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What hides behind the ‘new’ US policy for the South China Sea

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The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, made a politically motivated statement on 13th July on the South China Sea policy. The policy said, Beijing had “no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington responded on Monday that the US was “throwing its weight around in every sea of the world.”  adding that the “US deliberately distorts the facts and international law including Law of the Sea”.

The South China Sea Conflict

The South China Sea dispute is a complex one. It involves several countries who claim sovereignty over maritime boundaries and two islands – the Spratlys and the Paracels. The countries involved over this dispute of claims are Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan), Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

This dispute began soon after the end of World War II. During the war, the Imperial Japanese Navy took control of the islands in the South China Sea for military purposes stating it was not claimed by anyone. When Imperial Japan lost the war, they ceded control of the islands in the South China Sea in the Treaty of San Francisco, 1951. The treaty didn’t specify or demarcate the new status of the islands and since then the countries in the South China Sea have had their disputes over claims in the region.

China claims the largest portion of this territory as its own citing its claim goes back to centuries ago. In 2015, President Xi Jinping of China said, “islands in the South China Sea “have been China’s territory since ancient times.” Vietnam disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Infact, Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century with documents to prove it. The portion claimed by China is called the “nine-dash line.” Following its claim, Beijing has expanded its military presence and increased patrols in this area. Though they claim their intentions as peaceful, it certainty didn’t sit well with other countries in this region who are cautious of China’ move as a step to change the status quo in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is an important region for various reasons. The area is a trade route of greatest value. According to the 2015 report of the US Department of Defense, $5.3 trillion worth of goods moves through the sea every year, which is about 30 percent of global maritime trade. The US Energy Information Agency estimates there are 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in deposits under the sea. Hence, making this region a very strategic one and whoever may control this region will gain to benefit the most. Also, all countries would want to keep this channel of trade route open and free for all to enable free flow of goods.

UNCLOS Tribunal

In 2013, an arbitration case was filed by the Philippines under the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) at The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in Hague, which then constituted an arbitral tribunal under Annex VII to the 1982 UNCLOS. It was filed when China took control over Subi /Zhubi Reef. Both countries claim sovereignty over it. On 19 February 2013, the Chinese government rejected and returned Philippines’s note verbale. Beijing, again indicated that “it does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines” on 1 August 2013. Even after Beijing said it will not participate in the arbitration, the tribunal went ahead with its proceeding. It should be noted that both China and Philippines are not only signatory members of UNCLOS but are also ratified members of the convention.

In 2016, the tribunal not only decided against China, it rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea. In fact the tribunal said that China violated the international law and caused irreparable harm to the marine environment. It had also endangered and interfered with Philippines’ fishing and oil exploration activities. However, the tribunal did not rule on the ownership of islands or delimit the maritime boundaries.

Beijing called the ruling “ill-founded” and said it will not abide by it. They stated that they did not recognize the tribunal and insisted that the matter should be resolved through bilateral negotiations with other claimants. Though China prefers bilateral negotiations, other parties argue that China’s power and enormous territory is an unfair advantage which would triumph over the other countries.

Contextualizing Mike Pompeo’s Statement

On one hand, reiterating the tribunal’s decision and on the other, declaring US policy for the South China Sea as “new”, Mike Pompeo’s statement is quite the dialectic. The international community couldn’t help but see the irony. Now let me explain what I mean by this-

1. The policy statement read, “as the US has previously stated, and as specifically provided in the [UN Law of the Sea] Convention (UNCLOS), the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both parties.” However, the US is the only developed country which has not ratified the UNCLOS and yet they claim to be the legal standard.

While US points out China may not have adhered to the tribunal’s decision, US is hardly an ideal follower of the deçisions of international conventions. The US has also rejected international judgements in the past. In 2018, after Washington pulled out from the 1955 Treaty of Amity with Iran, the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Tehran and ordered the US to ensure sanctions against Iran do not impact humanitarian aid. At that point of time, Mike Pompeo dismissed the ruling as “meritless,” hence rejecting the court decision.

So, it seems like the US is caught in its own web and has taken a hypocritical position with its new policy for the South China Sea.

2. The US-China tensions are no hidden secret to anyone. The question which then arises here is whether the US is using the South China sea conflict as a means to increase its military presence in the area?

