China has silently stretched over the last decade a String of Pearls, a network of military and commercial facilities developed by them in countries falling on the Indian Ocean between the Chinese mainland and Port Sudan.It is a strategic encirclement of India, a carefully crafted designing that has been going on for the past several years.
Xi Jinping has vowed to make China great again. The historical Opium Wars had delivered a critical blow to the Chinese psyche, and, since then, reviving the ancient glory of China has been a secret ambition of all Chinese leaders. Military modernization and building “world class forces” is an integral component in the strategy to make China great again. Land borders and coastlines are being redrawn aggressively to boost the geostrategic status. The Indo-Tibetan border (China occupied Tibet – COT) has been activated to trigger significant tensions. Xi Jinping is opiated with delusions of a grand ‘China Dream’, and redrawing the Indo-Tibetan border is a priority ambition.
The hectic military preparations never anticipated the ‘Modi Storm’ at the other end, that threatens to convert the ‘China Dream’ into a ‘China Nightmare’. This will doubtless be a challenging time, Xi’s greedy vision encountering Modi’s resolute defiance.
Ever since the Chinese forcibly occupied Tibet in 1950 and enslaved the Tibetans, they have aggressively pursued a policy of claiming large chunks of Indian territory under the garb that it is disputed.
After the occupation of Tibet, wars erupted between India and China in 1962, conflict in NathuLa the Tulung La ambush in 1967, 2017 Doklam Plateau standoff, and the latest 2020 Ladakh confrontation.
There is an air of trepidation around the world, two nuclear forces in confrontation mode, a belligerent China intimidating a resurgent India under the dynamic tutelage of Shri. Narendra Modi. The pusillanimity of the Nehruvian era stands replaced by a dynamic urge to repulse, to compel cooperation and readiness to match Chinese bellicosity.
Tibet is an ancient nation with a recorded history dating back to 127 B.C.E. The Tibetan Empire reached its peak during the 7th and 8th centuries, conquering parts of Nepal and India, the Silk Route states, and briefly even T’ang China. The Tibetan kings imported Buddhism from India from the 6th to the 9th century, and became so devoted to its teachings of nonviolence and enlightenment that they neglected their empire.
In 1949 and 1950, the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China invaded the eastern provinces of Amdo and Kham. In 1951, over forty thousand battle hardened Chinese soldiers marched unopposed into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. It took the People’s Liberation Army only two weeks to surround and capture Tibet’s army, including the country’s governor-general and his staff. With the army destroyed and no response to Tibet’s appeals to the United States, India and Britain for aid, the newly enthroned fifteen-year-old Dalai Lama sent a delegation to Beijing to negotiate. On May 23, 1951, the delegation had no other option but to sign the Seventeen-Point Agreement which accepted Chinese control over Tibet in exchange for promises to leave the Dalai Lama in control of the country’s internal affairs and Tibet’s religion and culture untouched—promises the Chinese broke almost immediately. Since the invasion, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed as a result of the Chinese occupation. By 1969, approximately 6,250 monasteries, the cultural centres of Tibetan life, had been destroyed. Prisons and labour camps are among the most common methods of persecution. Numerous Tibetans have perished from starvation and hard labour while in captivity. The most serious threat facing Tibetans is the systematic transfer of Chinese people into Tibet. More than 8 million Chinese have now settled in Tibet, a population transfer that threatens to overwhelm the remaining 6 million Tibetans and their distinct ancient Buddhist culture. Most of Tibet’s monasteries were destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s during China’s Cultural Revolution. Thousands of Tibetans are believed to have been killed during periods of repression and martial law. The Dalai Lama says 1.2 million people were killed under Chinese rule.
In March 1959, spiritual leader Dalai Lama escaped from his homeland in Tibet amid a Chinese crackdown and was granted refuge in India. India granted the Tibet leader asylum on April 3, 1959 and permission to establish a government-in-exile in the northern hill station of Dharamsala, already a sanctuary for thousands of Tibetan exiles fleeing Chinese repression.
