Nar­row­ing the seas: Se­cu­rity ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the SCS ver­dict

SP's MAI - - FRONT PAGE - By Bharat Kar­nad

There’s an as­pect of China’s seek­ing to ac­quire dom­i­nance in the South China Sea that the ver­dict on July 11, 2016, by the In­ter­na­tional Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion at the Hague, did noth­ing to ad­dress and, which dif­fi­cult mil­i­tary prob­lem, cu­ri­ously, has not so far been iden­ti­fied in in­ter­na­tional and re­gional strate­gic cir­cles, nor have so­lu­tions been bruited about. The prob­lem con­cerns China’s nar­row­ing this Sea by, quite lit­er­ally, cre­at­ing an ob­sta­cle course by forcibly an­nex­ing ter­ri­tory be­long­ing to weak states, such as Philip­pines’ Scar­bor­ough Shoal in the Spratly Is­lands chain, and by cre­at­ing ‘ar­ti­fi­cial’ is­lands. Th­ese are im­ped­i­ments de­signed to com­pel the navies of out-of-area pow­ers and of the in-re­gion dis­putant states, and, more gen­er­ally, the $5 tril­lion worth of an­nual ship-borne trade tran­sit­ing this area through se­lect wa­ter­ways that the Chi­nese can more ef­fec­tively po­lice. It will strate­gi­cally dis­ad­van­tage ad­ver­sary navies, al­low Bei­jing to ex­er­cise a whip hand over global and Asian trade, and, oth­er­wise ob­tain a mere clo­sum (closed sea) that coun­tries will be able to ac­cess only at Bei­jing’s suf­fer­ance.

This ar­ti­cle briefly ex­am­ines the se­cu­rity ram­i­fi­ca­tions of this de­vel­op­ment and pro­poses cer­tain coun­ter­mea­sures that In­dia, in par­tic­u­lar, and other like-minded states, such as Ja­pan, need to take. The most po­tent so­lu­tion, it will be ar­gued, is to re­spond by counter-nar­row­ing the same sea for China. In­dia can do this, it will be con­tended, by arm­ing ASEAN (As­so­ci­a­tion of South East Asian Na­tions) mem­bers, start­ing with Viet­nam, with the BrahMos su­per­sonic cruise mis­sile, which will tilt the ‘ex­change ra­tio’ hugely against Chi­nese war­ships, and to mil­i­tar­ily ex­ploit fac­tors, such as the dis­tance of the dis­puted is­lands, rocky out­crop­pings, and the ‘ar­ti­fi­cial’ is­lands from the Chi­nese main­land against China, and skew­ing the ad­van­tage to­wards de­fender states.


But to first set the con­text: The Hague Court not only re­jected out­right China’s ex­pan­sive ‘Ninedash Line’ claims in the South China Sea but de­clared il­le­gal its oc­cu­pa­tion of rocky pro­tu­ber­ances that at high tide dis­ap­pear un­der wa­ter. It also de­clared il­le­gal the ar­ti­fi­cial ‘is­lands’ China has cre­ated by pour­ing ce­ment on coral reefs in or­der to bol­ster its spu­ri­ous claims, say­ing th­ese do not en­dow Bei­jing with any ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone rights and priv­i­leges, and con­demned such man­i­fes­ta­tions of ‘land recla­ma­tion’ on seven fea­tures just in the Spratly Is­lands area alone, and chided China for such con­struc­tion it said were “in­com­pat­i­ble with the obli­ga­tions on a state dur­ing dis­pute res­o­lu­tion pro­ceed­ings”. Even if Bei­jing can­not claim the 12-mile ex­clu­sion zones around th­ese newly built is­lands, it will feel free to con­sol­i­date its pres­ence and use them for mil­i­tary pur­poses.

