By Colonel Abhay Balkrishna Patwardhan (Retd)
The emergence of South China Sea (SCS) as a major explosive flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific region in the second decade of the 21st Century, owes its origin to China’s acts of aggression against Vietnam in the form of capture of the Paracels Islands in 1974 and the Spratly Islands in 1988.
China justified her sovereignty over the captured Paracels and Spratlys Islands on historical claims dubiously going back to antiquity. SCS as a ‘Core Interest’ synchronises with Chinese strategic ambitions to emerge as the predominant power in the Western Pacific. Since 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in enunciating his ‘Chinese Dream’ to propel China into a Superpower status, had made China’s illegal claims to the SCS, the ‘centrepiece of the strategy’ and hyped China’s domestic pitch to ‘Hyper-Nationalism’ levels in its support.
China has two priorities in the South China Sea; viz. (a) establishing near seas claims/sovereignty, and (b) furthering far seas interest. The Chinese authorities are quite confident that their land mass is secure except for irritation in Xinjiang and Tibet. The current step is to secure the areas between the coasts to near seas. A review of Chinese missile and naval development suggests they are getting ready to thwart any external interference in the near seas by the United States, and the East Sea by Japan. Securing SCS means one step forward into the Indian Ocean through strategic holding points and construction of 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
They have stepped up construction of a naval base in Djibouti and have already sounded out Maldives and Seychelles. Sri Lanka is a secured/confirmed customer through the development of Colombo and Hambantota Ports. Gwadar Deep Sea Port is being constructed by China and managed by a Chinese state-owned company in Pakistan. Construction of a deep sea port in Bangladesh by China has been discussed by both, but not firmed up as yet.
China strongly maintains that no conflict exists in the South China Sea and the maritime expanse, delineated by the Nine Dash Claim Line there, are her sovereign Chinese territory and waters. China till date has not provided precise coordinates of its Nine Dash Line since her control of the Paracels and Spratlys Islands which are military essentials for effective maritime domination of the SCS.
The Nine Dash Line: This unilateral declaration of the Nine Dash Claim Line amounts to China laying sovereignty claims over virtually the entire strategic maritime expanse of SCS and the various land forms of islands, reefs, and shoals that dot this Sea. China’s provocative acts of aggression around the Paracels and Spratlys Islands continue unabated to date as evidenced by China’s oil rig provocations in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Such acts are not limited only to Vietnam but also extend to the Philippines.
Consequently, China today is not only in conflict with Vietnam over its SCS claims on Paracels and Spratlys Islands but also with the Philippines with which it recently has had armed confrontations. Apart from this, other ASEAN countries which have littorals on the SCS and on whose maritime sovereignty domains China’s Nine Dash Line threateningly impinges also have a problem with China.
China’s threat perception because of these developments is now palpably perceived in the Asia Pacific. This has resulted in an ‘Arms Race’, particularly of the Regional Navies. If East China Sea Military Standoff between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands is added to this, total ‘risks of conflict picture’ of the Western Pacific appears to be hostile. Risk potential of South China Sea become volatile if security stakes of US in the South China Sea are also added to this.
US has since long upheld the principle of ‘Freedom of the High Seas’ and ‘Freedom of navigation through Global Commons’, and therefore, has military contingency plans in place for dealing with any potential SCS armed conflicts. This brings China into direct conflict with the US, if China opts for applicability of its national maritime laws to the SCS maritime expanse and the US is determined to challenge and breach them in near future.
China’s Grand Strategy in the Asia Pacific revolves around three strategic aims; firstly, emerge as “the power” in the Asia Pacific with the domination of the Western Pacific; secondly, emerge as the strategic co-equal of the US and, thirdly, prompt the exit of US Forward Military Presence from the Pacific. China’s mastery of the South China Sea along with the East China Sea thus emerges as a Chinese Strategic Imperative to achieve these strategic aims.
SCS maritime expanse links the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and traversing through the SCS are vital sea-lanes which have crucial significance not only in economic terms but also in military terms in the context of global and Asian power rivalry. The US, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines have the greatest stakes in SCS followed by India, Australia, and Russia.
Paracels and Spratlys Island group are geo-strategically located and so aligned in the South China Sea that developing military infrastructure on these islands has enabled China to establish naval dominance over the entire SCS. Paracels Islands, in full military control of China since 1974, are in close proximity of China’s major naval base on Hainan Island where the Chinese Sanya Naval Base houses Chinese Nuclear Attack Submarines.
Extensive military infrastructure: China has developed extensive military infrastructure in the Paracels Islands to enable her to extend its naval punch that much more into the Pacific. It also enables China to have dominance over the SCS sea-lanes and Western Pacific littoral surrounding it. Spratlys Islands, though much away from the Chinese coast, are of strategic importance to China because of their commanding location which offers China the military leverages for sea control of her maritime expanse by dominating heavy volume sea traffic traversing SCS.
It also helps China both in her defensive and offensive strategies of her fast evolving blue waters naval capabilities and forces projection. SCS under the strategic and military mastery of China enables China to strangle the jugular vein of US military allies in the Western Pacific and impacting US forward military presence in the Western Pacific.
