Nar­row­ing the Seas: Se­cu­rity Ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the SCS Ver­dict

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 fall-back on their de­fault po­si­tion of fre


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 ‘nine-dash 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 dis- puted 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 are 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.

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,

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

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 north-east 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 com­mand- ers 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. Bharat Karnad is Pro­fes­sor in Na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies at the Cen­tre for Pol­icy Re­search. He is au­thor of most re­cently pub­lished book Why In­dia is not a Great power

(Yet), and blogs at www.bharatkar­

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

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: Anoop Ka­math


US Navy lit­toral com­bat ship USS Coron­ado (LCS 4) and the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of China Navy guided-mis­sile de­stroyer Xian (153) transit in for­ma­tion dur­ing the Rim of the Pa­cific 2016

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