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Will China and USA further escalate tension in South China Sea?

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South China Sea (SCS) is emerging a hotbed of tension between China, the economic and military power of Asia and its sea neighbors of the Asia Pacific region. Following military activity by China which claims its authority over the zone, tensions between China and its northern maritime neighbours continue to dominate developments in the SCS but further unresolved disputes add to the dangerous atmosphere because no side is ready to back down and seek genuine reconciliation, while US super power opposes Beijing and supports its neighbors.

China has issues with ASEAN as Philippines, Japan and Vietnam are been wooed by USA to fight China as part of President Obama’s Asia Pivot agenda. US military role in the region in support of China’s neighbors further complicates the tension. July 12, 2016, marked a turning point in the long-standing disputes over the South China Sea. After more than three years of proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international body in The Hague, a tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) issued a widely anticipated decision in a case the Philippines brought in 2013 to challenge China’s maritime claims to most of the contested waterway.

The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—have become increasingly wary of Beijing in recent years and have clearly supported resolving the region’s disputes through the mechanisms of international law. Were China to make aggressive new moves, it would deepen their sense of alienation, encouraging them to strengthen their militaries to further balance against Beijing. The Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has signaled that he is interested in pursuing a more conciliatory approach to Beijing and has held out the possibility of resuming negotiations with China over resource sharing in the South China Sea. If Chinese President Xi Jinping accepts Duterte’s offer, he might be able to reach a deal with Manila that allows China to continue to claim some rights to resources in the far corners of the South China Sea.

As expected by many, the tribunal ruled in Manila’s favor and China rejected the tribunal’s decision, since Beijing, a signatory to the convention, has long opposed the proceedings and had warned that it would not abide by the judgment. China believes Washington has played its role in getting the judgment against China’s position over the SCS. USA and its local partners can avoid a dangerous escalation, and encourage China to abide by the ruling. China responds with increased belligerence.

China insists that it has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, and the tribunal did not rule on their rightful ownership. But by declaring all of the Spratlys’ features to be reefs or rocks, it significantly limited the claims China can make to the surrounding water and airspace. Under international law, China’s outposts in the Spratly Islands should be considered isolated enclaves floating in a part of the ocean that is in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, since they lie within 200 nautical miles of that country’s territory. And Beijing cannot use the Spratlys to justify any claims to the surrounding waters.

The tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines on almost every count, declaring nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the region invalid under international law, bringing a substantial amount of new clarity to a number of contentious legal issues and has set precedents that will affect the law of the sea for years to come. The tribunal held that all the territories in the contested Spratly Islands are reefs or rocks, not islands. That distinction matters, because under UNCLOS, reefs cannot generate a claim to the surrounding waters or airspace, and rocks can serve as the basis for only a small maritime claim of 12 nautical miles. Islands, on the other hand, generate a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone; states can also assert additional rights based on the extent of the continental shelves that underlie them.

The tribunal found that China had conducted illegal activities inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and thus completely invalidated China’s claim that it holds historic rights to the South China Sea through its “nine-dash line,” a sweeping cartographic projection that encompasses as much as 90 percent of the waterway. Chinese vessels, the tribunal ruled, had fished where they shouldn’t have, and had prevented others from fishing and extracting petroleum within the zone. The tribunal also censured China’s construction of artificial islands in the region, which it determined had caused severe environmental damage and heightened geopolitical tensions.

The tribunal’s ruling that the Spratlys do not constitute islands under UNCLOS complicated Chinese position and closed off another opportunity for Beijing to save face and destroyed China’s ability to justify its expansive claims to the South China Sea in legal terms. As speculated, China has rejected the legitimacy of the Philippines’ case and the tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear it since Manila first brought its complaint in January 2013. Beijing has decried the tribunal’s decision as illegitimate, and it will certainly not abandon its outposts in the Spratlys or return the sand it used to manufacture them to the seabed. In fact, in the wake of the ruling, China landed civilian aircraft on some of those outposts, presumably to demonstrate that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Since the tribunal rejected China’s claims to historic rights in the waterway entirely, Beijing now must either continue to reject the tribunal’s ruling wholesale or offer the Chinese public a fresh explanation of why its rights still stand—a tough approach, since Chinese leaders have long stuck to exactly the narrative that the tribunal rejected. The line was first unveiled by the Republic of China in 1947 and was adopted by China’s Communist rulers after they took power in 1949. Chinese officials have never explained the nine-dash line’s precise legal meaning, but they have repeatedly claimed that it demarcates an area from which China can extract resources.

