countries are bandwagoning with China. In reality, there is growing discontent. While avoiding military confrontation with China, they are seeking political insurance, strengthening their navies, and deepening their military relationships with the United States.

  • Vietnam has added six Kilo-class, Russian-origin submarines to its navy.
  • France, Germany and the Netherlands, respectively, have supplied Formidable-class stealth ships to Singapore, patrol boats to Brunei Darussalam, and corvettes to Indonesia.
  • Japan is partially funding the upgradation of the Indonesian coast guard.
  • Indonesia and the Philippines are in early stages of exploring procurement of the BrahMos missile from India. The other ASEAN countries that have shown interest are Thailand and Vietnam.

Chinese muscularity –

Growing Chinese muscularity in the SCS is visible in the

  • increased patrolling and live-fire exercising by Chinese naval vessels;
  • ramming and sinking of fishing vessels of other claimant countries;
  • exploration and drilling vessels competing aggressively with those of other littoral countries;
  • renaming of SCS features; and
  • building of runways, bunkers, and habitation for possible long-term stationing of personnel on the atolls claimed by China.

Russia – Complicating the SCS for China –

  • A complicating factor for China is Russia’s growing military and economic equities in the SCS.
  • Russia and Vietnam have a defence cooperation relationship, which they are committed to strengthening.
  • China has objected to Rosneft Vietnam BV prospecting within the Chinese defined ‘nine-dash line.’
  • Rosneft has also been invited by the Philippines to conduct oil prospecting in its EEZ.

Options for India –

  • From India’s perspective, foreign and security policy in its larger neighbourhood covers the entire expanse of the Asia-Pacific and extends to the Persian Gulf and West Asia. India is the fulcrum of, the region between the Suez and Shanghai, between West and East Asia, and between the Mediterranean and the SCS. The SCS carries merchandise to and from India. It follows that India has a stake in the SCS, just as China has in the Indian Ocean.
  • India must continue to actively pursue its defence diplomacy outreach in the Indo-Pacific region: increase military training and conduct exercises and exchanges at a higher level of complexity, extend Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief activities, share patrolling of the Malacca Strait with the littoral countries, etc.
  • The Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships that India has concluded with Australia, Japan, Indonesia, the U.S., and Vietnam could be extended to Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.
  • India must also buttress the military capacity of the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command. These islands have immense geo-strategic value, as they overlook Asia’s maritime strategic lifeline and the world’s most important global sea lane. In this time of turbulence, India cannot afford to continue undervaluing one of its biggest assets.

SourceThe Hindu

QUESTION – There is a bandwagoning of strategic interests in the South China Sea against an China’s aggressive and muscular approach to the region. Discuss the dimensions of the emerging conflicts and throw light upon India’s role in the region.

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