The South China Sea region and islands like the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands have been a bone of contention between China, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. Source: Corbis/Fotosa.ru
A series of recent moves shows that China is upping the ante with regards to its claims in the South China Sea. Earlier this week, China announced the deployment of a permanent military presence in the South China Sea in Sansha City, raising the hackles of many other countries which have claims in the region. Sansha City was established on Yongxing Island(Woody Island) in the southernmost Chinese province of Hainan. The Yongxing Island forms a part of the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea region and islands like the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands have been a bone of contention between China, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. Many of these islands are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas reserves and no wonder have multiple claimants.
Meanwhile, in a very unfortunate development, earlier this month, the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Cambodia could not agree on a joint communiqué and went down in history as the first summit in ASEAN's existence where it failed to issue one. The role of Cambodia, which is the 2012 chair of the ASEAN and is seen as having nixed the joint communiqué has come in question, especially as in the recent years it has received massive amounts of investment from China and become close to it. Cambodia also did not heed calls from Vietnam and Philippines to include mention of the recent tensions with China in the South China Sea in a joint statement.
In another development, CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corporation) issued a tender late last month inviting foreign oil companies to develop nine blocks in the western part of the South China Sea, which according to Vietnam lie within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam as outlined in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Interestingly, India’s oil and gas major-the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC)’s foreign arm ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) has significant investments off the coast in Vietnam and China has in the past warned India not to undertake commercial activities in what it says are “Chinese territorial waters”
All these are likely to lead to increased tensions in this region and will see the countries which are locked in disputes with China move closer to the US which has already announced a “pivot” to Asia and to rising powers like India. China will also be deploying its first aircraft carrier, ostensibly in the South China Sea, later this year which is sure to change the entire balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. Chinese aggressive moves have also got countries like Japan and South Korea worried, since freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is also essential for the health of their economies.
What are the Chinese motives behind this growing aggressive posture?
Firstly, China wants to test the responses of various countries that are locked in territorial disputes with China. It is using the dispute with Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal as a test case.
Secondly, China is trying to use economic diplomacy as an alternative to using hard power. For example, in the wake of the dispute with the Philippines, it cut down on banana imports from the Philippines and the number of Chinese tourists visiting Philippines drastically fell in the aftermath of the dispute.
Thirdly, it is trying to see if it can sow divisions with the ASEAN and is cultivating countries like Cambodia. Earlier Myanmar was close to China, but following Myanmar’s gradual progress to democracy, it has fallen out of favour with China.
Fourthly, China is trying to add a new angle to the dispute(s) by bringing in maritime surveillance ships instead of regular naval warships, thereby giving it an escape-option in the case of international opprobrium.
Finally, China wants to test the response of the United States, which is an ally of the Philippines. It knows that the US is already stretched in Afghanistan and with war-clouds looming large over Iran, it knows that it can afford to test the US response now. It would also help China gauge what would be the probable US response in case tensions increase between China and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, India will have to adopt a wait and watch policy in the ongoing tensions. China has adopted a so-called “string of pearls” strategy wherein it has built/helped build ports and refuelling facilities in Pakistan (Gwadar), Bangladesh (Chittagong), Sri Lanka (Hambantota)and Myanmar (Kyaukpyu), effectively surrounding India. However, on the other side, almost 60 per cent of China’s energy supplies pass through the Indian Ocean and the Indian Navy is the predominant navy in this region.
Ensuring the freedom of navigation through the South China Sea should be the top priority for India together with protecting Indian commercial interests in countries like Vietnam. It is therefore in India and ASEAN’s mutual interests to pool their efforts to ensure the freedom of navigation in this very important stretch of water, while keeping the channels of communication open with China for the peaceful resolution of all outstanding disputes.
Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gujarat, India. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, U.K. in 2009. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at Rupakjyoti.B@sls.pdpu.ac.in
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