China can be stubborn. Beijing knows for sure, as being veto members USA would not think of a war with China. It could also apply new domestic laws to the areas it controls. However, China’s actions would be deeply worrisome for neighbors and would demonstrate that Beijing is uninterested in playing by the rules of the international order. China’s withdrawal from the UNCLOS convention would suggest not only that Beijing intends to ignore the tribunal’s ruling but also that it does not want to be bound by the many other maritime rights and provisions that UNCLOS enshrines and that govern the free use of the global commons. USA is not a party to the convention to observe its provisions.

Although the tribunal dealt a blow to China’s maritime claims—its rights to water and airspace and its authority to conduct certain activities there—it did not rule on China’s claims to sovereignty over territory in the South China Sea, which are beyond the scope of UNCLOS. For that reason, Beijing can rightly argue that its sovereignty over the contested reefs and rocks it occupies has not been affected. It cannot legally continue to declare military zones in the water or airspace around the reefs it occupies, nor can it do so more than 12 nautical miles from the rocks it controls. But if Beijing emphasizes sovereignty claims instead of maritime ones, it could draw criticism from the West.

China might now choose to flout the decision more explicitly by deepening its de facto control of the area, declaring an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, as it did in the East China Sea in 2013, unsettling many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Chinese forces could attempt to intercept a US ship or plane as it conducts a freedom-of-navigation operation, raising tensions between Beijing and Washington.

China has issues with Japan. There is a continual stream of events that all sides use to test the others’ resolution, with a dangerous possibility of the tension turning violent at any moment. The Chinese organised a large fishing fleet to visit islands which the Japanese claim and call the Senkaku. Japan lambasted the Chinese for sending the fishing fleet, and pointed out that they were supported by Chinese government ships. The joint presence of commercial and official Chinese vessels on such a large scale is something new. China is aggravating the situation. China appears to be asserting its right to protect its interests by mobilising fishing vessels during the summer fishing season, escorted by official vessels. Also in a recent development in a gas field in the East China Sea near the midway line between China and Japan, China installed naval vessel surveillance radar on its exploration platform. This, too, is an arbitrary move that cannot be overlooked. Beijing is steadily aiming for de facto control as fait accompli. The same tactic has been employed in the South China Sea.

Chinese sources blamed Japanese intransigence for much of the tension that has arisen with China in recent years over islands in the East China Sea. For years, Japan has refused to acknowledge it has any territorial dispute with China, which has basically shut the door to finding a peaceful solution to their sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands in Japan) through diplomacy and dialogue.” “Japan has tried to blame China for the deteriorating situation in the region, accusing it of unilaterally seeking changes to the ‘status quo’. But it was Japan that did that by ‘nationalizing’ some of the islands in 2012, betraying the acquiescence reached by leaders of the two countries in the 1970s and subsequently maintained that the dispute should be shelved.”

A recent cyber attack in July by Chinese sources on computer system of Vietnam Airline has been condemned by Vietnamese leadership. The computer system was hacked. In addition, for a day, the screens displaying flight information at Hanoi’s and Ho Chi Minh City’s international airports were taken over and displayed derogatory messages about Vietnam and the Philippines regarding their dispute with China over South China Sea.

Although the South China Sea disputes have deep historical roots, they have flared up in recent years because China’s growing military capabilities have meaningfully improved Beijing’s ability to press its claims. If China goes further by deliberately flouting the ruling or withdrawing from UNCLOS, it could destroy the maritime order it has already damaged.