But the Tri­bunal did cut the ground from un­der­neath Bei­jing’s his­tor­i­cal ba­sis for its claims. Chi­nese junks ply­ing the dis­puted waters in the dis­tant past, it ruled, can­not con­sti­tute a foun­da­tion for China’s ex­ten­sive claims in the South China Sea, which the Court vir­tu­ally dis­missed as so much non­sense. “There was no le­gal ba­sis”, it said un­am­bigu­ously, for China’s “his­toric rights to re­sources within the sea ar­eas fall­ing within the ‘Nine-dash Line’. It is an in­junc­tion that will here­after ap­ply to Chi­nese claims land­ward as well, in­clud­ing large parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Ak­sai Chin in Ladakh.

While the Philip­pines, which took China to Court, called for “re­straint and so­bri­ety” in the wake of the ver­dict, and was sup­ported by In­dia, Ja­pan, and the United States, who called on all par­ties to re­spect it, China, pre­dictably, re­jected it. For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi de­scribed it as a pre­scrip­tion for “a dose of the wrong medicine, which will not help cure the dis­ease.” He went on to de­scribe the mal­ady as “fever” he ac­cused ex­ter­nal forces of “stir­ring up”. In any case, by im­pos­ing an air de­fence iden­ti­fi­ca­tion zone (ADIZ) and con­duct­ing live fire naval drills in the dis­puted sea con­joined to some se­vere diplo­matic pres­sure, Bei­jing suc­ceeded in hav­ing the 10-mem­ber ASEAN re­move ref­er­ences to the dis­pute or the Hague ver­dict in the com­mu­niqué is­sued by the group’s 49th For­eign Min­is­ters Meet­ing in Laos on July 20. China’s strong-arm tac­tics fit in with its pre­ferred mode of ne­go­ti­at­ing sep­a­rately and on bi­lat­eral ba­sis with each of the dis­putant states, some­thing that Bei­jing be­lieves will ren­der them more amenable. But most le­gal ex­perts agree that even if the re­gional states end up deal­ing singly, one-on-one, with China they will hereon in­sist on the new le­gal tem­plate es­tab­lished by the Hague Court.

That re­gional coun­tries are loath to cross China is un­der­stand­able. They have prof­ited from bal­anc­ing eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion with China and US’ se­cu­rity as­sur­ances. In the weeks prior to the Hague rul­ing, three US mis­sile de­stroy­ers and the nearby USS Ron­ald Rea­gan Car­rier Strike Group, had taken to ‘stalk­ing’ the ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands, such as those near the Scar­bor­ough Shoal the Chi­nese had force­fully an­nexed from the Philip­pines in 2013. Th­ese ships op­er­ated in the 14-20 nau­ti­cal mile range of th­ese is­lands osten­si­bly on free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion pa­trols (FONPs) per­mit­ted by the 1982 UN Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). The US will con­tinue with such op­er­a­tions in the fu­ture to as­sert its rights. And more fre­quent FONPs is also what New Delhi should dis­patch to th­ese waters to as­sert In­dia’s right of free and peace­able pas­sage.

Ex­cept the United States has not rat­i­fied this Con­ven­tion, and nei­ther has China, even as the ASEAN have done so, as have In­dia in June 1995 and Ja­pan a year later. Hence, such naval and air ac­tions as the US may un­der­take against Chi­nese forces un­der the 2014 En­hanced De­fence Co­op­er­a­tion Agree­ment (EDCA) with Manila, which re­vives in a way the 1951 Mu­tual De­fence Treaty that be­came de­funct in 1992 with Philip­pines re­fus­ing to ex­tend it could, the­o­ret­i­cally, come un­der a le­gal cloud, un­less the US war­ships fly the Philip­pine flag pro­vid­ing Manila and Wash­ing­ton the cover of self-de­fence, which last will not hap­pen.