This announcement is a strategic shift in the US policy in the Trump administration. The last time the US stance on the South China sea was a major topic of discussion under the Obama administration. At the US-ASEAN summit in California in 2016, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea were discussed. But, it concluded through the joint statement, the “Sunnylands Declaration” which did not name the South China Sea. Instead, it called for “respect of each nation’s sovereignty and for international law.”

The announcement by Mike Pompeo is an important shift in the declaratory policy of the US on the South China Sea. There has been a shift of US sentiments towards China.  Under the Trump administration, Washington has been repeatedly criticizing Beijing over a range of issues such as the Hong Kong protests, the Covid 19 global pandemic, treatment of the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. All these US-China tensions are beaming to what can be said as a technological cold war, where US President Trump may ban Tik Tok and other Chinese apps. Therefore, the recent US policy statement on the South China Sea is the result of US-China tensions. Mr Pompeo’s declaration, “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners …,” indicates US play for the countries with whom China is in dispute over the South China Sea region, a move out of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu’s political stratagems.  

Mike Pompeo had also said in his tweet, “We are strengthening U.S. policy on South China Sea maritime claims, according to international law, in rejection of Beijing’s intimidation, bullying, and claims of maritime empire.”

So, the question remains: does this policy over the South China sea is only a means to an end favourable to the US?

Mozammil Ahmad is a freelance researcher and currently pursuing LL.B from Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi, India. His work has been previously published in The Diplomat, Dhaka Tribune and Modern Diplomacy.

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East Asia

Centenary of the Chinese Communist Party: 100 years of Prosperity and Greatness

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Since its establishment, the Communist Party of China has made many national contributions and has become the main engine of Chinese progress since the revolution led by Chairman Mao Zedong and the policy of reform and opening up pursued by Deng Xiaoping up to the era of achievements laid down by current President Xi Jinping. In conjunction with the upcoming centenary of the Communist Party of China on July 1, China will launch the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft with three astronauts on board to the Chinese space station, whose construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2022, thus becoming the third country in the world to send humans into space with its own potential. Some political scholars from different backgrounds unanimously agree that the Communist Party is behind modern China, through the wise policy of governance and administration and the modern ideas presented by the philosophers of the Chinese Communist Party in economic and political structures and laying foundations for rational competition with countries and blocs opponents of China.

Within a hundred years, China has the second largest economy and is likely to rank first in the coming years, according to World Bank reports, a strong army that possesses advanced weapons capable of harming the enemy and achieving inevitable victories, a society in continuous prosperity through wise policy in poverty eradication and social welfare strategy, a fair and impartial political leadership. These and other elements of power were enough to transform China into a country that preoccupied the West and slew the most powerful countries. Some consider, out of ignorance, that communism is synonymous with backwardness and oppression, but the reality is otherwise. In communist China, human dignity is preserved and a person has value regardless of whether he/ she is poor or rich, and everyone shares the same rights and duties, in addition to freedom of belief and the practice of religious and social rituals. In some countries, cases of racial discrimination based on skin colour appear, the most recent of which was the George Floyd incident, which stirred the conscience of peoples, and cases of permanent indiscriminate killing and disrespect for public morals, which indicates a loophole in holding national security while claiming to maintain global security and spread the ideas of democracy.

The Communist Party of China has 91 million members from all over China, according to a report by the Xinhua News Agency. This number indicates satisfaction with the party’s performance and the great public turnout to contribute to the promotion of its ideas and principles. But according to my humble Chinese experience, it is not necessary to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party to believe in and defend its principles. This party is linked to national identity and constant struggle, so it is enough for you to be Chinese to be represented by this party. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 as a political and revolutionary movement by some revolutionaries who laid its foundations and general principles, including Li Dazhou 李大钊 and Chen Duxiu 陳獨秀. These two revolutionary men emerged from the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and joined Marxism after the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917. During the turmoil across China in the twentieth century, some cadres of the Chinese Communist Party, including Mao Zedong 毛泽东, Liu Shaoqi 刘少奇 and Li Lisan 刘少奇, began organizing trade unions and founding the Chinese Revolution.

