Ambient tension in the South China Sea is high as Beijing continues to assertively push its claim for sovereignty over 3 million square kilometres, or 90 per cent of the South China Sea. Tension is set to rise further around April-end and early May when the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delivers its judgment on the case filed by the Philippines in 2013, contesting China’s claim to sovereignty over the Spratlys archipelago.
Matters are complicated by the defence agreement between the Philippines and the US and the grant of five bases by Manila to the US last month. A decision in favour of the Philippines will further isolate China and weaken its claim over the maritime territory. The US has been closely monitoring developments though its actions remain tentative. US intelligence had assessed in February this year that China is capable of providing “basic self-defense at its Spratly Islands outposts” and “has established the necessary infrastructure to project military capabilities in the South China Sea beyond that which is required for point defense of its outposts.”
Importantly, the US intelligence assessed that China will not conduct reclamation efforts in the East China Sea. Nonetheless, to show its concern, the US late last month despatched a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier accompanied by four warships to operate in the eastern part of the South China Sea. The floating headquarters of the US 7th Fleet, ‘Blue Ridge’, separately visited the Philippines. Japan too, for the first time in fifteen years, sent two destroyers and a submarine to visit the Philippines and Vietnam.
Far from yielding ground, China has reaffirmed its sovereignty and ‘historical’ claims over these waters. At the recent session of the National People’s Congress — China’s version of Parliament — China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned other powers against taking sides in the South China Sea dispute while Hainan Party Secretary Luo Baoming underscored China’s historical claim over the South China Sea by announcing that more than 100,000 fishermen of Hainan have documented proof of their navigation routes in these waters dating back 600 years!
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s official mouthpiece People’s Daily added military muscle. It quoted the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s new South Theatre Commander, General Wang Jiaocheng, as saying in February that his “foremost mission is to safeguard rights and interests in the South China Sea” and that “no country will be allowed to use any excuse or action to threaten China’s sovereignty and safety.” In an interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun on March 31, 2016, retired PLA Major General Qian Lihua, former Director of the Foreign Affairs Office of China’s Ministry of National Defense and presently Vice-Chairman of the China Committee within the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), said US “freedom-of-navigation operations” in the South China Sea “have only made the situation more complicated”.
He added that the actions by the US Navy did not represent a pressing military threat. Chinese navy and armed coast guard vessels meanwhile continue to aggressively patrol the South China Sea and encroach waters disputed with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia etc. China has already declared that it does not recognise the jurisdiction of the international tribunal. There is uncertainty, therefore, as to whether after the tribunal announces its decision, China will militarily challenge the claims by other nations and take substantive steps to assert its sovereignty.
It is likely that Beijing could declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, plans for which were finalised many months ago by China’s prestigious Academy of Military Science (AMS). As in the case of the ADIZ covering the East China Sea declared in 2013, countries will then have little choice but to comply as they will be unwilling to risk lives and cargo.
Apprehensive of warming Indo-US ties and India joining the US and Japan to contain China, the official Chinese media has issued a series of warnings to India. In 2010, the China-owned Hongkong-based media emphasised that China will only be able to settle outstanding territorial disputes by the use of force. Alluding to the ancient Chinese saying of “killing a chicken to frighten the monkey”, it said given a choice between the two large powers of India and Japan in the context of the South China Sea, Beijing would choose India to “teach other countries a lesson.” Exhibiting China’s growing concern in the past three months, its state-run English language media published at least five articles warning India.
In February, Global Times interviewed Ni Leixiong, a Shanghai-based Chinese military analyst and Director of the Sea Power and Defence Policy Research Institute at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, who justified China “building more military facilities” on the ground that it faces complicated challenges in the region and “India or Japan, might get involved.”
Another Global Times article said if India joined in the US plan, it would become a “vassal state” like Japan and Australia. Advising India “to develop more friends instead of making more enemies”, it warned that “China is the most important neighbour of India” and “in economy, politics and security, China is far more capable of making trouble for India than the reverse.”
In March, referring to the joint naval exercise by the US, Japan and India in waters off the northern Philippines near the South China Sea, it quoted Zha Xiaogang, research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, as saying “the intention of the exercise is to show all three nations’ united support for the Philippines.”
Liu Feng, Director of the National Institute of South China Sea Studies in Hainan, described the inclusion of Japan after eight years in US and India’s expanded annual navy drills in the Bay of Bengal as the US “attempting to corner China in the Asia-Pacific.” He explained that “Japan would like to relieve the pressure from disputes with China in the East China Sea, while India wants to increase its strength and gain more say in the South China Sea issue in a bid to seek development in Southeast Asia.”
Commenting later in March on a US proposal that “Australia, Japan and India take part in joint naval patrols in the South China Sea,” the Global Times said since India has “major power ambitions as well as a non-aligned foreign policy, it is not possible for New Delhi to take sides between Beijing and Washington.” Nevertheless, it cautioned that “apart from looking at the China, US and India triangle”, India needs to “consider the China-India-Pakistan strategic triangle.”
India must factor in this while evaluating the Sino-Pakistan relationship and during discussions with China.
The author is a former Addl Secy in Cabinet Secretariat, and is president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. Email: email@example.com