A dangerous flashpoint

by May 11, 2020 0 comments

Unless the US administration develops a plan with the backing of claimant countries to normalise the situation in the South China Sea, China will continue to strengthen its grip in the region

At a time when the entire world is grappling with the Coronavirus pandemic, China has ramped up its aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea, raising concern not only among its smaller neighbours but in India as well. A slew of decisions taken in recent times, like the establishment of two new districts of Xisha and Nansha to administer the contested Spratly and Paracel island chains, the naming of 80 islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea and some other immediate developments are all aimed to further consolidate claim and physical control over disputed areas. Experts see this as an attempt to impose Chinese domestic law. This, despite the protests from other claimants.

Certainly, with its rise as a military and economic power, China aims to establish full control over the waters of the South China Sea, reversing its commitment to peacefully resolve dispute in this area with other claimant countries, including Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei. The Xi Jinping Government has already extensively militarised the South China Sea. There has been increased patrolling by the Chinese Coast Guard and Navy forces, several man-made islands have been developed and anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and missile defences have been deployed.

But to assume that China’s rise as a military and economic power alone enabled it to navigate an assertive action plan in the South China Sea would be wrong. Other factors have pushed the region to the current flashpoint. One that has given a boost to China’s sinister move to make this region its exclusive zone is the complete absence of an effective and collective response from other claimant countries.

Not once did the Association of Southeast Asian Countries (Asean) issue a strong warning to China for trying to unilaterally alter the geographical dynamics of the South China Sea. Differences among the Asean members have always been persistent on containing the rise of China. More to the point, since Asean works on the basis of consensus, China has been successful in creating a divide among its member countries on the issue of the South China Sea by providing financial support to some.

Recall how Asean behaved as a dead institution when in 2016, China completely disregarded a verdict of the international tribunal, which concluded that there was no legal basis for it to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the “nine-dash line” and accepted the claims of the Philippines. This regional grouping’s record is also dismal as far as the development of a code of conduct with China is concerned. Consider the Philippines’s act. Instead of aggressively making efforts to issue the implementation of the 2016 decision of the international tribunal against China, it decided to compromise with Beijing, with the intent to attract huge financial assistance. At the same time, institutions of global governance, too, failed in forcing China to behave as a normal and responsible State.

The US’ incoherent policy is no less responsible for the current impasse in the region. Both former US President Barack Obama and the current one, Donald Trump, failed to develop a comprehensive policy to address the crisis in the South China Sea. Thus, while Obama’s half-hearted policy of Pivot to Asia could not stop China from developing several artificial islands, Trump’s trade war with China has consumed four years.

Consequently, his vision of promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific is still at the nascent stage. True, the Trump administration made efforts to boost Taiwan’s military power, with the US Navy conducting more freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea than in the past. But these isolated efforts can hardly produce an effective deterrence against China.

This is amply clear from the fact that the Xi Jinping Government has consolidated its control over the strategic locations between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through which one-third of the global maritime trade passes every year. Beijing has purposefully followed the policy of not allowing other regional littoral countries to have free movement in the South China Sea to secure full access to huge oil and gas reservoirs in the region. It is also threatening outsider countries, including the US, to not enter the South China Sea. What is more, China is doing all these things with complete impunity.

Interestingly, the last few months have witnessed a remarkable change in the South China Sea region in the sense that a few countries — Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — have become much more critical about Chinese activities in the region than ever before. In early April, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel reportedly sank a Vietnamese fishing boat off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea and in a rare display of bilateral solidarity, Manila supported Hanoi in its protest to Beijing.

In mid-April, a Chinese survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, with Coast Guard and maritime militia escorts, moved into a region in the South China Sea — proximate to Malaysia — to disrupt a gas drilling operation by a Malaysian oil company, leading to a protest by Kuala Lumpur.

Undoubtedly, while the recent collective move by these claimant countries to push China on the South China issue is encouraging, it is equally true that unless the US administration develops a clear plan with the backing of other claimant countries to normalise the situation in the South China Sea, China will continue to strengthen its grip over the region.

While Taiwan has indeed taken a pragmatic approach to deal with the current situation by appealing to all parties to resolve the dispute with peaceful means, the Tsai Government also needs to explore all options to protect itself from China’s aggression, especially when Beijing’s increased involvement in the South China Sea has already posed a serious concern for Taiwan.

India is unlikely to be immune from China’s belligerence. Take the case of Huawei 5G competition as an example.   It is, thus, imperative for the Narendra Modi Government to cooperate with others to push back Chinese tactics.

(Writer: Sumit Jha; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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