China-India: Beijing's Intransigence over the South China Sea

29 Aug, 2016    ·   5115

Air Commodore (Retd) Prashant Dikshit reflects on China's posturing towards India following the ruling on the Manila-Beijing conflict regarding the South China Sea


History always plays a major role in the sovereignty disputes between nations in the global system. Since the history of the dispute in the South China Sea (SCS) is itself part of the dispute, the initiative by the Philippine regime to seek an arbitration by the Permanent  Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague was logical. This PCA was rightfully constituted under the Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It was expected to consider all claims on a legal framework to address the conflictual condition created by the claims of the regime in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). But its July 2016 award ruled against the PRC's maritime claims. Importantly the “fact of history” in the latter's claims were outright rejected. The PRC chose “not only” to not acknowledge the legitimacy of this award but rejected it and claimed that any resolution of the dispute should be through bilateral negotiations between claimants. Analysts are viewing this attitude as that of “strong arming” the claimants into submission.

The vastness and gross intermingling of interests of several key players in the SCS exacerbates the situation with PRC on one side and Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines on the other.  It is not merely about the Spratly and Paracels Islands as was largely understood. There are several disputes involving both island and maritime claims of these Southeast Asian countries, each of which is linked with a different collection of countries; but at the heart of this dispute is the Nine Dash Line area claimed by the PRC, which covers most of the SCS and aggressively overlaps Exclusive Economic Zones of the abovementioned countries. The Chinese rhetoric smells of enforcement of maritime control of tracts of the sea they claim. Throughout the period of deliberation by the PCA, the PRC inflicted a continuous barrage of media harangue against the process whilst publicly abstaining from participation.

However, all sea faring nations, including India, would want the SCS to remain as international waters, with the US conducting operations quite evidently in the conceptual edifice of the “Freedom of Navigation in the International Waters” as spelt in the UNCLOS, notwithstanding that Washington is not a signatory to this protocol.

Several postures emanating from the PRC clearly and deliberately aim at interfering with Indian interests in the affected region. There is a report of INS Airavat, an Indian Naval Ship, whilst on a friendly visit to Vietnam, having been told that the Indian ship was entering Chinese waters. This incident occurred on 22 July 2011 when the Indian ship was about 80 kilometers from the Vietnam's coast when it was communicated with by a source that “identified” itself as the Chinese Navy. Although there was no confrontation faced by the naval vessel, the communication clearly conveyed an obstruction to the “Freedom of Navigation and right of passage in international waters.”

A little over a month later, in September 2011, after the PRC and Vietnam signed an agreement with a view to contain the dispute over the SCS, India’s state-owned foreign oil exploration arm, “ONGC Videsh Limited” signed a three year agreement with the Vietnamese “Petro Vietnam” for exploring some segments in the SCS. This legitimate deal elicited a rather ominous response from the PRC when a member of their foreign ministry tersely broadcast that “China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island. China's stand is based on historical facts and international law. China's sovereign rights and positions are formed in the course of history and this position has been held by Chinese Government for long ……we are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China's jurisdiction. We hope the foreign countries do not get involved in South China Sea dispute.”

Recently, on 08 August 2016, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to New Delhi, a Chinese state run daily warned that “India should avoid "unnecessary entanglement" in the SCS dispute to prevent it becoming yet "another factor" to impact bilateral ties. In the immediate backdrop of the PCA award, this move was clearly viewed as an attempt at containing the legitimate Indian point of view on the SCS. Or for that matter, even the progress on the border dispute between the two countries. During the visit of the Foreign “a carrot and stick policy” was quite evident, with the Chinese officials in New Delhi making it known that the doors to the Nuclear Suppliers Group can still be opened - which is a matter of great interest to India.

The vast maritime expanse of the SCS encompasses major sea lanes traversing the waters. These are the arteries of trade of deep interest to not only countries straddling the sea but also to the rest of the world including India. The PRC regime therefore, should not play war games.