The developments in South China sea (SCS) during the months of March and April has brought the region to the limelight again. The countries and territories in the periphery of South China Sea (SCS) have been threatened by Chinese coastguards and fishermen militia. More recently, in the first week of April, Chinese Coast guard ships destroyed Vietnamese fishing boat QNg 90617 TS and left eight crew members scampering for life. These repeated drowning of other countries boats by Chinese coastguards and armed militia has threatened the livelihood of the fishing communities who thrive on the third largest fishing ground of the world. The exotic fishes and the possibility of mineral resources underneath the sea surface have made it a lucrative hunting grounds for the littoral countries but in the last couple of years, the tensions in the region have multiplied manifold. One of the reasons stated by Chinese is that US has been undertaking provocative surveillance sorties with its maritime aircrafts and conducting group sails to force freedom of navigation, and undermine China’s habitual access denial and area dominance aggression. China, on the other hand, has been giving alibi for its military maneuvers,and at times compete disregard for freedom of navigation under the UNCLOS. The PLA navy has been firing warning shots and even targeting surveillance aircrafts of the US with lasers guns. The Coronavirus pandemic and US inability to undertake large scale naval operations in the SCS have further enthused China to threaten its neighbours. The Chinese survey ship HD 8 which has been the epicenter of trouble in the past and has been conducting fictitious surveys to station itself in Exclusive Economic zone of other claimant countries is a matter of concern.
Few factors have added to PLA navy’s confidence. This included its recurring sorties and operationalizing of its two air craft carriers (Liaoning and Shandong) and conducting operations closer to Taiwan straits and Philippines, while at the same time threatening Indonesia as well as Japan in East China Sea. It seems that China is drawing the outer periphery of the nine-dash line which now includes non-disputed regions such as Vanguard bank and Natuna islands. China has been sending its ships also to East China Sea knowing very well that at time of this global pandemic, it would use these to divert international attention and avert global accusations of dereliction of global responsibility by China. Coronavirus (COVID 19) has raised serious doubts about China’s commitment as a country which is a member of the UNSC, and its non-transparent attitude related to the declaration of the COVID 19 and the number of casualties. South China Sea and North Korea missile tests provide that alibi for China to divert attention also raise hyper nationalism in China, especially when President Xi Jinping has been facing huge internal dissent. In SCS, after China has completely assailed the PCA ruling in July 2016 which adjudicated in favour of Philippines, and dismissed all claims of EEZ for reclaimed islands that China has built in South China Sea. The lackadaisical attitude of the international community in terms of imposing penalties and bringing compliance with regard to the PCA ruling gave a long handle to the communist regime of China to station new weapons including surface to air missiles, and radars in few of the reclaimed islands.
More recently, the Chinese Haiyang Dizhi 8(HD 8) survey ship has returned to Vietnamese EEZ nearly 160 kms off the coast of Vietnam, and is approaching closer to Malaysian held islands, in complete disregard to international law, and the UNCLOS provisions. The survey ship is accompanied with Chinese coast guard vessels.
US State Department in support of Vietnam has stated, “we call on the PRC to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea”. Late last year, China stationed its one coastguard vessel closer to the oil rig operated by Russia’s Rosneft. Vietnam has also tried to put the issue in the UN Security Council agenda item to draw attention of the global community. However, more than discussions the international community must release a statement completely criticizing the UNSC permanent member global behaviour. On the part of regional countries and dialogue partner a unified statement castigating Chinese efforts to vitiate the regional order in SCS is a must. The Quad countries must undertake group sails on regular intervals and even a standoff with China would be a big lesson in the placid waters.
On the part of Vietnam, it must understand that the global realities and compulsions have changed over a period of time and identifying the US as a permanent enemy would do not augur well for their strategic interests. There is a need for signing the strategic partnership and security agreement with the US. The template can be drawn from the India-Japan global strategic partnership and the joint declaration on security cooperation. The visit of USS Roosevelt had not been received well within Chinese strategic community, and Vietnam must undertake measures so that dialogue partner countries ships (excluding China) must call on its ports. This show of strength along with regular interactions at ASEAN level, and also while drawing the agenda of the ADMM plus meeting later this year must mention the issue of SCS. There is a need to all parties to accept COC from legal point of view and the momentum must be supported with new ideas when Vietnam is the chair of ASEAN. China is likely to face economic hardships especially when the European and the US markets would not be able to generate the demand.
Vietnam, as ASEAN Chair, need to undertake five step approach to solve the problem. Firstly, institutionalize a high powered committee to expedite and build consensus on the draft Code of Conduct (CoC) among ASEAN on a priority basis. Former prime ministers and heads of government can be involved in this committee so as to get political acceptance and develop trust among claimant countries. Secondly, it must undertake trilateral initiatives with dialogue partners and other claimants for hydrographic surveys and mapping of ocean floor. The ASEAN dialogue partners (except China) are indirectly affected because of Chinese tactics. Thirdly, it must create a Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) among the ASEAN nations and release a statement maintaining status quo. Fourthly, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation need to be formulated with regard to SCS. The agreement can be named as Zone of Peace, Freedom and Innocent Passage. This agreement need to be signed with all dialogue partners. Assurance of freedom of navigation should be the foundation of this agreement. Lastly, Vietnam have to make a universal appeal to the international community to undertake priority in resolving the SCS dispute which is critical for maritime security and promotion of trade and commerce in the region. A lasting solution is required on an urgent basis.