The South China Sea im­broglio and its reper­cus­sions

The Chi­nese po­si­tion of not recog­nis­ing the ver­dict of the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion is a cause for se­ri­ous worry, be­cause it high­lights to­tal dis­re­gard to the in­ter­na­tional or­der


While the gen­e­sis of dis­putes in the South China Sea (SCS) dates back to 1946 when China laid claim to al­most the en­tire sea area by draw­ing the fa­mous ‘Nine-dash Line’, the real im­broglio erupted dur­ing the past cou­ple of decades with fre­quent dis­putes flar­ing up be­tween the lit­toral coun­tries. SCS com­prises the Spratly Is­lands, the Paracels Is­lands and the Scar­bor­ough Shoals, all of which are un­der con­test by sev­eral na­tions. Among th­ese the mostly con­tested are the Spratly Is­lands with China, Tai­wan, Viet­nam, Philip­pines, Malaysia and Brunei stak­ing sov­er­eign claims over th­ese fea­tures. Dur­ing 1974, China wrested con­trol of the Paracels from Viet­nam which sprouted the con­flicts which sim­mers even now. In 2012, took ag­gres­sive stance by restrict­ing ac­cess to the Scar­bor­ough Shoals to the Philip­pines. Al­though the Pratas Is­lands are un­der con­trol of Tai­wan, China con­tin­ues to con­test it. As an in­stru­ment for res­o­lu­tion of con­flict­ing claims, dur­ing 2002 the Dec­la­ra­tion on Code of Con­duct (DOC) of Par­ties was signed. This DOC how­ever has re­mained mostly in­ef­fec­tive.

The SCS is a busy in­ter­na­tional water­way, be­ing one of the main ar­ter­ies of the global econ­omy and trade. More than $5 tril­lion of world trade ships pass through the SCS ev­ery year. The SCS is also re­source rich, with nu­mer­ous off­shore oil and gas re­serves in the area.

The Con­flict Zone

The main hub of the con­flict zone is Spratly Is­lands which con­sist of a num­ber of coral reefs, low tide el­e­va­tions and rocks. Th­ese fea­tures have a to­tal nat­u­ral land area of about 2 sq km though they are spread over a sea area of more than 4,25,000 sq km. Over the cou­ple of decade ex­ten­sive sur­veys by dif­fer­ent agen­cies of the area have been car­ried out. Con­se­quently, es­ti­mates re­veal oil and gas re­serves to the tune of 70 bil­lion tonnes o f which 60 per cent to 70 per cent be­ing nat­u­ral gas within the area. Th­ese rev­e­la­tion, how­ever, have re­sulted into in­tense com­pe­ti­tion among the claimant coun­tries to con­sol­i­date their po­si­tions by un­der­tak­ing land recla­ma­tion on oc­cu­pied fea­tures to de­velop the is­lands to house a va­ri­ety of fa­cil­i­ties. While Tai­wan, Viet­nam and the Philip­pines have been con­cen­trat­ing on is­land build­ing, sheer mag­ni­tude of scale and vol­ume of ag­gres­sive de­vel­op­ment ac­tiv­i­ties of China in the re­cent past have at­tracted the max­i­mum global at­ten­tion. Es­ti­mates point to the recla­ma­tion of around 3,000 to 3,400 acres in the con­tested area.

The Case for Ar­bi­tra­tion

In ad­di­tion, from 2012 on­wards China has re­sorted to a very ag­gres­sive stance in the SCS through reg­u­lar and provoca­tive ma­noeu­vres by its mar­itime forces in the seas sur­round­ing the Scar­bor­ough Shoals, which for a very long time claimed by the Philip­pines as part of its in­te­gral ter­ri­tory. The Philip­pines felt ex­tremely dis­turbed by such uni­lat­eral and ag­gres­sive pos­tur­ing by China with­out even em­ploy­ing the ex­ist­ing in­stru­ment of DOC for con­flict res­o­lu­tion, if any. Deeply ag­grieved by con­stant ha­rass­ment by China, in 2013 the Philip­pines filed pro­ceed­ings un­der An­nex VII of the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to set­tle its out­stand­ing dis­pute with China. The main ed­i­fice of the Philip­pines bul­wark stands on ques­tion­ing the le­gal va­lid­ity of ‘Nine-dash Line’ evolved by China to stake claims in the SCS. The main as­ser­tion of the Philip­pines in the pe­ti­tion was that China’s mar­itime map of the SCS was of for­mu­lated with du­bi­ous in­ten­tion and there­fore, the claims aris­ing from it were in to­tal vi­o­la­tion of the law.