Not satisfied with gobbling up Tibet, the Chinese want to roll down the Himalayas into India. If India is not alert it will face a similar situation as Tibet. Vast chunks of Indian land are being claimed by the Chinese from time to time to suit their expansionist designs. Buddhist pacifism and Hindu tolerance cannot subdue Chinese bellicosity. The time has come to resurrect Warrior-Monks or Dom Doms of Tibet.
The Indo-Tibetan border is now claimed to be the Indo-Chinese border, new border disputes are being raked up and China now occupies 38,000 sq km of Indian territory in Aksai Chin. Fresh claims have been made on Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. These led to the recent clashes between the PLA and the Indian Army in Galwan area on 15 June 2020.
Dr. G. Shreekumar Menon, IRS, (Rtd) PhD (Narcotics), is former Director General, NationalAcademy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, & Multi-Disciplinary School OfEconomic Intelligence India, Fellow, James Martin Center For Non Proliferation Studies,USA. Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA , Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A.,AOTS Scholar, Japan
The die has been cast. The World is getting divided. There are enough signs of a no-holds barred economic war between nations wedded to democracy on one side and expansionist China with countries inextricably tied to it due to the economic stranglehold on the other. After the Indian Army pushed back China in the Galwan Valley and banned its money spinning apps, and challenged both its military might and sway in digital technologies, trade and commerce, we now have a scenario where China is against the wall due to so many factors. And this, despite its position as world’s leading economic power. China is now hyper active on the world stage to counter the Quad.
At the Quad meeting between the US, India, Japan and Australia, earlier this month, US President Joe Biden renewed commitment to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values, free from coercion and also announced the launch of an “ambitious new joint partnership” to boost vaccine manufacturing, for the global benefit and strengthen vaccinations to benefit the entire Indo-Pacific region. He also underscored the Quad is going to be a vital arena for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stamped the moment by reiterating that the Quad will now remain an important pillar of stability in the region.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined the discussion by asserting that together the Quad nations will create a different future. It is the Indo-Pacific that will now shape the destiny of our world in the 21st century, he asserted.
The Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga echoed the same sentiment by stating that Japan-Australia-India-U.S. leaders working together will help in realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Days later, addressing his first press conference after his swearing-in, the US president had underscored “a stiff competition with China, while pointing to China’s overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world. Biden also used this important interaction with the media to categorically drive home the message that it is not going to happen during his presidency and the United States are going to continue to grow and expand.
Picking China in no uncertain terms, Biden also informed media-persons at this press meet that he has already told Jinping in straight terms: “as long as you and your country continues to so blatantly violate human rights, we’re going to continue, in an unrelenting way, to call to the attention of the world and make it clear what’s happening to the Uighurs, what’s happening in Hong Kong”.
Besides the message delivered through the Quad, China also has been facing the heat on the issue of forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region and the call for boycott of goods produced through blatant violation of human rights.
Expansionist China Expansionist China, which has a long standing territorial dispute with India and Japan, is also locked in South China Sea disputes over maritime and island claims with Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. The strategic importance of South China Sea can be gauged from the fact that a third of the global maritime trade and close to 40 per cent of China’s total trade passes through the South China Sea shipping lanes.
To ensure strategic balance in the South China Sea, U.S. warships and aircraft have frequently been moving into that area in a “show of force” and carrying out exercises in the disputed waters.
Then there is the Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy, a brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping adopted in 2013 to invest in close to 70 countries to build economic land and rail transportation routes through Central Asia. China describes the Belt and Road Initiative, which has 2049 as the deadline for completion, as “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.”
Significantly, India, a major regional power, has refused to join China’s Belt and Road project. India has point blank declined to join the BRI because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is integral to the BRI, passes through Pak occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Notwithstanding the fact that China is Australia’s largest trading partner and also their interdependence economically – China needs raw matrial from Australia, while Australia ships almost a quarter of its exports to China – the situation has reached such a pass that Australia is now thinking in terms of diverting much of its shipment to other countries.