The Communist Party of China supervises the organs of government throughout China according to unified organizational rules and a centralized system of government. When this party was established in 1921, China was dominated by cases of political dependency and rampant extreme poverty. The Republic of China was established in 1912, but it was a weak and crushed country with no influence on the international community, and many groups at that time sought secession and independence. On May 4, 1919, the first public protest against the government was attended by more than three thousand students from 13 colleges in Beijing, denouncing the decision of the Versailles Peace Conference, which transferred concessions in Shandong Province from Germany to Japan. Under the banner of the Communist Party, the Chinese people have waged a long struggle to achieve national sovereignty and enhance China’s international standing at all levels. National dignity is not bestowed but gained. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party has made great sacrifices in order to achieve national dignity and elevate China to the highest ranks.

Currently, all the streets of China are decorated with red banners that read “100”, the 100th anniversary of the founding, with the sickle and hammer emblem representing the Communist Party, and  posters of Lei Feng 雷锋, who became a Chinese national hero and symbol no less important than the founding cadres of the Communist Party. Also, giant pictures of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers shouting to go to fight. All these pictures and advertisements raise the national spirit and patriotism of the Chinese people and increase their attachment to the Communist Party, which has become an inseparable part of history, present and future. China has the second largest budget allocated to the military after the United States, which indicates the Chinese leadership’s awareness of the great risks that China can be exposed to in parallel with economic and technological progress. A strong military is an essential part of preserving national sovereignty.

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High time for India to Reconsider the One-China Policy

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Sino-Indian bilateral relations have seen major challenges in the recent years, beginning with the Doklam crisis to the current pandemic situation. The sugar-coated rhetoric of Beijing proved to be mere duplicity after tensions erupted along the Line of Actual Control where soldiers of both the states clashed in mid-2020, resulting in the martyrdom of several Indian jawans including a commanding officer. The other side also saw several casualties, though Beijing has kept the actual count under wraps. More recently, China suspended the state-run Sichuan Airlines cargo planes carrying medical supplies to India for 15 days citing the deteriorating situation in India due to COVID-19. This was after the Chinese government promised all the necessary help for India to battle the pandemic. 

The People’s Republic of China under the leadership of Xi Jinping has been maintaining an aggressive posture with India even while making calls for ‘maintaining peace’. Its support for all-weather friend Pakistan has attained new peaks when it proclaimed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under the Belt and Road Initiative passing through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, a territory claimed by India, despite New Delhi’s staunch opposition. It is in the light of all these events that the calls of the strategic community in India to review the recognition of One China policy has gained some attention. 

India’s Sensitivity versus China’s Duplicity  

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the Communist Party of China (CPC) claims itself as the only representative of the Chinese nation including the territories of Tibet and Taiwan among others. Any country having formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, also known as Republic of China shall be seen by China as challenging its sovereignty. The same parameter applies to any country recognizing Tibet or similar ‘autonomous regions’ under the Chinese control. This is known as the ‘One China Principle’ or ‘One China Policy’. India was one of the first countries to recognize the PRC in 1949 after the civil war as well as to accord recognition to its occupation of Tibet. However, China claims the whole of India’s Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’, a claim that India has always rebuffed. Moreover, it occupies Aksai Chin which it captured during the 1962 war as well as the Shaksgam valley, ceded illegally to it by Pakistan in 1963.

Even after the war and the re-establishment of cordial bilateral relations, China has continued to repeat its illegitimate claims and nibble into India’s territory.  India’s protests fell on deaf ears and this is despite India recognizing the One China Policy. India stopped mentioning the policy since 2010 in its public announcements and publications, however, without repealing it. Taking undue advantage of this China pays little concern to Indian sentiments. This view in India, to challenge China’s One China Policy, has been strengthened by aggressive diplomatic postures of China as well as its regular incursions along the disputed border while continuing to support Islamabad on all fronts – overtly and covertly, encircling India. 

The government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to give in to the bullying attempts by China by allowing the Army to go ahead with offensive countermeasures against Chinese incursions in 2017 as well as in 2020, in addition to taking measures including banning dozens of Chinese mobile applications. It has also started actively taking part in initiatives like Quadrilateral Dialogue as well as strengthening relations with ASEAN states. However, a dominant section within the strategic community in India feel that these measures are not enough to knock China into its senses. 

