India and Bangladesh had differences over the demarcation of their maritime boundary in Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh took the case to the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration. After five years of proceedings, the Court in July 2014 awarded Bangladesh 19,467 square kilometres and India 6,135 square kilometres of the disputed maritime territory. Respecting the provisions of International Law, India immediately accepted the Court verdict. Similarly, respecting international law, India has concluded bilateral and trilateral agreements with virtually all its maritime neighbours, including Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. The maritime boundary with Pakistan has not been demarcated, among other reasons, because the land boundary near the sea has not been settled and remains the subject of negotiations.
Countries across Asia and the world are contrasting India’s respect for international law by abiding by the decision of the UN Tribunal on the issue of its maritime borders with Bangladesh, with the churlish and arrogant behaviour of China, on its maritime claims with its neighbours. China has based its claims not in terms of international law, but on a ‘nine dotted line’ unilaterally drawn by its then government in 1947, after Japan’s defeat in World War II. These claims were rejected even then by Vietnam and the Philippines. There was never any question of a defeated Japan accepting these arbitrary Chinese claims. In keeping with Deng Xiaoping’s dictum—“Hide your strength and bide your time”—China waited till the end of the last century after it had developed the maritime capabilities, air power and military strength, to coercively enforce its claims.
China has moved methodically, but forcefully, in enforcing its untenable maritime border claims. Vietnam was the first to face Chinese maritime power in South China Sea. But, the course had been set for claims backed by coercion, also on China’s maritime borders with the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Not only has China used naval power to enforce claims on its maritime neighbours, it has also built airbases and extended the size of artificially-built islands across South China Sea.
Faced with this naked aggression, including seizure of islands belonging to it across its maritime frontiers, the Philippines approached the International Arbitration Tribunal, for justice. The Tribunal ruled against China and held its claims based on its “nine dotted line” as inadmissible. China even forced the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to eat humble pie, defer his claims and virtually kowtow in Beijing, seeking economic aid. Vietnam has been coerced into halting oil exploration within what are legally its maritime borders. That China is a regional bully was evident in its restrained behaviour to enforce its claims on Japan, which enjoys a Defence Treaty tie with the US. China also knows that it would be badly mauled if it tangles militarily with Japan.
India is the only Asian country, other than Japan, to stand up to Chinese military power. While bullying small neighbours, China has been circumspect in not provoking Indonesia by seeking to avoid enforcing its maritime boundary claims militarily across its maritime boundaries with latter. Standing firm, without reciprocating the hysterical propaganda by Chinese rags such as Global Times, India has won admiration across Asia. The process of mutual withdrawal agreed to by China, will have to be carefully implemented. The world will recognise the reality of Chinese withdrawal when there is no Chinese troop or construction presence threatening Doklam. By its actions, India would have demonstrated its readiness to face up to China and that it would also not hesitate to defend Bhutan.