The intemperate and aggressive Chinese reaction to the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration’s verdict that it has no territorial claims in the seas off Philippines and other nations reveals the communist nation’s larger design to dominate the region
By Bhaskar Roy
The myth of the “peaceful rise of China” has been shattered completely by China’s reaction to the award by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in favour of the Philippines last month. The term “rise of China” was coined during the tenure of President Hu Jintao, and the word “peaceful” quickly added when it was realized that the phrase would send a message of an arrogant and aggressive nation. Since then, arrogance and aggressiveness have become a pattern both in China’s propaganda and in its foreign policy. Beijing’s belligerence is assuming disturbing proportions.
Parts of the South China Sea are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. China, however, claims almost 90 percent of the Sea with a self-drawn map on which nine dashes, referred to as nine dash lines, denote the claim area. The map was originally drawn by the Nationalist government of China in 1947, before their defeat at the hands of the communists.
Manila had taken the case to the tribunal in 2013, following Beijing’s overbearing and aggressive attitude in its territorial waters. China, which joined the UN Conference of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1996, declined to contest the Philippines, expecting the award to go against it. In fact, it went into propaganda mode even before the verdict came out.
The tribunal has now rejected China’s claims on historical grounds, declaring that the rocks, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea have been used by fishermen from ancient times and no single country, including China, ever had administration over these features. It did not go into territorial issues as claimed by China.
Dwelling on the definition of islands, the tribunal ruled that none of the features qualified for the status of island and hence China did not have any claim to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and the continental shelf. Therefore, sea areas within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines could not be claimed by China.
The Philippines and Vietnam may be faulted for initially building artificial islands in the South China Sea but they stopped doing so. China, meanwhile, continues to build large islands with light houses and airstrips on them, apart from continuously sending its naval vessels and flying its combat aircraft in the region, with intent to intimidate. Artificially changing geographical features is a tactic which is not new to the Chinese. While negotiating river boundaries with the Russians, the Chinese were caught surreptitiously advancing their bank lines by shoring up mud from the river bed and dumping earth by cover of night.
Beijing’s show of strength, especially its gunboat diplomacy in the waters of the South China Sea has spurred a small arms race in the region. Although aware that they are no match for China’s military and economic might, these countries have undertaken defense construction for self-protection.
Kenneth Allen, a China specialist at the Defense Group Inc., USA, has recently written an article in China Brief, elucidating on China’s military transparency as employing soft power. Demonstrating its awesome military might with a smiling face and dangling economic carrots before the claimant countries has had effects beneficial to China.
India not only has an interest in the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as a global common, it also has a moral right to take a position. In 2014 India accepted a decision of this very court in a dispute over a Bay of Bengal claim with Bangladesh. Although the tribunal upheld Bangladesh’s claim, India did not adopt a negative stance, thus abiding by International law.
India has called on all concerned parties to respect the tribunal’s ruling on the present case, and to resolve the issue peacefully, meaning through dialogue. At one level the Chinese have interpreted India’s position as supporting China’s position. China wants dialogue as per the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea (DOC) signed in 2002 between China and the ASEAN. But the DOC is a wide-ranging document and none of the parties, including China have strictly adhered to it. In fact, China treated the DOC as a temporary arrangement to buy time, until it was ready to take over the South China Sea. In an interview to the Chinese media, state councillor Yang Jiechi stated: “The sovereignty issue is China’s bottom line,” (China Daily, July 15). He warned that anyone using the tribunal award to provoke China would face a resolute Chinese response.
China’s Navy chief, Admiral Wu Shengli, recently told visiting US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson (Beijing, China Daily, July 19) that China “will advance and complete island and reef construction as planned,” and any attempt to intimidate China will only “backfire”. He also conveyed that China’s level of defense on these islands will depend on the level of threat China faced. Wu Shengli’s statement was strong and clear.
Commonly discussed importance of the South China Sea relates to the use of its maritime lanes through which US $ 5 trillion worth of trade moves, including oil tankers; its oil and gas reserves plus sea-bed minerals; fish stocks, a major source of food and foreign exchange earner; and the employment the above activities provide.
THE CHINA DREAM
The South China Sea issue is also closely connected with President Xi Jinping’s strategic flagstaff “China Dream” project which will conclude its first major step by 2022, when he is supposed to retire. Xi’s 21st Century Silk Road project sees sovereignty over the South China Sea essential as an invincible stepping stone to the Indian Ocean.
China claims its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project is an economic endeavor and a “win win” situation for all. But, in reality, it is much more. It is a strategic project of soft projection on the one side, with a military underpinning on the other. The US $ 46 billion Pakistan-China Economic corridor is a prime example. In fact, small economically dependent countries which become part of this project, can fall potentially into China’s satellite orbit. Pakistan, Cambodia and Laos can be listed here. Eventually, OBOR will try to carve out a huge swathe between the West Line (Middle East) and the East Line (Asia Pacific).
In this area, China has two priorities (i) establishing near seas claims/sovereignty, and (ii) furthering far seas interest. The Chinese authorities are quite sanguine that their land mass is secure except for intermittent irritation in Xinjiang and Tibet. The current step is to secure the areas between the coasts to near seas. A review of China’s missile and naval development at an accelerated pace suggests they are getting ready to thwart any external interference (read, the US) in the near seas, which includes the East China Sea (dispute with Japan).
Securing the South China Sea means one step forward into the Indian Ocean, constructing the 21st Century ”Maritime Silk Road”, and strategic holding points. They are already stepping up construction of a naval base in Djibouti.
Reportedly, they have already sounded out the Maldives and Seychelles. Sri Lanka is a potential. Pakistan’s Gwadar deep sea port constructed by China and managed by a Chinese state-owned company, is always there. Constructing a deep sea port in Bangladesh (in Payra) has been discussed but not firmed up.
The importance of the South China Sea to the Chinese and its consequences to the region and stake holders needs no emphasis. It should surprise no one if China decides in the near future to declare the South China Sea as of “core importance”, that is, at the same level as the Communist Party, the State, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.
Power asymmetry and economic inter-dependence between China and the South East Asian countries is so great that these countries cannot get away from China’s shadow. The only capable power in the region is the United States. But with the US presidential elections just a few months away, and involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and engagement in Syria, Washington is in no mood for a flare up with China. Also, China and the US are deeply involved in bilateral economic relations.
China is concerned about a possible alignment of the US, Japan, India and Australia ranged against it. It has been closely watching the Malabar naval exercises between India and the US. This year, Japan became a permanent member of this annual exercise.
ALL EYES ON CHINA
Everything depends on how Beijing behaves from now on. What is disturbing is Beijing’s outburst after the tribunal award. Calling the tribunal judges “corrupt”, accusing the Philippines and other countries (unnamed) of bribing the judges, declaring that the Sea had become a cradle of war and threatening to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), does not inspire confidence.
China has lost credibility in the globalized international order conducted under international law. The strategy of engagement with China has changed. As China grows stronger, more aggressive and assertive, its South China Sea model can be replicated elsewhere.
—The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst, and a former
officer of the Cabinet Secretariat and NTRO
Lead picture (right): Chinese President Xi Jinping
All Photos: UNI