Satisfying as the tribunal’s decision may be for Manila, all parties now have a strong stake in ensuring that the situation doesn’t escalate. The judgment sets a significant legal precedent: the principles that guided the tribunal’s decision are now part of international law, and countries must embrace and reinforce them if they want others to uphold them in the future. The USA and like-minded countries around the world should continue to declare their support for the legal process, calling on China and the Philippines to abide by it without taking a position on the underlying sovereignty disputes. USA should make clear that it will investigate the implications of the decision for its own island claims.

If China does not begin construction at Scarborough Shoal, there will be ample room for cooperation between China and its neighbors and between Beijing and Washington. The wider world is looking on with some concern and it is putting a lot of the blame on China. The New York Times said that the waterway is too strategically important and the disputes too complex for the competing claims by China and five other countries Yet, provocations continue, raising questions about “China’s commitment to the rule of law and heightening fears of a wider conflict”.

Observation

World needs and seeks peace even as many top military nation is trying to disturb peace and tranquility by all possible means. US led western military forces are after energy resources and energy routes of Arab nations and Afghanistan; China and USA are complicating SCS normalcy; Israel is bent upon destroying peace and prosperity of Arab nations, especially Palestine, killing them by fake pretexts and denying them sovereignty. Palestinians keep dying just like Kashmiris because the colonialist India and Israel keep killing Muslims as their major policy.

Advanced terror techniques are being employed by fascist, imperialist and colonist nations against weak nations. They have converted may Muslim nations into enslaved peoples without freedom.

USA should be committed to acting responsibly. US officials should work closely with their Chinese counterparts, encouraging them to negotiate with the South China Sea’s other claimants, particularly the Philippines, and to make progress on a binding code of conduct with ASEAN, a long-sought multilateral agreement that would create a strict set of guidelines for behavior in the South China Sea. A code of conduct would likely also freeze the waterway’s political and territorial status quo, helping China reassure its neighbors that its long-term intentions are not threatening.

USA and China should also press ahead with the confidence-building measures they agreed to at June’s US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, to reduce the risk of an accidental clash between them. That would help each demonstrate to the other and to the region that neither wants to see a great-power conflict over the South China Sea.

Whether or not China move forward to secure cooperation with its neighbors is difficult to forecast right away; similarly, will USA let the region return to normalcy also remains to be seen.

Of course, resolving the current showdown in SCS peacefully and legally would be in everyone’s interests.

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Southeast Asia

Vietnam as ASEAN Chair and UNSC non-Permanent Member

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc receives ASEAN President’s Hammer from his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha on November 4, 2019. Source: vietnamup.com

Vietnam took the charge as ASEAN chair from its predecessor Thailand in November 2019, and the agenda for the year 2020 is diverse and challenging. The ASEAN as an organization accepted few geo-political changes and accepted that Indo-Pacific is a larger framework to which it needs to have a strategy. The result was the Indo-pacific outlook statement and this projected that ASEAN as an organization need to adjust to the evolving power configurations.

The developments in the context of Southeast Asia- be it the recurrent tensions in South China Sea because of assertive China; the Indonesian haze, and the tensions between Indonesia and China on illegal fishing in South China Sea are annual challenges for the ASEAN chair. The problem of Indonesian haze and other environmental problems needs cooperative approach. The ASEAN would have to prepare itself for the global recession which is looming large because of the Corona virus epidemic and the resultant slow down which is likely to affect not only Asia but the entire world. Another challenge this year would be for Vietnam to bring about the required understanding among ASEAN members who are party to the South China Sea dispute to come to a converging point so that the Code of conduct can become a legal document with compliance and penalty provisions. The Draft Code of Conduct (COC) is a large document encapsulating the aspirations and the legal position of each of the claimant parties. However, how to address all concerns and come to a common draft would be an arduous task. Vietnam would have to meander its way through deft diplomacy and skillful negotiations. Further, Vietnam is increasingly seen as an emerging economy and a strong nation which need to undertake a regional role. This needs few changes from the set template for consensus building and have to take measures to bring a common dialogue points. The foreign Ministers retreat which happens in the first quarter of each year would be the agenda maker for the number of meetings which would take place the whole year. Vietnam being the emerging economy as well as an APEC members, and also one of the stakeholder in RCEP process would have to make sure that RCEP is signed ‘with or without India’. However, if Vietnam by virtue of its comprehensive strategic partnership and excellent relations with India can bring the country back to the negotiating table, it would a shot in the arm for the ASEAN chair. India chose not to attend the Bali meeting to discuss RCEP with ASEAN members.

