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Fresh Tensions Erupt in South China Sea

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The South China Sea issue, it seems, can never be off news. The most dangerous potential flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific continues to threaten undoing the delicately maintained peace in the region by unilateral action by a certain country. Such a development impacts on the economic and security interests of several countries in the region. That is the worry. Various stakeholders are continuously engaged to look for a solution that would, if not eliminate, a least minimise the threat, perceived or otherwise.

Even when China seems determined to deepen its economic and strategic footprints in the South China Sea, the affected parties are looking for ways to cope with this China challenge. Tensions have escalated owing to China’s actions to spread its strategic space, with others looking for ways to check this advance. The smaller and weaker nations in Asia with stakes in the South China Sea are seeking protection from the US and other important stakeholders to defend their interests, as China continues to violate global rules with impunity. Not only China claims the South China Sea in its entirety as its own, it is building up military bases and changing the operational landscape in the region by deploying missiles and radars as part of an effort to militarily dominate East Asia.

To rebut Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty and check its military advance, the US sailed a warship within 12 nautical miles of islets claimed by China. The message was to increase “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea in the wake of Beijing’s build-up in the contested waterway. Since October 2015, the US Navy has carried out two such freedoms of navigation operations in order to uphold international law. Besides claiming the whole body of water as its own, China is using dredgers to turn reefs and low-lying features into larger land masses for runways and other military uses to bolster its claims of sovereignty in the region. A recent satellite imagery released by a Washington think tank showed that Beijing is installing radar facilities on its artificial islands. China has also deployed surface-to-air missiles and lengthened a runway to accommodate fighter jets on one such islet. This is a clear move to militarise the region.

With a clear message aimed at Beijing, US Admiral Harry Harris said that the US would increase freedom of navigation operations by sending more destroyers to patrol the islands to demonstrate that “water space and the air above it are international”. This was in response to China deploying surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Sea’s Paracel chain and radars on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly islands further to the South. China’s repeated deployment of advanced aircraft such as Shenyang J-11 and Xian JH-7 warplanes to Woody Island is perceived as a disturbing trend and is inconsistent with Beijing’s commitment to avoid actions that could escalate disputes. Taiwan, China and Vietnam make claims over this strategically important Woody Island. This Island had an operational airfield since the 1990s but China has upgraded to accommodate its J-11. Beijing has also deployed surface-to-air missiles (HQ-9s) on the island, which have a range of about 125 miles (200 km).

Earlier in January, a US Navy destroyer carried out a patrol within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels. China called the move provocative. When China built artificial islands in the Spratly, the US conducted sea and air patrols, including by two B-52 strategic bombers in December 2015.

China has little respect to the claims and concerns of other small Asian nations and says that its military facilities in the South China Sea are “legal and appropriate”. China is unhappy that the US has dispatched missile destroyers or strategic bombers and expects not to see more close-up reconnaissance. Though the US would be constrained to deploy more naval assets, including stationing a second aircraft carrier group in the region, because of significant “fiscal, diplomatic and political hurdles”, it would not feel shy to put a full carrier strike group in the Western Pacific should the situation demand.

The South China Sea is the most critical waterway through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. The area is believed to possess huge amount of minerals and resource deposits to which China is eyeing to control. The South China Sea is rich in hydrocarbon besides other marine wealth including fisheries. The South China Sea with over 3.7 million square kilometre surface area not only provides the surrounding countries with oil and gas, seafood and other natural resources, but also serves as the most critical shipping routes between Pacific and Indian Ocean. The Vietnamese ambassador to India Ton Sinh Thanh recently observed: “The South China Sea has naturally become important to all countries within and outside the region, including major powers like India. Therefore, the above-said illegal activities of China, especially their militarization of the South China Sea not only increase the tensions and decreases the strategic trust but also create serious and long-term impacts on peace, security, development and cooperation in Indo-Asia Pacific region.”

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan are other claimants. While the Philippines has taken up the case to The Hague International Tribunal for arbitration, Vietnam has announced that it is ready to confront China should the latter use military force to assert its claims. In reverence to global norms, Vietnam seeks full compliance and implementation of all provisions and procedures of the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea, including the settlement of disputes concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention by peaceful means.