In­dia has a bur­geon­ing eco­nomic stake in the Viet­namese sea ter­ri­tory with the In­dian en­ergy ma­jor, ONGC Videsh, in 2014 for­mally join­ing PetroViet­nam to ex­ploit the en­ergy re­sources in the Para­cel Is­lands area claimed by China

Chi­nese Buildup and US Re­sponse

Speed of buildup be­ing of the essence, China, ac­cord­ing to satel­lite in­tel­li­gence, had by Fe­bru­ary 2016, erected a high fre­quency radar on Cuar­teron Is­land able to mon­i­tor on real time, 24x7, ba­sis the air and sur­face traf­fic in the south­ern part of the South China Sea, i.e., the north­ern end of the Malacca Strait. It aug­mented the radars al­ready on Fiery Cross, Gaven, Hughes and John­son South Reefs in the Spratly’s chain, with he­li­pads, and pos­si­ble gun and mis­sile em­place­ment’s too at some of th­ese posts. Map­ping the Chi­nese land recla­ma­tions in the South China Sea in­di­cates a pat­tern. Th­ese are mostly grouped in the spread of the Spratly Is­lands right smack in the mid­dle of the South China Sea—a quad­rant that opens out to the East Sea in the north­east and the Malacca, Lum­bok and Sunda Straits to the south-west en­com­pass­ing most of the main oceanic trade-car­ry­ing high­ways.

To de­ter US car­rier task forces from en­ter­ing th­ese dis­puted area, Bei­jing has de­ployed the Dong Feng DF-21D anti-ship bal­lis­tic mis­sile sys­tem along with Hong H-K6 medium bombers (Chi­nese vari­ant of the Soviet Tu-15) on the is­lands it has il­le­gally oc­cu­pied or con­structed. The logic ob­vi­ously is that if the US Navy can be made less con­fi­dent in th­ese waters, the other coun­tries will of­fer no re­sis­tance at all. Th­ese ar­ti­fi­cial and nat­u­ral is­lands bristling with radar/other sen­sors and weapons sys­tems will con­strict the pas­sage ways, and all mar­itime traf­fic, in­clud­ing naval move­ments, through th­ese waters will be sub­ject to Chi­nese sur­veil­lance and ef­fec­tively pass un­der Bei­jing’s con­trol.

While Wash­ing­ton says it will con­test what the US Pa­cific Fleet com­man­der Ad­mi­ral Scott Swift said at an Oc­to­ber 2015 con­fer­ence in Syd­ney, is an ‘egre­gious’ ten­dency of coun­tries, like China, to “view free­dom of the seas as up for grabs, as some­thing that can be taken down and re­de­fined by do­mes­tic law or by rein­ter­pret­ing in­ter­na­tional law” and to im­pose “su­per­flu­ous warn­ings and re­stric­tions on free­dom of the seas in their ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zones and claim ter­ri­to­rial wa­ter rights that are in­con­sis­tent with [UNCLOS]”, the US is un­likely to come to any ASEAN part­ner’s aid, EDCA or no EDCA, if this in­ter­feres or di­verts from the larger US aim of reach­ing a modus vivendi with Bei­jing. The US Naval Chief, Ad­mi­ral John

Richard­son, made this plain. “Co­op­er­a­tion [with China] would be great”, he said at a Cen­ter for New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity con­fer­ence held in Wash­ing­ton in June 2016, “com­pe­ti­tion is fine [but] con­flict is the thing that we re­ally want to avoid.” He was re­flect­ing the views of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, who in early 2016 neg­a­tived a mus­cu­lar ap­proach pro­posed by the head of the US Pa­cific Com­mand, Ad­mi­ral Harry Har­ris, per a news re­port, to “counter and re­verse China’s strate­gic gains” in this re­gion.

What In­dia Can and Should Do

Wash­ing­ton’s will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise with China, and Bei­jing’s de­sire to pre­vent mil­i­tar­ily ril­ing up Amer­ica means th­ese two coun­tries will even­tu­ally work out a mu­tu­ally ac­cept­able so­lu­tion that may not con­sti­tute rules-of-the-road for any­body else, or help the ASEAN dis­putants bol­ster their in­di­vid­ual claims with re­spect to China. This is the main rea­son why it is in New Delhi’s in­ter­est to be proac­tive and to co­or­di­nate its poli­cies to beef up the dis­sua­sive mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the ASEAN states with those of, say, Ja­pan. In­dia and Ja­pan can­not any­more af­ford to fall­back on their de­fault po­si­tion of free rid­ing on Amer­ica’s se­cu­rity coat­tails in the hope their in­ter­ests will be served, or to iden­tify with the US mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity in the South China Sea not aimed at con­strain­ing China’s free­dom of ac­tion.

