U.S. and Southeast Asian nations solidarity on South China Sea

With US sending a strict note against China on the issue of its reclaimed islands in South China Sea and invalid EEZ, China is facing international condemnation for its irresponsible behaviour and aggressive attitude. As a counter measure it has been intimidating the littoral countries of the South China Sea. Malaysia had made their presentation to the UN in December 2019 related to the limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, and this has been supported by the Vietnam as well as Indonesia. Even lately the intimidating tactics that have been used by China against Vietnam have found support from the Philippines. Further, the US state department has sent a strong letter against Chinese activities in South China Sea. It seems that UN will have to look into the developments in SCS.

Philippines which had shown the intention of abrogating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, has reconsidered its position, and is continuing with the agreement. The Philippines US Mutual Defence treaty signed in 1951 is intact and which clearly shows that at fundamental security level US will remain the primary guarantor of security for the country.

The global angst against China is driving the country to undertake measures disturbing the regional security and encroaching into non-disputed areas. Chinese maneuvers in Vanguard bank, and activities closer to Natuna islands(Indonesia) were a reflection of this approach. China very well knows that it can force and compel countries to abide by its diktats. However, the US has also been under taking measure such as elephant walk (lining up of all aircrafts on tarmac before short interval take off) in its Guam base, deployment of strategic submarines, and undertaking exercises with the claimant countries of South China Sea.

The paranoia of China has set the alarm bells ringing in the near vicinity.
China has imposed the three month fishing ban in South China Sea, and has been intimidating the fishermen of other countries through its fisherman militia as well as supporting Coast Guard ships. This intimidation has activated responses from countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam while at the same time Malaysia has been threatened by Chinese Navy for conducting survey in South China Sea. The HD 8 ship which ventured into the Exclusive Economic Zone of both Vietnam and Malaysia is seen as a façade for outlining Chinese interest and dominance in the area.

Apprehensions have also been cast that China has been undertaking these maneuvers so as to prepare ground for annexation of Taiwan. In the last few months whenever US has conducted exercises with Taiwan, China has conducted countervailing measures as well as overflights in the same areas through its surveillance aircrafts. Even lately China has used laser guns on US surveillance aircrafts. The increasing number of hangers for stationing of fighter crafts in those reclaimed islands clearly shows the intent of China in capturing islands under other claimants, and enforces its rule of law with Beijing characteristics.

In the next one month, i.e., July 12, the world will be looking closely at the developments South China Sea especially when the four years of the Permanent Council of Arbitration (PCA) adjudication on the matter would be completed. Under this judgment all the claims by China have been rejected. It was proclaimed that as none of the South China Sea islands can support habitation and therefore these islands, islets and rocks cannot have an Exclusive Economic Zone(EEZ)and can only claim 12 nautical miles of territorial seas. This adjudication was rejected by China, an irresponsible behaviour by the permanent member of the Security Council. However, India has accepted another ruling defining the maritime border between India and Bangladesh, and have ceded large territories in Bay of Bengal maritime space to Bangladesh. In contrast, China completely abhorred the PCA ruling stating that permanent arbitration council have no role in taking any decision related to the matter. This position compromised the stature of the PCA and also put the onus on regional security mechanisms such as ASEAN to search for the middle ground. Subsequent to the ruling, China has placed radar domes(radomes), surface to air missiles (with range of 200 kilometers), fighter aircrafts and even upgrading the reclaimed islands infrastructure. This included water desalination plants, sports facilities and complete command and control towers. There were also few reports that speculated that China will be declaring Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to protect it assets and demarcate its area of influence.

Vietnam has been taking a rather hard stance on the subject given the fact that it has been facing regular intimidation tactics from China. Be it the case of laying undersea cables, capsizing Vietnamese boats, harassing Vietnamese coast guard ships or calling on the radio of the other passing ships. With US increasing intervention in the region, China has been feeling threatened and also paranoid with regard for its claims in SCS. There has also been reports related to the fact that US and Vietnam would elevate their partnership into strategic partnership as well as work on modalities related to defence cooperation and security dialogue. With Vietnam becoming the non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2021, and the support that it is eliciting with the friendly countries, it is believed that the South China Sea would hog the limelight in the UN in the coming years. Vietnam should take advantage of its position as non-standing commissioner to defend its claims in the South China Sea.

Prof. Pankaj Jha
Prof. Pankaj Jha
Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]gmail.com