ASEAN chairmanship does have its own share of problems. However, taking cue from Vietnam chairmanship in 2011 when the same set of problems were existent, the country abided by the ASEAN way rather than proposing out of box thinking and solutions. The geo-political scene and the strategic compulsions do not give that easy comfort zone in decision making and it need strong adjustments both in terms of building a consensus and solving problems. At the international level, questions have been raised whether ASEAN centrality is a useful instrument in resolving maritime issues or it has diminishing returns. ASEAN community programme- Political-Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural Community would require midterm review in 2020 given the fact that the year 2025 is the deadline for its blueprint. Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan III (2016-2020), needs a strong effort as only 19 out of 26 actions (73.1%) have been achieved. 

One of the biggest challenge for the ASEAN nations would be to counter the spread of 2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)in the region and work out a comprehensive plan of action to control its spread and work out a common collaborative programme in the region. This might include regional centre for public health emergencies, strengthening regional public health laboratories network, monitoring the working of risk communication centres, and draw lessons from China’s experience in fighting the epidemic. Vietnam would have to address it on priority as it might have political, economic and social impact.

In the wake of tensions in South China Sea, the utility of Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) is under duress, there is a need to review and redraw the obligations under TAC for all the major powers of the region. For that there is a need to adopt two pronged approach of building trust and confidence among the dialogue partners as well as protecting interests of the region. The converging point for the dialogue partners would be humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), counter-terrorism, and humanitarian mine action.

Taking over as non-permanent member of UNSC, it is a unique opportunity for Vietnam to integrate developmental objectives of ASEAN and synergize it with UN initiatives. The convergence between ASEAN Community Vision 2025, and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Complementarities Initiative) need deep research and effort and in this regard to feasibility study can be commissioned by Vietnam. The challenges related to illicit drug production, trafficking (both human and drugs) needs to be highlighted both at ASEAN and in the UN. ASEAN has adopted the ‘Plan of Action to Prevent and Counter the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ and this needs representation and support from the UN bodies. Vietnam position would be catalyst in this regard so that regional efforts should be promoted in this regard. Cyber security has been addressed in ASEAN also as well as in UN but in terms of regional monitoring mechanisms across the world there is a deficit. Taking cue from ASEAN initiatives such as ‘Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence (ASCCE), and the Cybersecurity Capacity Building initiatives’ undertaken with support from Singapore and Japan respectively ’, Vietnam an make a case in UN for strengthening such institutions. Within ASEAN the efforts needed to streamline and collaborate on Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and digital connectivity are insufficient and therefore it requires better dialogue mechanisms on a regular basis among the ASEAN members.

Vietnam would also have to take cognizance of the possibility of Practical Arrangements (PA) between ASEAN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would need special attention at the UNSC so as to create a framework in Southeast Asia on nuclear safety, security, and safeguards. This will have a futuristic utility in terms of nuclear technologies and their applications. Within UN Vietnam will have to make special efforts to gain support for effective implementation of the SEANWFZ Treaty and submit it to the First Committee to the United Nations General Assembly.

ASEAN faces a number of cases related to Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and this needs to be addressed at global level so that a convention on IUU can be adopted. Vietnam would have to make special mention in this regard under the UNSC discussion agenda. Vietnam must also address challenges related to education, promotion and protection of the Women and Children and their rights, skill development and vocational training. Marine pollution and climate change have always resonated in the discussions in UNSC and Vietnam must take these issues to reflect concerns in Southeast Asia and why there is a need for global efforts. Other issues such as peat land management, haze management through financial support and disaster management need careful articulation and proposals in this regard.