China-Iran: Comprehensive Partnership During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s six-nation tour to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Oman, Bahrain and the UAE, China and Iran on Saturday 27 March 2021 signed what has been described by a section of the media as a 25-year “Political Strategic and Economic Treaty”.
The treaty was signed by Wang Yi and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. From China’s point of view, the pact with Iran is significant especially due to the Belt and Road Initiative in the region.
During his meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhan, who has hailed the Iran-China strategic partnership as ‘major step’, the Chinese Foreign Minister reiterated that China’s willingness to develop the China-Iran relations will not change.
In Riyadh Wang batted for a five-point initiative to achieve security and stability in the Middle East. The fine-tuning of the objectives of Wang’s West Asia tour obviously points to an attempt by China to counter the takeaway and the deep message conveyed to the entire world by Biden, Modi, Morrison and Suga when they went on a virtual platform for the Quad Summit.
Wang spoke of mutual respect, upholding equity and justice, achieving non-proliferation, collective security, and accelerating development cooperation in Riyadh.
China also is in an overdrive mode to counter sanctions over the “Xinjiang forced labour” narrative. In a latest move, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has responded to unilateral sanctions on Chinese officials over Xinjiang by announcing sanctions against two US individuals, one Canadian politician and entity on Saturday. China has also sanctioned nine UK individuals and four entities following what it has decried as “their provocative statements”.
The Chinese mouthpiece Global Times said in a report Sunday that the “West has forced companies including H&M, Nike to politicize the Xinjiang cotton supply chain issue and pushed them to offend Chinese consumers and the market. It is inevitable that they will be punished by the market”.
The Global Times report goes on add “Foreign brands may see their total enterprise value, in perspective of growth prospects, reduced by about 50 percent in five years, due to their groundless vilification over cotton…”
Chinese Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe, on Friday during a visit to the site of Chinese Embassy in former Yugoslavia, said: “The Chinese military will never allow history to repeat itself as China is capable and determined to defend its national interests,” Wei Fenghe was there to pay tribute to martyrs in Belgrade, where the Chinese Embassy in former Yugoslavia was bombed by NATO in 1999.
Chinese Foreign Ministry also said on Friday that the US-led NATO, owes a debt to the Chinese people, in the backdrop of the condemnation of NATO by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the Serbia’s nation-wide commemoration of the deaths of thousands of innocent people by NATO.
On March 25, China and Turkey kept the Quad Summit in perspective when they agreed to oppose what they described as “attempt by some countries to politicize the COVID-19 vaccine cooperation” and pledged to continue their cooperation in fighting the pandemic.
A day earlier, Hungarian President Janos Ader had also said that Hungary and China will continue to strengthen cooperation on anti-pandemic, economy, trade, tourism and military affairs, and would promote in-depth development of the Hungary-China comprehensive strategic partnership.
These are not merely utterances. In fact, the die has been cast. The world is getting divided and there are enough signs of a no-holds barred economic war between nations wedded to democracy on one side and expansionist China with countries inextricably tied to it due to the economic stranglehold on the other. After the Indian Army pushed back China in the Galwan Valley and banned its money spinning apps, and thereby challenged both its military prowess and sway in digital technologies, trade and commerce, we now have a scenario where China is against the wall due to so many factors. And this, despite its position as world’s leading economic power. China is now hyper active on the world stage to counter the Quad by embracing allies or by trying to build new alliances in West Asia, and with countries of Central and Eastern Europe to retain its stranglehold on national economies.
Washington DC: The US has blasted Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea stating they are completely unlawful, as is China’s campaign of bullying to control them.
Michael R Pompeo, the US Secretary of State has said that USA champions a free and open Indo-Pacific and the U.S. policy now is being strengthened in a “vital, contentious part of that region — the South China Sea”.
Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.
Pompeo has further stated that in the South China Sea, the US seeks to preserve peace and stability, uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce, and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes. The US has deep and abiding interests with its many allies and partners who have long endorsed a rules-based international order.