Over the past several years, China is engaged in reclamation works on the contested territory and in the process encroached upon the EEZ of Vietnam and the Philippines, evoking sharp reactions from the US, claimant countries of the ASEAN, Japan and India as global rules were violated, impacting global commerce. Most of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region are maritime nations and freedom of navigation is critical for their economic prosperity. Over 50 per cent of India’s trade with the countries of Southeast Asia and East Asia pass through the South China Sea. China’s defence infrastructure in the region threatens to impede smooth movement of its commerce.

India is on the same page as Vietnam and other claimants sans China. Vietnam’s economic and strategic interests are enmeshed with that of India. Vietnam has awarded oil blocks in South China Sea in areas that it claims its own where ONGC Videsh Limited is engaged in oil exploration activities. China protests India’s presence, which India has ignored. Vietnam has sovereign rights and jurisdictions within 200 nautical miles of its EEZ and continental shelf in accordance with UNCLOS 1982. Vietnam is determined to protect its rights and maintain regular activities in its sovereign waters and is committed to cooperate with India.

Vietnam claims full historical evidence and legal foundation to confirm its sovereignty over both Paracel and Spratly Islands. These contested islands are owned and controlled peacefully and continuously by Vietnam since the 17th century when no other countries claimed their sovereignty over these islands. Therefore Vietnam is determined, and rightly so, to protect its sovereignty over these islands.

Before 1947, all geographical maps printed in China show their territory stopped at Hainan Island only. It was in 1974, China used force to occupy the Paracel Islands which were under Vietnam administration. In 1988, China again used force to occupy some reefs in the Spratly Islands of Vietnam. In 2009, China officially claimed an area within a nine-dash lines as their historic waters which covers 80 per cent of South China Sea and overlap in a large scale with the EEZ of all other surrounding South China Sea, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. In 2012, China occupied Scarborough Shoal in the EEZ of the Philippines. In May 2014, China put a large oil-rig in the EEZ of Vietnam. This last Chinese expansionist move triggered a nasty backlash from Vietnam resulting in firing of water cannons in each others’ ships and violent anti-Chinese incidents in Vietnamese cities.

But China’s expansionist stance continued in utter disregard to others’ views. In early 2015, Vietnam found a large scale land reclamation and construction of the artificial islands by China on 7 areas in the Spratly Islands. According to a story by Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury published in the Economic Times on 25 February 2016, “over the past 20 months, more than 2,900 acres of land has been reclaimed by China, accounting for 95 per cent of all land reclaimed by others in the Spratly Islands over the past 40 years.” In early 2016, China began conducting flights to the airstrip it had illegally built at Fiery Cross Reef of Spratly Archipelago, the latest being a helicopter base on Duncan island in South China Sea. Such Chinese moves demonstrates that China’s intentions are utter disrespect to other nations’ sensibilities and imposing unilateral decisions even with the threat to use of force.

India is also working towards the establishment of a satellite tracking and data reception station and data processing facility in Vietnam for ASEAN countries. This facility is intended to acquire and process Indian remote sensing satellite data pertaining to ASEAN region and disseminating it to ASEAN member countries. The idea is to buttress capacities of ASEAN nations in the face of growing aggression by China.

Addressing the Delhi Dialogue VIII edition on 18 February, External Foreign Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described the South China Sea as pathways to prosperity and security. India’s wants that the South China Sea disputes should be resolved peacefully, without threat or actual use of force. India hopes that a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea is concluded soon. The settlement of the maritime disputes between India and Bangladesh in the sea of Bengal by using the UN’s Arbitration Tribunal is a good example for the claimants in South Chain Sea to solve their problems. For this to happen, China needs to cooperate by changing track. In principle, even when the US and China muscle up in the South China Sea, India urged all states with stakes to avoid “unilateral action”. Other maritime nations such as the US and Australia too have called for stability in the region and are in agreement with India amid China’s rising ambitions. Under the circumstance, tensions are unlikely to go away so soon. Coping with the China challenge remains the biggest and the most difficult task for policy makers and leaders of countries in the Asia Pacific region but also the world. There can be no alternative to dialogue and diplomacy as belligerency has little relevance in modern day vocabulary.

Rajaram Panda