While the agenda for the ASEAN requires better efforts as many initiatives need review in the year 2020 and also a comprehensive roadmap for future. On the other hand, issues in the UNSC Vietnam must highlight commitment regarding duties of upper riparian and lower riparian states, water pollution, and disaster risk financing at international level. In fact, the issue of Mekong river pollution and construction of dams would gain attention in this year. Further, Vietnam despite all these challenges would be able to balance the commitments towards ASEAN while at the same time playing a constructive role in the UNSC as non-permanent member. The year 2020 would be a challenging year as well as a year for adopting regional and global commitments towards security, prosperity, development, trade and connectivity.

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Russia-Indonesia: 70 years of friendship

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Jauh di mata, dekat di hati [Out of sight, close to the heart].” This is how Lyudmila Georgievna Vorobieva, Russian ambassador to Indonesia, characterized the relationship between the two countries.

In fact, in the 70 years of the relationship, it has gone through different states of proximity. It was pretty “hot” even before and around independence in 1945 when being leftist was identical with an anti-imperialist stance — and certainly during Sukarno’s presidency (1945 to 1967).

Then, abruptly, with the annihilation of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965 after a now-largely discounted “coup” by the PKI, the relationship suffered a long cold period of over 30 years during Soeharto’s New Order (1967 to 1998). Keeping the communist scare alive was, after all, one of the ways the regime maintained its grip on society.

Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) in the 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and Indonesia’s Reformasi in 1998 paved the way for the restoration of warm, harmonious relations.

Mohammad Wahid Supriyadi, Indonesian ambassador to Russia since 2016, said we are now in the second golden age of Russia-Indonesia relations (the first being during Sukarno’s presidency). Wow! Who would have guessed?

For the lay person, these days Russia invariably draws our attention indirectly, e.g. for its alleged interference in presidential elections in the United States or for being the country where Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, has been living in exile for over six years.

I confess Russia hasn’t been that prominent on my screen lately either, until I heard about the Russia-Indonesia 70-year friendship exhibition at the National Gallery from Feb. 3 to 17 (see: “Snapshots: Indonesia, Russia exhibit 70 years of friendship”, The Jakarta Post, Feb. 5). I was keen to go because of my own “Russian connections”.

Yup! I was a sociology student in London (1976 to 1979), and took a course on Russia and China. The focus of my studies was Western industrial societies, so I wanted to know the other side of the Cold War (circa 1947 to 1991). It was also essential for writing my thesis on the People’s Cultural Institute (Lekra), the PKI’s cultural wing. Both Lekra and the PKI looked to these communist countries for guidance, especially the Soviet Union, to emulate their concept of “socialist realism” — art and literature that glorified communist values and supported the party line.

I was also connected to Russia by marriage. My late husband, Ami Priyono, was among the first seven Indonesian students sent to Moscow in 1956. Together with Sjumanjaya, they studied film at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Both eventually became prominent film directors in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ami’s father, Prijono, was culture minister in Sukarno’s first cabinet, serving for nine years (1957 to 1966). Prijono was a leading figure in the Murba Party (sometimes referred to as the second Indonesian communist party) and, like Sukarno, was pro-Soviet. In 1954, Prijono was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize.

So, the reason for my interest was partly a nostalgia trip and partly a desire to know more about our current relationship with the “Land of the Red Bear”, as Indonesians sometimes refer to Russia.

I was accompanied by Vladimir Anisimov, head of the artist collective Bureau of Creative Expeditions and curator of the Necklace of the Equator exhibition. A distinguished gentleman in his 70s, sporting a bushy silver-gray beard, a moustache and an artist’s ponytail, he was like a relic of the past, adding to the nostalgic atmosphere.

Vladimir explained in detail some of the 85 paintings on display. They were done by 10 Russian painters who over 20 years had travelled to Indonesia on various occasions, capturing scenes from Java, Sumatra, Madura, Bali, Lombok, Kalimantan and Sulawesi: landscapes, houses, ceremonies, local traditions — mainly focusing on the people. Mostly impressionistic, lots of bright colors and a touch of romanticism here and there, like the Madonna painting of a woman carrying a baby surrounded by flowers and a rainbow. No socialist realism here!