The statement by Pompeo goes on underscore that these shared interests have come under unprecedented threat from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beijing uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion, and replace international law with “might makes right.” Beijing’s approach has been clear for years. In 2010, then-PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his ASEAN counterparts that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” The PRC’s predatory world view has no place in the 21st century.
The US has further stated: “The PRC has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region. Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its “Nine-Dashed Line” claim in the South China Sea since formally announcing it in 2009. In a unanimous decision on July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention – to which the PRC is a state party – rejected the PRC’s maritime claims as having no basis in international law. The Tribunal sided squarely with the Philippines, which brought the arbitration case, on almost all claims.
As the United States has previously stated, and as specifically provided in the Convention, the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both parties. Today we are aligning the U.S. position on the PRC’s maritime claims in the SCS with the Tribunal’s decision. Specifically:
The PRC cannot lawfully assert a maritime claim – including any Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims derived from Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands – vis-a-vis the Philippines in areas that the Tribunal found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ or on its continental shelf. Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within those areas is unlawful, as are any unilateral PRC actions to exploit those resources. In line with the Tribunal’s legally binding decision, the PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal, both of which fall fully under the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction, nor does Beijing have any territorial or maritime claims generated from these features. As Beijing has failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim in the South China Sea, the United States rejects any PRC claim to waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands (without prejudice to other states’ sovereignty claims over such islands). As such, the United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia). Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful. The PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to (or derived from) James Shoal, an entirely submerged feature only 50 nautical miles from Malaysia and some 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast. James Shoal is often cited in PRC propaganda as the “southernmost territory of China.” International law is clear: An underwater feature like James Shoal cannot be claimed by any state and is incapable of generating maritime zones. James Shoal (roughly 20 meters below the surface) is not and never was PRC territory, nor can Beijing assert any lawful maritime rights from it. The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose “might makes right” in the South China Sea or the wider region.”
As Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of China is improving, its strategy to impose national will (As perceived by its few key leaders), exercise its power and its international behavior is undergoing noticeable change. Besides unprecedented economic growth in last few decades, its technological advancement gave significant boost to its soft as well as hard power. As PLA celebrated its 90th anniversary on 01 August 2017, demonstrating its strengths through various parades, provocative statements, military posturing, exercises, psychological warfare, and propaganda, does it have sufficient confidence to be able to meet the goals set for it, as laid out in China’s Military Strategy document released in early 2015? Is its ambition moving much faster than its capability development,(considering the fact that US defense budget is many times more than China)? Has China started giving teeth to its ‘Active Defense Strategy’by ‘Incremental Encroachment’, based on extending its sovereignty claims on her one sided historical perspective (South and East China Sea, and Doklam Plateau Standoff being a case in point)? Is it that the goal which China had set for itself for 2049, President Xi Jinping wants to achieve by 2021, or in his next term itself? The article attempts to analyse some of these issues.
Chinese Active Defence Strategy turning into Incremental Encroachments
If threats, strategic and military posturing has been going on in South and East China Sea for few years now, Doklam Plateau is a recent incident, involving limited players as compared to South China Sea (SCS). What is significant is that China is increasing its claims based on its own perception of history as it suits them, call it its sovereign territory, and continue encroaching it slowly, stop just short of war, and continue holding it thereafter, thereby resulting in expansion of its territory. Recently, after some increase in its CNP, China has started talking about global role, and its last Military strategy and BRI documents published in 2015 give adequate indicators of its expansionist design, expeditionary role for PLA and China has worked out its restructuring plans accordingly. China is crafting its strategic design for ‘China centric Asia’ with its assertive behavior. China used this strategy in SCS, attempting to convert a feature into island in a manner that SCS becomes a “Chinese Lake”, despite international and legal opposition. China adopted the same strategy in Doklam Plateau also and expected that it will work as per its design, till it met a road block called “India of 2017”.
Why Doklam Plateau was Chosen for Ingress by China?