China’s blueprint to gain complete mastery over the South China Sea has been a graduated one. Capture of the Paracels Islands followed by a gap of over a decade to capture the Spratlys Islands was done to facilitate build up of Chinese naval capabilities to sustain control over the distant Spratlys islands. It was followed by strongly fortifying them as garrisons and creation of naval and air force infrastructure for dominance of the SCS.
China then added legitimacy to the control of these Islands and SCS waters in 1992 through “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Territorial Waters and Contiguous Areas” and by establishing of Sansha Islands District in 2007. SCS is important for the use of its maritime lanes through which US $ 5 Trillion worth of trade moves including oil tankers; oil and gas reserves; seabed minerals; fish stocks and food and protein. SCS issue is also closely connected with President Xi Jinping’s strategic flagstaff “China Dream” projects which will conclude its first major step by 2022 when he is due to retire.
China exercises its maritime control over the entire South China Sea expanse through combat-ready Chinese naval patrols and Aircraft Carrier exercises to demonstrate that this expanse is sovereign Chinese waters controlled through her military and legislate laws. China has also included the southern segment of the SCS, touching Natuna Islands of Indonesia impinging on her maritime sovereignty, in her plan.
China is also involved in East China Sea dispute with Japan by declaring an ADIZ supported by her combat-ready naval and air force patrols over international waters in that area. To achieve complete mastery over the SCS, China has fortified its military presence there in the form of newly constructed artificial islands, airstrips, naval jetties, military surveillance set-ups and logistics dumps
China joined the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) in 1996 but had conjured up the “historic claim” to support its claim over the South China Sea even before that. In fact, the Nine-Dash Lines Claim was originally made by the Nationalist government of China before they lost to the communists. The much-awaited ruling of The Hague International Arbitration Tribunal (HIAT) decision on the SCS case filed by the Philippines against China over disputed maritime claims finally came on 12 July 2016. Manila had taken the case to the tribunal in 2013, following Beijing’s overbearing and aggressive attitude in its territorial waters.
China declined to contest the Philippines. The Tribunal, Constituted under Annex VII of the UNCLOS rejected Chinese claims on “historic grounds”, saying that the rocks, reefs, and islands have been used by fishermen from ancient times and no country ever had administration over these features.
Chinese propaganda: China expected the ruling to go against it as the Nine Dash Lines Claim is a self-drawn map. Therefore, China went into propaganda mode even before the verdict came out. China and the US both face hard choices in their policy options in the wake of HIAT delivering an ‘Adverse Ruling’ on China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea. China has denounced the award of HIAT as a farce and a trash of paper and has accused the US of deploying 2,50,000 troops, 5 Aircraft Careers, 250 Naval Vessels and more than 1,500 Military Aircraft in the Asia-Pacific with an aim to contain China. China’s knows that irrespective of this massive force, the US is not entitled to implement the verdict of the arbitration.
Japan and India need to calibrate firm stands on South China Sea conflicts. While Japan is actively involved, including joint patrols with the US, India has hesitated so far in a more explicit display. India needs to recognise that the security of the Indian Ocean lies and is much dependent on China being checkmated in the SCS. India is a case of consequence here; for India not only has an interest in the freedom of navigation in SCS as a global common, it also has a moral right to take a position.
In past, India has accepted a decision of this very Tribunal in a dispute over the Bay of Bengal claims with Bangladesh. China wants dialogue as per the Declaration of Conduct in the SCS signed in 2002 between China and the ASEAN. China is concerned about a possible alignment of the US, Japan, India, and Australia formed against it. She has been closely watching the Malabar Naval Exercises between these countries. This year, Japan became a permanent member of these annual exercises. Moreover, relations between Japan and India are growing at an increased pace to utter discomfort of China.
Strategic Reality check of South China Sea conflict would indicate that both the US and Russia could not afford to be passive spectators. Both the US and Russia have declared their respective strategic pivots to Asia Pacific in quick succession. Both the US and Russia perceive significant strategic stakes in the security and stability of the conflict-prone SCS region. US and Russia cannot continue to hold on to their strategic and military diffidence on SCS conflicts for long, as China’s stubbornness in not yielding to any conflict management, conflict resolution or risk reduction initiatives may ignite the short fuse in the SCS.
Chinese exploitation of its military asymmetries in proceeding aggressively in its territorial dispute with Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines, has left no options for these countries but to build-up their combat potential against China’s looming maritime strengths. Japan and India as major Asian powers also have significant stakes in the security and stability of the SCS region. Both Japan and India have territorial disputes with China and in their threat perceptions, the China Threat figures significantly. Vietnam as the pivotal state in South East Asia is robustly battling conflict escalation by China in the SCS. Vietnam has a Strategic Partnership with India and Indian security ties with Japan are growing.
Global media has widely covered the verdict given by the HIAT against China’s claims to sovereignty enclosing the South China Sea with its highly publicised ‘Nine Dash Line’. Since China shows no signs of relenting on its aggression in SCS conflicts, the US, in a repeat of history of sixty-five years ago should seek United Nations military intervention under a United Nations Command like she did during Korean War in 1953. If the US does not seek immediate UN intervention, then the only remaining alternative is a full blown conflict in which the US may have to initially initiate hostilities on its own and let actions and reactions take its own course.