Exhibitions by Russian artists have been held before in Indonesia, in 2000, 2003 and 2005. Vladimir recalled that the opening day was usually full but after that, empty. The situation is completely different now, he said, with 200 to 300 people attending during work days and double that on the weekend.

Vladimir said they received only positive feedback. “People were impressed and spent a lot of time taking selfies with the paintings as backdrops. Maybe more time than just looking at them,” Vladimir smiled wryly.

Among the crowd were a young man and woman intently discussing something related to the exhibition. They were Indonesians but spoke in very fluent English. I approached them and asked them why they had come to the exhibition. “Oh, we are Marxists. We came because we wanted to know more.”

Wow, Marxists in our midst? So young and so brazenly declaring their ideological beliefs at a time when Indonesia’s communist phobia is still alive and well? They really piqued my curiosity, so I took their phone numbers and chatted with them by WhatsApp the following day.

Both were 25 and were members of a group of young Marxist-Leninists who, like them, were disillusioned with the state of the world. “In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, it was the moment where we started really realizing the evil of the US empire and imperialism,” they said.

“One of the things that really moved me,” the young woman said, “was reading DN Aidit’s [PKI chairman] speech for the

[party’s]

44th anniversary, when he said that one of the conditions of being a PKI member is ‘unmeasurable love for the people’.” For her, that’s what communism is: loving each other so fiercely that we fight for a world where no one has to suffer, a world free from exploitation.

Wow, talk about youthful idealism! Truth be told, any ideology, any political or economic system, as well as any religion, can be twisted to harm and oppress the people, however much our leaders wax lyrical about them, or about bilateral and international relations.

Maybe this is a time when our leaders should start listening to the younger generation to save the world. Greta Thunberg is trying hard to do that. Many more are joining her ranks, so all you politicians, bureaucrats and leaders out there, start listening!

Early version of the text published under: “Russia – Indonesia 70 years on: Some like it hot, cold or warm” in Jakarta Post

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South China Sea of brewing troubles and its implications for India

Mona Thakkar

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For years, China, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam have contested overlapping claims to hundreds of coral reefs, features, and islets in the South China Sea. China’s man-made islands fortified with airstrips, anti cruise missiles, control towers, naval bases has allowed it to assert its sovereignty vigorously and poised it to seize greater control of the sea. As it’s economic and military position bolstered, it resorted to bullying its small neighbors by illicitly entering their territorial waters or by hindering their oil and gas explorations in the disputed waters. China hoped that it would seek to buy the acquiescence for its terrorizing tactics by luring them into economic incentives and its dubious intentions for a stable and secure South China Sea. But Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, frustrated with the status quo, are defying China’s dominance in the region turning the region into a new geopolitical flashpoint.

Recently, Indonesia, who for years avoided an open confrontation with its economic partner, locked horns with China as it sent warships and F16 fighter jets off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands to fend off Chinese fishing vessels in its exclusive economic zone, which China considers its fishing ground.  Indonesia’s patience with China’s maverick overtures has worn thin since 2016 as it has been repeatedly countering the poaching of its vessels by the Chinese coast guard in Indonesia’s backwaters. These counteractive measures are a testament to Indonesia’s tilt to a more proactive role to curb Chinese aggression. 

Another conspicuous development that raised eyebrows was Malaysia’s submission to the UN for a greater share of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles of its EEZ, which happened to overlap with China’s claim on the entire Spratly islands (nine-dash line). Currently, Malaysia occupies five islands in Spratlys and lays claims to 12 islands.  The submission is linked to a related application that Malaysia and Vietnam made 10 years ago, which met staunch opposition from China’s UN mission. Mahathir, who ascended to power on the wave of simmering domestic discontent against China’s pervasive economic influence, resorted to legal arbitration to possibly have added leverage over the negotiations related to the Chinese funded BRI projects which are notoriously known for pursuing debt-trap diplomacy.