Apart from de­ter­min­ing the le­gal sta­tus of the fea­tures (is­lands, rocks, or low tide el­e­va­tions), Philip­pines also chal­lenged China’s is­land recla­ma­tion ac­tiv­i­ties by urg­ing the Court to re­it­er­ate the law­ful po­si­tion that land added to sub­merged and above­wa­ter line fea­tures can­not al­ter their ba­sic le­gal sta­tus. This again was a com­plaint aimed at in­val­i­dat­ing China’s mas­sive recla­ma­tion ac­tiv­i­ties in the South China Sea—a mea­sure seen by many as a mil­i­tary tac­tic meant to shift the ter­ri­to­rial sta­tus quo in the SCS by le­git­i­ma­tis­ing China’s il­le­gal oc­cu­pa­tion of fea­tures.

On the other hand, China’s ag­gres­sive pos­tur­ing in the re­cent times has caused con­ster­na­tion among the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. China has used the fa­cil­i­ties

that it has cre­ated on th­ese fea­tures for po­si­tion­ing a va­ri­ety of civil­ian and mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions, the lat­est be­ing anti-air­craft mis­sile bat­ter­ies on Woody Is­land in the Paracels. China has also been in­tim­i­dat­ing mil­i­tary air­craft fly­ing in the vicin­ity of its oc­cu­pied fea­tures and has even hinted at establishing an Air De­fence Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Zone (ADIZ). This at­ti­tude has prompted the United States to re-start the ‘Free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion’ pa­trols in Oc­to­ber 2015 which con­tinue till date. The US con­tin­ues to main­tain a strong naval pres­ence with a Car­rier Strike Group de­ployed in the area to de­ter such Chi­nese ag­gres­sion.

The Philip­pines made two other sub­mis­sions which were in di­rect clash with Chi­nese do­mes­tic in­ter­ests. First plea was ques­tion­ing Bei­jing’s ‘his­toric rights’, in­clud­ing fish­ing rights be­yond the lim­its of its en­ti­tle­ments un­der UNCLOS. The other plea claimed that China has vi­o­lated the con­ven­tion by its haz­ardous prac­tices of har­vest­ing of en­dan­gered species and de­struc­tion of coral reefs, in­clud­ing ar­eas within the Philip­pines’ EEZ, ir­re­versibly dam­ag­ing the re­gional ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment.

The Ver­dict

The re­cent award of the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion (PCA), in the case of The Repub­lic of Philip­pines vs The Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China, broadly, de­cided the fol­low­ing in re­sponse to the 15 sub­mis­sions by the Philip­pines: There was no le­gal ba­sis for China to claim ‘his­toric’ rights to re­sources within the sea ar­eas fall­ing within the ‘Nine-dash Line’. None of the Spratlys Is­lands is ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing ex­tended mar­itime zones nor can they gen­er­ate the same col­lec­tively as a unit since they are ba­si­cally rocks. Cer­tain sea ar­eas are within the EEZ of Philip­pines and China had vi­o­lated Philip­pines’ sov­er­eign rights in its EEZ. China’s re­cent large scale land recla­ma­tion and con­struc­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands in the Spratly Is­lands has caused se­vere harm to the coral reef en­vi­ron­ment.

Af­ter­math of the Ver­dict

China’s stand to­wards the ar­bi­tra­tion has been one of de­fi­ance against the ex­ist­ing in­ter­na­tional or­der wherein it has re­fused to rec­og­nize the Ar­bi­tra­tion and its Award. In fact, even be­fore the Ver­dict, China was found lob­by­ing ex­ten­sively to chal­lenge it, if found con­trary to its in­ter­ests. Im­me­di­ately af­ter the ver­dict China de­clared the Award as null and void and re­it­er­ated it has no bind­ing force. In­ter­na­tional re­ac­tion to the Award had been rather muted due to the ex­ist­ing ten­sions in the area and the ne­ces­sity to avoid con­flict. In­dia has main­tained its con­sis­tent po­si­tion wherein it has called for all states to re­solve re­spec­tive dis­putes through peace­ful means show­ing ut­most re­spect for UNCLOS. How­ever, the Chi­nese po­si­tion of not recog­nis­ing the Award is a cause for se­ri­ous worry, be­cause it high­lights to­tal dis­re­gard to the in­ter­na­tional or­der.

On the con­trary, China warned its ri­vals not to turn the SCS into a “cra­dle of war”. Con­versely, the strong and sweep­ing rul­ing by a UN-backed Tri­bunal in The Hague pro­vided pow­er­ful diplo­matic am­mu­ni­tion to the Philip­pines. How­ever, China con­tin­ues to in­sist on its his­tor­i­cal rights over SCS and re­minded the United States and other crit­i­cal na­tions that in 2013 in the East China Sea, China had an­gered Ja­pan, United States and its al­lies by establishing ADIZ. China also cau­tioned that de­pend­ing upon the level of threat ADIZ could fol­low suit in SCS, as well.

