The South China Sea imbroglio and why India must tread on thin ice

There are several reasons why India should be — and is — paying close attention to what unfurls in the South China Sea
The South China Sea imbroglio and why India must tread on thin ice
The South China Sea imbroglio and why India must tread on thin ice
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There are several reasons why India should be — and is — paying close attention to what unfurls in the South China Sea, days after the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in the case brought by the Philippines. It is perhaps no surprise that China rejected the ruling in favour of the Philippines by the tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea or UNCLOS, calling it “invalid” and saying it has no binding force. Indeed, the tribunal seems to have done all that it can do — it has no mechanism to enforce the ruling.

While India released a classic statement in reaction to the ruling — supporting freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce, urging the peaceful resolution of disputes between parties concerned, and utmost respect for the UNCLOS — media reports suggest this has conveniently been interpreted by China.

“For us, this is not an issue of being in favour or against any particular country… It is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of the law. Our is a principled position deriving from India being a state party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea. As a state party, we believe all parties should show utmost respect to the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order on the seas and oceans,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said on Thursday, in reply to a question on China’s envoy in Delhi interpreting the Indian official statement as one of similarity to the Chinese position (if not solidarity). 

Naturally, there are also concerns about what an escalation in hostilities might imply for the region, though unlike in the West, conventional wisdom may be that the Chinese position is some amount of sabre-rattling…It still spells an uptick in tension.

There are concerns about China “ramping up its military presence since the court’s ruling”, former naval officer Abhijit Singh (Senior Fellow, ORF) said at a talk organised by Brookings India in New Delhi, adding that a confrontational situation would destabilise the balance of security in the region.

Over in Beijing, a senior diplomat — no less than the vice-Foreign Minister of China, Liu Zhenmin — has gone on record to say that China may set up an air defence identification zone over the South China sea, if it feels threatened.

“ ‘If our security is being threatened, of course we have the right to demarcate a zone. This would depend on our overall assessment," Liu said, adding that other countries should not "take this opportunity to threaten China" and not "let it become the origin of a war”.”

(Though the paper does go on to say that he adds China aims to turn the South China Sea into a sea of “peace, friendship and cooperation”, that may not cut much ice.)

The countries strongly and firmly standing against China on this issue are the US, Japan and Australia, Carnegie India analyst Darshana Baruah pointed out at the Brookings India discussion, saying that the Philippines (which brought the case to the tribunal) seems to be indicating quietly that it is willing to hold talks with China, perhaps even resolve the issue bilaterally —there might be an opportunity at the ASEAN meet at the end of July.

The ten member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are not likely to speak in one voice, though, if they do speak at all. (Media reports suggest Beijing’s lobbying has resulted in this lack of official reaction to the tribunal’s ruling). And the question is, will they be in a position to apply diplomatic pressure? With Cambodia and Laos allying with China, Philippines and Vietnam on another side, not to mention several other members with claims in the area, it’s a far from simple matter. The tribunal has no power to implement its ruling, so why, you might wonder, should China even care, instead of brazening it out (like say the US might, if it were even party to UNCLOS).

Baruah posits that even if there is “no legal mechanism to abide by the ruling” China is concerned by how the region will react. This case sets a precedent. And that’s probably why India is also keeping a close watch.

The twin questions might be posed whether there’s a role for India to play here on the regional stage. And in fact, if it should bother at all?

“Material interest, a matter of principle and China’s presence in the Indian Ocean are reasons for India to care,” says Singh.

There is huge commercial interest at play — estimates suggest that $5.3 trillion of global trade pass through the South China Sea every year. Not to mention the fact that China’s position will have implications for the “power projection and presence in the Indian Ocean”, as Singh puts it. 


•   Conflict escalation could lead to Potential destabilisation of region

•   Implications for Chinese projections of power in the Indian Ocean

While India has articulated a nuanced position, it might also be careful not to antagonise, or indeed embarrass its biggest trade partner, even as the international community waits to see what China’s next move is.

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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