The events leading to Doklam Plateau stand-off and India China differences prior to that, have been widely covered by numerous authors, but the possible reason of China selecting it as the point to needle India could be:
• India and Bhutan boycotted Belt and Road Forum (BRF), the Doklam ingress could demean both the countries simultaneously.
• Harping on 1890 Treaty by China takes away the logic of Tibet, as a player in dealing with India, thus a subtle message to Dalai Lama that he is not a stake holder in Tibet.
• Test the depth of Indo- Bhutanese security relationship.
• The area being too close to Siliguri Corridor/Chicken’s Neck, India had to be concerned and caught in awkward situation in deciding to intervene or otherwise, thereby getting a message not to challenge Beijing in future.
• As the construction activity was in Bhutanese Territory, a violent Indian reaction was not expected.
• In case India takes action, China can proclaim itself as an innocent victim and blame India to be an aggressor.
China was however surprised by an unexpectedly strong Indian reaction, and then it realized that the point chosen was such, where it had strategic and tactical disadvantages for her in escalating it. China was also surprised that in multiparty democracy like India, all parties are on the same page as far as stand on sovereignty and Doklam Issue is concerned. The end result is that China is extremely disturbed about it, and throwing up fresh provocative statements almost on daily basis, launching psychological and propaganda war, war of words, and resorting to every possible means short of war to put pressure on India to withdraw its troops. The continuation of stand-off is exerting domestic pressure and rattling Chinese Government, which has painted larger than life image of its own power to make everyone follow its dictate. The Indian side on the other side has been relatively balanced, but firm in its stance, making very few statements.
Demarcation of Border/ Defining of LAC Inescapable to avoid Face-offs
Out of 14 countries with which China had border issues, it has resolved with 12 except India and Bhutan, With India, China has been delaying settling the border issue on some pretext or the other, and with Bhutan it has been shifting its claim lines many times. Even if Resolution of border is considered to be a complex problem, the demarcation, delineation and defining of Line of actual Control (LAC), (which is not a line as of now), is an inescapable necessity, because India will remain its neighbor is a geographical fact, which China cannot change. It needs to be understood that with un-demarcated LAC, troops of both sides will patrol as per their own perceptions of LAC; some areas will be common which both sides will patrol to be its own. Every such patrol will be called as intrusion by the other side, hence such face-offs will continue till it’s demarcated, and the identification of its demarcation is made known to troops manning the borders.
Ongoing Power Play on Doklam Issue
Although China has resorted to adopting Sun Tzu principle of ‘winning without fighting’, or make India withdraw its troops without fighting in this case, through psychological and propaganda war, provocative statements, military posturing, exercises, cyber power, but India as a country, with strong leader and operationally experienced military, which has also studied Kautilya along-with Sun Tzu, is well placed to resist any action, without making much noise and maintaining its balance.Military threat or provocative statements cannot be an answer to this problem. The history can be interpreted by both sides to suit their claims, threat to revise policies can be from both sides (If China can talk about rethinking Sikkim/Kashmir policy/ or intervening in Nepal triangle,India can also talk about rethinking Tibet/One China policy or establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan), the militaries have grown both sides, the escalation dynamics of conflict will block growth and economic dreams of both countries, and the reality is that none can deter another.The mistrust between India and China fueled by irresponsible media, articles with rhetoric, Think-tanks and some ‘so called specialists’ reading the events beyond unimaginable limits(Some Chinese media article talking of “Countdown to clash with India is on”, without understanding “Escalation Dynamics”, although Chinese establishment is distancing itself from such statement) has further made the resolution of Doklam Plateau stand-off difficult. Chinese efforts to establish bilateral talks with Bhutan have not materialized, and efforts to involve Nepal have also resulted in response from their Deputy Prime Minister expressing unwillingness to take sides.Despite the fact that both countries don’t want a war, but they will not like to appear weak in resolution process.
