By Probal Ghosh
The Chinese have overcome the phase of “biding time” in their foreign policy and have started adopting aggressive posturing on issues related to their sovereignty especially at sea. Seemingly, the age old Chinese dictum of hiding one’s capabilities and strategically biding time for an opportune moment, which found a revival in Deng’s “24 Character strategy” on foreign and security policy and was later supported by Hu Jintao – has finally arrived. Giving way to aggressive posturing by the Chinese as evidenced by its numerous moves in the South/East China seas. Currently, visions of the numerous bloody clashes that took place earlier, for example the Paracel Island conflict of 1974 and the Johnson South Reef skirmish of 1988, causing many casualties1 have re-emerged, even though the strategic situation has evolved in many ways today.
This perceptible shift in international posturing probably received its impetus from China’s rapidly growing military capabilities and an increasing sense of having “arrived” at the international geo-strategic scenario. The successful staging of the Beijing Olympics has only reinforced this thought process along with the fact that the world financial crisis that had humbled the Western economic giants had left the Chinese economy relatively unscathed.
One of the main areas which has witnessed this posturing has been the South and East China seas, where the resource laden islands are under dispute. China has reacted energetically to perceived sovereignty slights in these areas.
Interestingly, China claims about 80% of the South China Sea as its own, a claim that is strongly contested by countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, leading to many face-offs. The earlier skirmishes that were at times accompanied by loss of lives have now manifested to classical brinkmanship raising the potentiality for a miscalculation, loss of life and conflict escalation.
Currently, the Chinese view the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea as the so-called “near seas”, which are regions of core strategic interest, along with Taiwan and Tibet. Thus, ostensibly enhancing the strategic importance of these seas and reinforcing their sovereignty claims.
In recent months, due to increased Chinese activities and re-assertion of claims – the oil exploration vessels and fishermen from the Philippines and Vietnam have stated that they have been at the receiving end of considerable Chinese harassment in the South China Sea area. The consequent protest by these two countries is probably one of the primary drivers which led the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton to condemn such acts of “intimidation” in the waters, stating that the US shared a national interest in free navigation through the seas. A statement which was viewed with varying perspectives from different quarters. While it undoubtedly displeased the Chinese – such an American opinion was viewed with considerable relief by the other affected countries especially Vietnam and the Philippines.
Rejecting the bilateral approach propounded by the Chinese in “solving” the problems of South China Sea, against a more commonly sought multilateral ‘ASEAN way’, Clinton went on to state that “Issues such as freedom of navigation and lawful exploitation of maritime resources often involve a wide region, and approaching them strictly bilaterally could be a recipe for confusion and even confrontation.”2
With potential energy resources being the main rationale behind some of the Chinese claims – China has bitterly opposed oil companies from prospecting in disputed areas which are currently not under its control and hence has warned international oil companies from exploratory operations off the coast of Vietnam, claiming that this encroaches on its territorial sovereignty. But Vietnam, occupying more than twenty of the Spratly Islands, has refused to be cowed down by this browbeating big neighbour and has worked despite the protests, reinforcing the international opinion that Vietnam is one of the most determined rivals of China in this region.
In the context of the recent enhancement of tension in the region – the current series of events took a down turn when on 21 June 2012 the Vietnamese National Assembly approved a maritime law claiming sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea. The perception of the Vietnamese side was that this was merely a continuation of a number of provisions in their existing laws, however, the Chinese viewed this development with considerable concern and as a violation of their sovereignty.
In an effort to retaliate quickly, the same day Beijing announced that it had elevated the administrative status of the Nansha (Spratly) and Xisha (Paracel) islands from a county to that of a prefectural-level district.
Further actions by the Chinese followed after two days when on 23 June 2012, the state company CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Company) offered nine offshore blocks, located in what Vietnam claimed was their exclusive economic zone, to international oil and gas companies for bidding.
This reaction was particularly astonishing since it signified a Chinese sovereignty claim over the seas that was a mere 100 miles off from the shores of Vietnam and around 350 miles from the nearest undisputed Chinese territory on Hainan Island.3 Importantly, these blocks on offer by the Chinese overlapped the blocks that had already been sold by the Vietnamese earlier for exploration.
