The South China Sea is back in the news as tensions have grown in the last few weeks over incidents between Chinese and Vietnamese and Philippine ships. China’s expansive maritime claims are becoming too difficult to ignore and there is now a robust pushback from regional states, with some support from the US. Chinese manoeuvring in energy-rich stretches of the South China Sea, including its standoff in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), figured prominently in the10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers meeting last month. The final communiqué of this meeting made it clear that “concerns were expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the area.”
China, however, decided not to back off, with its top diplomat Wang Yi warning outside countries not to “deliberately amplify such differences or disputes left from the past” even as he underlined progress on an eventual ‘Code of Conduct’ with the ASEAN. China claims large parts of the South China Sea through which roughly $3.4 trillion in shipping passes each year and these claims are contested by countries including Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
In an alarming shift in China’s historical position on the issue, the South China Sea has been termed as a “core interest” which is non-negotiable by Beijing since 2010. Since then, China has tried to gradually alter the ground realities in this maritime space by aggressively building artificial islands and militarising them.
The US was late in recognising the challenge being posed by China but, under the Trump administration, it has been very vocal about its stakes. It has been more assertive in conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) and in supporting regional states. At the recent ASEAN meet, too, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke out against Chinese “coercion” of Southeast Asian neighbours in disputes over the South China Sea and its dam-building on the Mekong river. He urged regional allies to speak out against Chinese coercion in the South China Sea.
Earlier, he had said that Chinese dam-building upstream on the Mekong river had caused decade-low water levels in the river’s lower basin in Southeast Asia. This US-China tussle is happening at a time when ties have taken a nosedive as the trade conflict intensifies, with the US deciding to impose an additional 10% tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports starting September 1.
But regional states are still trying to come to terms with Chinese behaviour. While the Philippines confirmed that five Chinese warships passed through Manila’s 12-mile territorial sea last month without notifying the government, it lodged a diplomatic protest to China over Chinese vessels surrounding the tiny Philippine-held Thitu island. This was preceded by a Chinese fishing boat sinking a Filipino vessel in June inside the Philippine EEZ, which Beijing claimed was an accident. The Chinese coast guard ship was also found near an oil rig on Malaysia’s continental shelf in May. And then a Chinese survey ship, supported by other vessels, was found conducting activities near an oil block that lies within Vietnam’s EEZ, leading to one of the most serious standoffs since 2014.
After Vietnam demanded that China remove the survey ship and escorts from its waters near an offshore oil block, it found support from the US, which condemned China for “bullying behaviour” and “provocative and destabilizing activity.”
What is also interesting in Vietnam’s case is the fact that the Russian state oil firm Rosneft is operating an oil block within the contested territory. Given the growing closeness between Russia and China, it remains to be seen if Russia will take a proactive stance on this issue.
Chinese assertiveness in the region, of course, has to be seen in the broader context of Beijing trying to gradually assert its sovereignty over the maritime space. But its recent activities are also an acknowledgment that America’s Indo-Pacific strategy is gaining traction, with the ASEAN itself coming out with an Indo-Pacific outlook.
For a nation that doesn’t like the Indo-Pacific construct, this must be a difficult reality to adjust to. It is, therefore, trying to become more aggressive in ensuring that regional states do not develop foreign partnerships in developing offshore energy reserves or carry out energy exploration activities, something which will limit its diplomatic space to manoeuvre.
New Delhi has so far not come out with an official response despite Vietnam reportedly briefing India on the developments in the South China Sea. It may be that India is seeking to play it down given its larger interest in a rapprochement with China, but given India’s claims to being an Indo-Pacific power and its commercial interests in the region, this maybe
Unless India lends its voice and support to the cause of the smaller regional states, China will continue to advance its claims primarily on account of its ‘might is right’ strategy, disregarding international law and marginalising fundamental principles of State behaviour. If India refuses to speak up at a time when the region is boiling, its future pronouncements on a free and open Indo-Pacific would be viewed as mere platitudes. India’s silence is highly unlikely to win it a lasting friendship with China but has the potential to do it some lasting damage.