In the wake of the Philippines, Cambodia, and Brunei openly courting China, the US seeks to warm up to Vietnam, the most vocal adversary to China’s boisterous aggression in the South China Sea. The latest defense paper of Vietnam indicates that it is going to desist from hedging bets between the US and China and call on the foreign powers to assist their regional endeavors in constraining China’s outreach in the region.  After the month’s long confrontation with China over its survey vessels into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone near Vanguard Ban, and Beijing’s coercion of Hanoi to prevent hydrocarbon drilling in its own territorial waters with foreign partners,  Vietnam introduced maritime militias which will escort the fishing fleets in the strategic resource-rich waterway to counter China’s fishing militias ships. 

Ironically, a country like the Philippines, who restored to law fare first in 2016, where the international arbitration panel ruling favored the Philippines and struck down  China’s unilaterally declared nine-dash line, has preferred to bilaterally settle the maritime disputes in contested waters through peaceful means and dithered from consolidated deterrence to oppose Beijing claims.  Embracing China’s billion-dollar investment in the construction of ports and the telecommunication sector signifies a tilt towards Chinese orbit at a time when the Philippines is threatening to end a Visiting Forces Agreement with the US. 

ASEAN’s ability to speak as a common voice on sensitive issues such as on sovereignty and territorial disputes has been under the scanner for years. China capitalizing on its economic supremacy has managed to keep a short leash on its Southeast Asian neighbors, thus it is unlikely that ASEAN will directly denounce China’s hawkish behavior in the South China Sea. In 2017 ASEAN summit held in Manila, China’s hard lobbying led ASEAN to drop its mention of “China’s reclamation and militarization of the South China sea islands”. Cambodia, China’s most staunch ally in Southeast Asia during its chairmanship of ASEAN, for the first time in its history, obstructed ASEAN from issuing a joint communiqué that insisted on mentioning a reference of China’s territorial disputes with ASEAN countries in the South China Sea. Cambodia to grovel China also stated that ASEAN cannot be “a legal institution” for settling territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The most fatigued issue of the Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN, which is set to be concluded in 2021, will further expose ASEAN’s fraying institutional mechanism due to its flawed consensus-building process where any ASEAN member can mute  ASEAN’S voice by issuing a veto over any joint resolutions or statements.  If China is successful in framing a nonbinding COC and codifying the clause of ending foreign armed forces in the region, it will make the COC dead on arrival.  China can exploit it as a diplomatic tool to justify its unilateral disruptive actions by including ambiguous and imprecise language. Further, China will not adhere to any COC as it has repeatedly been flouting international laws without paying any heed to the international arbitration tribunal’s ruling sought by the Philippines. It will lead to further erosion of the ASEAN centrality as some member states like Cambodia and Brunei might  openly support China buttressing China’s views  that Asean should not be a party to the south china sea disputes and rather solve  the issue ” “bilaterally”. 

China’s recurrent aggressive posturing in the region through the grey zone tactics such as that of sending fishermen, geological survey ships, and coast guards in the other claimants’ territorial waters will irk Vietnam, Malaysia pushing them to take a harder line on the dispute resolution through multilateral intervention of the US Australia, and Japan.  In this way, China might lose at its own game. Instead of bringing its neighbors to the negotiating table to accept Chinese prescribed terms of COC, they will be impervious to China’s threats, and its unabashed maritime expansion will propel them to enhance their strategic ties with the US and step up joint naval exercises with the US, Australia, Japan and India.  

The South China Sea symbolizes an arena of China’s naval prowess hence; it has shown the audacity to enter its rival claimants’ exclusive economic zone. This show of subtle coercive power is not only limited to Southeast Asian littoral states, but also India’s maritime backyard in the Andaman Sea.  Last September the Indian Navy expelled China’s research vessels from its exclusive economic zone near the Andaman and Nicobar islands.  These research vessels portray a significant threat to Indian strategic interests as they could be mapping characteristics of water to enhance its submarine warfare and deep-sea mining capabilities.  China, being cognizant of India’s redlines, has resorted to such subtle intimidation, thus abstaining from directly challenging India’s sovereignty claims, or drawing in closer proximity to the Indian coastal states with pernicious intent.

