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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The South China Sea: Brewing in Trouble

A UN tribunal—the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague—has recently delivered its ruling invalidating China’s territorial claims on South China Sea under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a case filed by the Philippines in 2013. The ruling categorically states that it is the UNCLOS which defines how waters of the South China Sea are divided among the countries but not the so-called nine-dash line of China, which incidentally encompasses around 85% of the sea’s area. Further, it has also ruled that the Spratly Islands that have also been claimed by countries like Vietnam and Malaysia being not inhibited by stable communities, the controlling states are not entitled to the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones in the surrounding seas. The court has also said that by constructing on rocks visible only at low tide, no country is entitled for sovereign waters under UNCLOS. It also observed that China had violated UNCLOS by blocking Philippines fishing boats and oil-exploration vessels.

This ruling is binding on China under the convention of UNCLOS, for it is a signatory to the convention. But as predictable, China’s foreign ministry declared that the ruling was “null and void and has no binding force”, while its defense ministry pledged to deal with “all kinds of threats and challenges” in safeguarding its sovereignty and maritime interests. Indeed, much before the tribunal passing its verdict, China had been entertaining a rhetorical battle with the US about its historical rights on the nine-dash line and the importance of maintenance of its sovereign rights.

Now, the question is: Whether China accepts the importance of submitting to the international law? Or, flouts it? Its disobeying the ruling is certain to damage its credibility in international forums where treaty agreements are incidentally the governing tools in commerce, politics, defense, etc., for it tells the world at large that China regards power as the arbiter in international affairs. As an emerging power in the global scenario, China perhaps, ill-affords conveying such an image to the world at large.

There are a few analysts who fear that China, being piqued by the dent that the court ruling has inflicted on its national pride, might resort to unleashing its military prowess, for it has already taken up island building in the disputed waters, besides its navy carrying out a live-fire exercise there. Against this backdrop, America, which has already displayed two of its aircraft carriers in the seaways pledging itself to maintain freedom of navigation in the region, along with other countries is, of course, anxiously watching if China acts in proportion to its furious rhetoric through its armed forces.

That being the current state of affairs, what is now needed most is: observance of restraint on all sides, for a show off between the US, the superpower and China, the emerging big power, does no good for the global community. At the same time, no country, including the EU and Britain, can remain a mute spectator while China is behaving as though a law unto itself. More so, when around $5 tn annual world trade passes through South China Sea, international community must join the US and other ASEAN countries as one to press China to fall in line with the court ruling.

There is however, a glimmer of hope that in the immediate future China might not escalate the tension, for it is hosting the annual meet of the G20 leaders in September in Hangzhou and obviously won’t like the countries boycott the meet. For that matter, if the news about China working behind the curtains to woo Philippines with economic favors to ‘set aside’ the court ruling, is correct, it becomes evident that China is not for any show off with superpower but working in its own way for achieving what it sees as its national interest. Nevertheless, the G20 leaders going to assemble in Hangzhou must make China understand how important it is for it to fall in line with the international regulations.

Coming to India, the behavior of China over the South China Sea ways is a matter of concern, for 55% of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea. Over it, India is also engaged in business pursuits such as Vietnamese-India energy exploration project in the South China Sea, against which China has been protesting since 2007. The State-run newspaper, China Daily, indeed threatened the Indian-owned oil company to “rethink its oil exploration plans”, for any activity of a foreign company in the disputed waters is illegal.

Ignoring Beijing’s warnings, India has of course, publicly supported Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular in their disputes with Beijing, and continues to cooperate with Hanoi on hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea. India is indeed clawing for influence, just as China is, among ASEAN countries and in that pursuit it has, in its bilateral declarations with Manila, acknowledged the region as part of the West Philippines Sea and refused to endorse the Chinese discourse on the South China Sea. As part of its “Act East” policy, India is even negotiating the sale of the BrahMos cruise missile to Vietnam and frigates and patrol craft to the Philippines, while also forging military-to-military ties and economic and trade links with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. The recent declarations of India about freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea indeed gives a feeling that India is not shy of aligning itself with the US to counter China’s expansionist moves. Obviously, India would therefore like to see China honour the ruling.

China is obviously, increasingly uncomfortable with India playing a greater role in the Indian and Pacific oceans. But the current ruling affords an advantage for India, since China’s disregard for international rules puts China on the back foot vis-à-vis India, a country that had obeyed the PCA’s award to Bangladesh on a similar issue. This fact shall bolster India’s case for NSG membership in the next plenary meeting. That said, we all must wait and see what decides the future of the region: Is it the international laws or the money and might of the countries? Needless to stress here is that what India would like to see happen is the triumph of the international laws. 


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