Which are the lit­toral and off­shore states that have shown the most grit in op­pos­ing Bei­jing? Th­ese are Viet­nam and Tai­wan, fol­lowed by In­done­sia and Malaysia. Ex­cept, Tai­wan for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons claims ex­actly the same Nine dash-Line space as China, and will not ar­ray it­self against Bei­jing in this dis­pute. Em­pow­er­ing Viet­nam is the best bet and could have a telling de­mon­stra­tion ef­fect. In­dia has a bur­geon­ing eco­nomic stake in the Viet­namese sea ter­ri­tory with the In­dian en­ergy ma­jor, ONGC Videsh, in 2014 for­mally join­ing PetroViet­nam to ex­ploit the en­ergy re­sources in Blocks 102/10 and 106/10 in the Para­cel Is­lands area claimed by China, where it has 40 per cent and 50 per cent share re­spec­tively. As­sets, such as gi­ant rigs and the un­der­way oil/gas ex­plo­ration and drilling ac­tiv­ity will have to be pro­tected against ad­ver­sar­ial ac­tions in what Bei­jing calls “China ad­min­is­tered waters”.

The strate­gic gains from arm­ing Viet­nam with spe­cially dev­as­tat­ing ar­ma­ments hav­ing fi­nally dawned on the In­dian Gov­ern­ment, New Delhi agreed to sell/trans­fer to Hanoi the in­de­fen­si­ble BrahMos su­per­sonic cruise mis­sile. Op­er­a­tionally de­ployed in coastal bat­ter­ies and on Viet­namese war­ships and sub­marines, the BrahMos will have a chill­ing ef­fect on the Chi­nese Navy’s se­cret ‘Fourth Fleet’ tasked for the In­dian Ocean and co-lo­cated with the South Sea Fleet on the Sanya naval base on Hainan Is­land. It could lead to Philip­pines, In­done­sia, and Malaysia seek­ing sim­i­lar ar­ma­ments. With all th­ese coun­tries so armed, the same sea will be ef­fec­tively nar­rowed and ren­dered equally dan­ger­ous for Chi­nese mer­chant­men and naval ships act­ing bel­liger­ently. When a cruise mis­sile cost­ing ` 10 crore can take out a de­stroyer cost­ing ` 7,000 crore, Chi­nese com­man­ders will soon face a huge op­er­a­tional dilemma. It will im­me­di­ately in­hibit Chi­nese com­man­ders from ca­su­ally or­der­ing their ves­sels on provoca­tive mis­sions and com­bat­ant ship cap­tains from court­ing risk. In this re­spect, China will also dis­cover that the rel­a­tively long dis­tance from the main­land to the dis­puted area can be­come a li­a­bil­ity in terms of sus­tain­ing of­fen­sive naval or other mil­i­tary ac­tion. Scar­bor­ough Shoal, only 230 km west east­ern most is­land of the Philip­pines, is some 990 km from the Chi­nese coast.

Thus, BrahMos ver­sus Chi­nese war­ships, mil­i­tar­ily ex­ploit­ing the dis­tance-dif­fer­en­tial from home ar­eas, etc. are the sorts of asym­me­tries that coun­tries within and with­out the South China Sea re­gion need ur­gently to ex­ac­er­bate. It is the only way to pre­vent China dom­i­nat­ing the South China Sea.

In­dia and Ja­pan can­not any­more af­ford to fall­back on their de­fault po­si­tion of free rid­ing on Amer­ica’s se­cu­rity coat­tails in the hope their in­ter­ests will be served


The US Navy lit­toral com­bat ship USS Coron­ado and the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China Chi­nese Navy guided-mis­sile de­stroyer Xian dur­ing Rim of the Pa­cific 2016

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