China has been making inroads in the eastern Indian Ocean region through the development of strategic Kyaukpyu deep seaport in Myanmar giving it direct access to the Bay of Bengal, talks about constructing a secret naval base in Cambodia, and 100km long km long canal in Kra isthmus in Thailand bypassing strait of Malacca, a critical lifeline for China’s energy supplies. Apart from encircling India, China’s expanding naval influence astride India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands stems from its need to diversify its energy supply routes as the maritime traffic to the Strait of Malacca has to traverse through the Andaman Sea, leaving China’s critical energy supplies vulnerable to a blockade from its foes. Other points of leverage are its control of ports in Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and now Myanmar which serve as a refueling and resupply stopover to Chinese naval vessels and warships, which patrol the critical entry checkpoints in the IOR. This, in turn, would ensure sustenance to its naval forces enabling nimble deployment in any event of war providing a strategic edge over its adversaries.

In a great game of power competition between India and China, the navy’s rapid modernization has led China to dominate the waters of Indo Pacific.   China has tripled the number of frigates, cruisers, destroyers, attacked guided missile submarines, and nuclear attack submarines. China has been modernizing its submarine fleet and indigenously developing aircraft carriers, and conducting joint military drills in the western Indian Ocean region with Iran and Russia showing its naval superiority in the region. It has been also squeezing India on the Kashmir issue, its membership in NSG, while challenging India’s dominance in its backyard by establishing a palpable constabulary presence in the Andaman Sea through its submarines and research survey vessels exhibiting its veiled influence in the region.

Indian Navy, which envisions the role of being a “net security provider” in the IOR and enhances the capacity building of its littoral states, is itself facing modernization deficiencies due to recurring budgetary constraints, procurement delays, corruption, and red-tapism. This year’s obfuscated defense budget allocated for the Navy will lead it to pullback its capacity enhancement plans of becoming a 200 ship fleet by 2025 and will also lead to cut down on procurement of the most needed naval assets like countermeasure mine vessels, early warning helicopters, fleet support ships, aircraft carriers. This raises serious questions about the Indian Navy’s ability to navigate through the most common threat of mines which impinge considerable damage to the large ships off the coast.

China’s increasing military build-up has thus pinched India to drop its self imposed restraint and reinvigorate the QUAD. Along with upgrading the QUAD engagement to the foreign ministerial level , and India’s consideration of inviting Australia for the trilateral Malabar exercises with Japan and USA this year suggests India’s growing seriousness in giving Quad a semblance of the formal security alliance, eliciting chagrin from China. India’s exclusion of China from its largest-ever multinational naval drills construes that as long as incompatibility prevails between India and China visions for the Indo Pacific, New Delhi through such naval exercises will try to deprive China of the significant shared interoperability mechanism vital for overhauling Navy’s strategic maneuvers, and through these exercises ensure synergy of the free and open Indo Pacific doctrine. It is also a benign way to reinforce its naval preeminence in the Asian nautical commons when India feels a sense of unease with China’s naval forays in its backyard.

India may further milk out on growing frustration of Indonesia and Malaysia with China’s hooliganism and find a common cause to augment its defense cooperation. China is riding roughshod despite retaliatory responses from its Southeast Asian neighbors.  Its bullying of Southeast Asian littoral states is a harbinger to how it may treat the neighbors in the future. The only positive development is the US’s “piecemeal” efforts in the form of mounting freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan straits and South China Sea. It further pricked Beijing by buttressing defense aid to Vietnam and Taiwan. While we can expect deeper defense cooperation between core ASEAN Nations and external powers like US, Australia, Japan, the US’s security commitment towards the region will hinge on China’s actions and the accordingly both the parties in their heated rivalry will pull the strings of the ASEAN’s countries security and economic fragile thrust points to overpower each other. For now, China should make peace with the fact that its thirst for conquering the seas risks skewing power asymmetry in the US’s favor as the ASEAN nations will tilt towards the US for counterpoising Beijing’s rise in the Asia Pacific.

With the geopolitical fault lines in the region coming to the fore, ASEAN will now be under scrutiny for managing the delicate dancing act between its strategic allies US, and its leading trade partner China.   It will also be interesting to see how Vietnam presiding this year’s ASEAN chair handles the South China Sea dispute balancing the economic and strategic priorities of the group.

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