Challenging the One China Policy 

The most significant among the measures suggested in this regard has been to review India’s adherence to the One China policy. In an atmosphere where China does not recognize the One India policy comprising of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territories, experts argue the need of reciprocity. Initiatives such as providing greater global visibility and access for Tibetans including the 14th Dalai Lama, using Buddhist history and traditions as a trump card since New Delhi has the advantage of having the Dalai Lama on its side, provides legitimacy for India unlike China. India can facilitate the appointment of the next Dalai Lama and extend protection for the existing and the next Dalai Lama. The repeal of the recognition for Chinese occupation of Tibet can also send major tremors in Beijing but that seems to be a distant dream. The new democratic Tibetan government under President Penpa Tsering should be given greater official acknowledgment and publicity. India has already taken small steps in this regard by acknowledging the involvement of the elite Special Frontier Force (SFF), majorly comprising of exiled Tibetans, in a game changing operation to shift the balance against China during the recent border crisis. The funeral of an SFF commando attended by a Member of Parliament and leader from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Ram Madhav was an overt signaling to China that Indians are not refraining from openly recognizing Tibetan contributions to the state of India. Another sensitive issue for China is the Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims being allegedly tortured and deprived of their basic human rights in the ‘re-education camps’ by the CPC and a state sponsored genocide being carried out against them. India can take up the issue vigorously at international forums with like-minded countries, increasing the pressure on China. Similarly, the pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong, pro-Mongol movements such as the protest against Mandarin imposition in the school curriculum of Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, can also be encouraged or given moral support. India, a country which upholds its virtue of unity in diversity must take a strong stand against the ‘cultural assimilation’ or ‘liberation’ as the Chinese say. This is nothing but cultural destruction imposed by China using the rhetoric of ‘not being civilised’ and branding the non-Han population as barbaric in China and the regions it illegally occupies.

India can also stir the hornet’s nest by engaging more formally with the Taiwanese leadership. Taipei has always been approached by New Delhi keeping in mind the sensitivities of China in mind. However, it does not have to do so for a power that bullies both the nations with constant threats and provocations by its action. It is a well-known fact that Taiwan is a center of excellence in terms of the semi-conductor industry and high-end technology. Engaging more with Taiwan will not only hurt Beijing, but also will help India counter the strategic advantage possessed by China in terms of being the major exporters of electronic goods and telecommunication hardware to India. India can also attain more self-sufficiency by boosting its own electronics industry using the Taiwanese semiconductor bases. India can use this leverage to shed its overdependence on China in critical sectors, balance the trade deficit to some extent, while also securing its networks from Chinese intelligence. India must also focus on working with the states having stake in the South China Sea such as Philippines and Malaysia who regularly face aggression in their airspace and Exclusive Economic Zones from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces and China’s maritime militia, questioning their territorial sovereignty, imposing the One China Policy. New Delhi must pressurize China by working with the western nations, whose legislators have openly declared support for the Tibetan President in exile, to question China’s occupation of Tibet and attempts at homogenizing the population. Long term measures and strategies will have to be sought to end the dependence on China while seeking alternatives and becoming self-reliant over time. 

However, India will face several serious challenges to implement the above-mentioned measures. There is a deep lack of mutual trust among major powers like USA, UK, France and Russia through whom India can build a coalition. The American President Joe Biden is seemingly interested in partly co-operating with China and has a softer stance unlike the former President Trump. Nevertheless, the QUAD is a welcome step in this regard and India must undertake a greater role in pressurizing China through such forums, albeit not openly. India also has a serious issue of possibly having to incur heavy economic losses on having to limit Chinese goods and investments and finding similarly cheap and easy alternatives. These fault lines are exactly what is being exploited by China to its advantage. Thus, the Indian state and its diplomacy has the heavy task of working between all these hurdles and taking China to task. However, since China seems remotely interested in settling the border disputes like it did with its post-Soviet neighbours in the previous decades and instead gauge pressure against India. So, New Delhi will have to pull up its sleeves to pay back China in the same coin.  

The views expressed are solely of the author.

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East Asia

Who would bell the China cat?

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If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.

China’s tit-for-tat response

The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”

Bitter truths

Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20. 

Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.

India’s role

India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.

India’s main problem

Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.  

Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.

The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is  thrice  the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.

Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”

It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.

History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.

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