Narrowing the seas: Security ramificati­ons of the SCS verdict

- 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
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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India