Doklam: The Way Ahead
When NSA Ajit Doval went to China to attend NSAs meeting of BRICS on 27and 28 July 2017, any expectations for commencement of meaningful diplomatic engagement was being unrealistic. Any strategic scenario building wargame between Chinese and Indian Forces, if conducted by professionals will conclude that a land border conflict will end up in a stalemate, which is disastrous for the image of President Xi Jinping especially in an election year, besides being economically damaging for both countries. In a border standoff of this kind, neither side wants to appear weak, so the two countries must find a peaceful manner and face-saving gesture to ease tensions. To resolve the current face-off:
• Diplomatic engagement without preconditions will have to commence immediately setting aside hard stands, war of words, and rhetorics. In case either side doesn’t want to be looking compromising to its people, Track2/informal talks can begin as a face saving measure, followed by formal talks. Any precondition laid down by either side, is likely to be resented, and prolong the stand-off.
• Chinese should stop construction of road immediately, honoring sovereignty of Bhutan and Trilateral agreement of 2012.
• Once status quo of pre-standoff period is achieved, military of both sides should pull back to pre-standoff positions simultaneously.
• As a long term measure both China and India should expedite demarcation of LAC on ground, and disseminate it up to the level of troops manning the borders to prevent future face-offs, which is avoidable by cooperative political intent followed by intense diplomatic efforts.
South China Sea: Is Chinese Strategy same as Doklam?
The Similarity in Strategy in both Scenarios
An analysis of similarity in strategy of these two scenarios is relevant for India, as it has stakes in both. The Chinese strategy as described above in case of Doklam Plateau hasalso been adopted in South China Sea, with some differences.This is evident from the fact that China on the pretext of sovereignty claims based on her perspective of historical maritime boundaries has carried out incremental encroachment into South China Sea, as part of her ‘Active Defence Policy’ which is worrisome for other claimant countries, as well as troublesome for other users of South China Sea following UNCLOS. TheChinese Foreign Minister had said “The islands in the South China Sea (SCS) have been China’s territory since ancient times, and China has the right to safeguard its territorial sovereignty”. It indirectly means that the world must accept whatever China claims as part of Qing dynasty or any other historical period as per it’s convenience, as sovereign territory of China. By this flawed logic of China, the entire Pakistan should belong to India; hence India should claim to reunite entire Pakistan to India by 2047/2050, which will be considered absurd/ irresponsible logic by everyone in global community. India along with other users of SCS has stakes in SCS face-off to prevent Chinese future interference in ‘Freedom of Navigation’ on account of major chunk of shipping trade passing through it, freedom of flight, restriction in offshore drilling deals for oil with Vietnam, and use of other global commons in international waters.
The Differences in Both Situations
SCS is a global issue with involvement of superpower US along with other users. China’s strategic competition with US in Asia is a reality, and it is increasingly encroaching into US strategic space and influence, which includes SCS. Military posturing, tough statements and other actions of US, have not helped them much in losing ground, as China has not halted its activities. While the infrastructure development by China in SCS being dual use (civil as well as military), keeps progressing, it is viewed as strategic encroachment by US, regional claimants, and other users of SCS. The strategic and military posturing and occasional hard statements on the claim of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ by US is considered as ‘Disturbance to regional peace’ by China.
China’s assertive actions in SCS have inadvertently distanced her from many old friends having stakes there. The issue of their sovereignty claim over Freedom of navigation claim of others creates suspicion about free flow of global trade. Although China has not obstructed any trade shipping so far, but in future if SCS is allowed to become China’s lake, it may lay down some rules of business inconvenient to other users of SCS and global commons. In case it declares SCS as her ADIZ in future, the freedom of flights over international waters will get affected adversely. With China’s claim that US is destabilizing/militarizing SCS, it may appear to be as China-US issue, but rest of the world including India, whose trade is passing through this crucial global SLOC may not like to see SCS being converted into China’s lake. While China will like to claim her freedom of navigation elsewhere, but her making it a sovereignty issue in SCS may not let it remain a zone of peace. The construction of airstrips, deployment of missiles, radar and other logistics facilities by China are an attempt to convert a ‘Natural Feature’ in SCS into an ‘Island’ and thereby converting the SCS into “China’s Lake” by using provisions of same UNCLOS, which it has been ignoring. These are not happy signs for other regional and global users of the SCS like India and Japan, besides others.