In a clas­sic diplo­matic ma­noeu­vre, soon af­ter the Award, China ex­tended an olive branch to the new Philip­pine Gov­ern­ment, by as­sur­ing that bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion will be in their in­ter­est and that China aims to turn SCS into a sea of peace, friend­ship and co­op­er­a­tion. At the same time, China hoped that the new Gov­ern­ment would not use the ar­bi­tra­tion re­sults as a ba­sis for fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions.

In­dia’s Stand on SCS

The SCS is an im­por­tant area of mar­itime in­ter­est for In­dia with her seaborne trade to the ex­tent of 55 per cent by vol­ume passes through its sea lanes. In­dia is also en­gaged in oil ex­plo­ration through ONGC Videsh in the EEZ off Viet­nam and has signed an en­ergy deal also with Brunei within the con­tested area. In­dia has al­ways ad­vo­cated for the unim­peded com­merce within the global com­mons on the prin­ci­ples of ‘Free­dom of Nav­i­ga­tion’ and over flights, guar­an­teed un­der UNCLOS. In­dia has good re­la­tions with the ASEAN coun­tries who are em­broiled in th­ese dis­putes, es­pe­cially Viet­nam and the Philip­pines. In­dia has al­ways main­tained a holis­tic stand on the is­sue of sovereignty, cham­pi­oning that the dis­putes should be re­solved peace­fully with­out the threat of use of force. The take away for In­dia from the im­broglio is to avoid un­nec­es­sary en­tan­gle­ment with China over SCS in the in­ter­est of cre­at­ing a good at­mos­phere for the eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion. The pol­icy mak­ers will have a chal­lenge on their hands to draw right bal­ance be­tween shift­ing the fo­cus from the geostrate­gic com­pe­ti­tion to­wards the eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion with China!!

In­dian Navy’s Mar­itime Mil­i­tary strat­egy there­fore en­shrines the pro­mo­tion of mul­ti­lat­eral op­er­a­tional in­ter­ac­tion to en­hance mu­tual con­fi­dence, in­creased in­ter­op­er­abil­ity and de­vel­op­ment of com­mon un­der­stand­ing of pro­ce­dures for mar­itime se­cu­rity and shar­ing the best prac­tices with other navies of the re­gion

What is in for In­dian Navy

In con­so­nance with the man­date of net se­cu­rity provider for the vi­tal in­ter­ests of the na­tion within the re­gion, the In­dian Navy’s over­seas de­ploy­ment has in­creased ex­po­nen­tially. Be­sides, in­de­pen­dent for­ays, the In­dian Navy has reg­u­larly en­gaged in mul­ti­lat­eral an­nual ex­er­cises called Mal­abar with US Navy and Ja­panese Self-De­fense Forces, Aus­tralia, etc. Over the years, the arena of Mal­abar ex­er­cises has ex­tended from the Bay of Ben­gal to SCS, East China Sea, Sea of Ja­pan, etc.

Ex­er­cises in Rim of the Pa­cific (RIMPAC), the largest in­ter­na­tional mar­itime war­fare ex­er­cises, are con­ducted un­der the aegis of the US Navy’s Pa­cific Fleet. In­dian Navy has been par­tic­i­pat­ing in RIMPAC from 2004 on­wards as an ‘Observer’. INS Sahyadri par­tic­i­pated in RIMPAC 2014 for the first time. Like­wise, INS Sat­pura par­tic­i­pated in RIMPAC 2016 which were con­ducted from June 30 to Au­gust 4, 2016. In­ter­est­ingly, in April 2016, China was also in­vited to par­tic­i­pate in RIMPAC 2016, de­spite the ten­sion in SCS.

In­dia has com­mit­ment to peace and pros­per­ity for all within the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion and else­where. In­dian Navy’s Mar­itime Mil­i­tary strat­egy there­fore, en­shrines the pro­mo­tion of mul­ti­lat­eral op­er­a­tional in­ter­ac­tion to en­hance mu­tual con­fi­dence, in­creased in­ter­op­er­abil­ity and de­vel­op­ment of com­mon un­der­stand­ing of pro­ce­dures for mar­itime se­cu­rity and shar­ing the best prac­tices with other navies of the re­gion.

In­dian Navy stealth frigate INS Sat­pura dur­ing RIMPAC 2016


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