China’s Blatant Refusal to Accept International Court of Arbitration Verdict
While China did not accept nor paid any heed to the International Court of Arbitration Verdict on the case taken up by Malaysia, and has continued to build infrastructure on features to convert them into islands,but it definitely conveyed the global message that SCS cannot be treated as Chinese lake, or US lake, as global SLOC and trade is affected by it.
• It conveyed that Chinese claim of it being her sovereign territory is not being considered convincing. It also gave a message that similar adventurism to claim any global choke-point anywhere in the world, will also invite sharp criticism.
• Increased military movement and exercises in South China Sea by China as well as US and its allies/friendly Navies is indicative of military posturing and War of words. While US, India and Japan may claim that Malabar exercises are not directed towards any country, but it has some hidden messages in it, and future addition of Australia into it will make the message clearer. As per Defence Update of US of July 22, 2017, the US is looking at capacity building of Regional forces like India, Japan and Australia to check expeditionary and expansionist adventures of China.
• For the time being no recognizable change in South China Sea is visualised. The military posturing and show of force by US and China will continue, along with diplomatic efforts to pull other affected countries into their strategic orbit. The other claimant countries can hope for better concessions from both sides as Vietnam was visited by President Obama, as well as Xi Jinping with unprecedented offers. The recent news of China trying to negotiate Doklam Issue with Bhutan directly, or trying to get Nepal into this issue is a case in point for similar strategy.
• It certainly divides ASEAN with each country trying to get the best out of the existing situation and from both the superpowers.
• China’s luring claimant countries to bilaterally resolve South China Sea dispute is unlikely to work. The regional DoC and CoC will not be able to check China’s unilateralism. The use of global commons, however, will continue to be contested by regional and other affected countries, including global powers.
• One point comes out clearly that each contending side reads history, as it suits her in claiming territories, hence historical claims cannot be the overarching basis of territorial resolutions.
• China is neither the first or last country in not implementing international arbitration verdict (in absence of any enforcement mechanism), but the verdict gave the global mood, with some international pressure on Chinese hierarchy. India on the other hand had acted maturely as a responsible nation, by accepting a similar verdict, which was passed to resolve territorial water dispute with Bangladesh last year by the PCA.
• Status Quo is likely to prevail regarding occupation of Islands, reefs and Other features in SCS. No major change in actual ground position can be expected, unless a concrete stand is taken by global community.
Unfortunately, all global and regional players affected have been watching, while China has been conveniently progressing construction. Even the regional claimant countries have been seen to be growing softer on this issue. The strategic and military posturing and isolated provocative/threatening statements and voices of resentments will not help anyone. It therefore needs to be seen that Doklam Issue and its resolution is a test case in checking Chinese hegemony or otherwise. The resolution methodology of Doklam Issue may bring some lessons for SCS also. A peaceful India- China border as well as South China Sea is essential for India, China and everyone’s growth and stability in Indo- Pacific region.
Commonality in the Way Ahead in Doklam and SCS
• China must stop further construction.
• China has to limit its imagination of sovereignty based on one sided historical claims. It needs to respect the ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘ Core National Interests’ of other countries as well, otherwise its arrogance can make other countries take harder stands in future.
• Diplomatic engagement without preconditions will have to commence immediately setting aside hard stands, war of words, and rhetoric’s.
• The theory of deterrence to mould strategic choices will not work. If Vietnam could stand up to China and US, and both are finding problems in dealing with North Korea, then deterring India is unrealistic imagination.
• Military posturing to be controlled by contesting sides.
• International laws, Conventions, Treaties, Agreements need to be respected by all.
• The diplomatic exercise to resolve these should continue simultaneously with commercial engagements.
Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing(2015), Government White Paper, 26 May 2015, Full Text : China Military Strategy, CHINADAILY.COM.CN, Accessed on 28 May 2015.