Unfazed by the incredible situation, the Chinese maintained that CNOOC’s offer of inviting oil companies to bid for the blocks was normal business practice and in consonance with international conventions laws and the Chinese laws as well.
However, this ongoing action did not prevent the Vietnamese from going on the verbal offensive against the move. The state-run PetroVietnam urged foreign companies not to bid for these offshore blocks, and its General Director Do Van Hau stated on 27 June 2012 that “These blocks lie deeply on the continental shelf of Vietnam and overlap with Vietnam’s blocks 128 to 132 and 145 to 156.”
Simultaneously, Vietnam tried to persuade companies like the OVL from vacating the block 128 immediately (with Block 127 having been vacated earlier). Probably, in an effort to ensure that China and its companies do not commence exploration operations in this disputed region, thereby, reinforcing Chinese sovereignty claims.
In addition to the above action, China has further taken steps that seemingly enhance the potential to explode and escalate to a serious conflict.
The Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC), has approved the deployment of a garrison of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to guard islands, while an announcement was made that 45 legislators elected to govern the 1,100 people who live on the island groups of the Spratlys, the Paracels and the Macclesfield Bank – (known in Chinese as the Nansha, Xisha and Zhongsha islands) had met for the first time for a meeting.
In the meantime, the standoff with the Philippines continues as Manila and Beijing have also been involved in a dispute for months over Scarborough Shoal – an area off the coast of the Philippines. The situation continues despite frantic diplomatic efforts on the part of the Philippines to resolve the issue.
Implications for India
This peculiar situation and the growing Chinese provocations are in direct conflict with India’s interest. ONGC Videsh (OVL) has been prospecting for oil in Vietnam’s EEZ. In 2006, after having won the international bid to explore Blocks 127 and 128 (Phu Khanh bay) in the territories under dispute but within the Vietnamese EEZ, subsequently, India has since chosen to withdraw due to technical reasons. While Block 127 proved unviable and dry, Block 128 had unfavourable geological conditions and hard rock, difficult to penetrate and hence after considerable dithering, have finally agreed to vacate only to be requested by the Vietnamese to stay for another two years. The Indian operations in Block 6.1 in the undisputed region however continues.
Just about a week ago, a Chinese ship camouflaged as a large fishing vessel was seen operating near the Indian waters at Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The ship, supposedly equipped with 22 laboratories on board to carry out hydrological tests, was closely monitoring Indian missile tests, ship movements and carrying out hydrological surveys to enable future Chinese naval operations in the area. Since the ship was stationed just outside Indian waters, little could be done legally to enforce its eviction.
Further, the amphibious Indian Naval Ship Airavat while returning from a successful tour of SE Asia had to face the Chinese “challenge” from an unknown Chinese warship. The incident happened on 22 July 11 when INS Airavat had sailed from Nha Trang port in south central Vietnam towards Haiphong, where it was scheduled to make a friendly visit about 45 to 50 nm off the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea.
These incidents are hardly unique in their characteristics and conform to a pattern of increasing Chinese assertiveness at sea/on land and a new found determination to reaffirm their sovereignty claims over disputed areas. It is also a situation where the current format of face-offs, relying on brinkmanship, may soon escalate into a bloody conflict on many fronts.
Ostensibly, in an effort to keep off “foreign powers” from the South China Sea region, China has managed to unnecessarily antagonize all well meaning and affected maritime powers like the US and India who seek the stability of the region and its freedom of navigation. Additionally, the recent failure of the 19th ASEAN summit meeting held in July 2012 at Phnom Penh to issue a joint communiqué due to indirect Chinese pressure has laid bare the fragility of the diplomatic process in dealing with the South China Sea issue and the lack of cohesion within the ASEAN against China on the matter.
Thus, the various indicators have a singular focus – the region South China Sea has emerged as the proverbial tinder box waiting to explode. With ineffective diplomatic solutions, disunity amongst ASEAN nations, military buildups, face-offs, brinkmanship etc. the potential for a full-fledged conflict is just enhanced manifold unless all concerned nations are willing to take drastic measures.
(Probal Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He is the Co-Chair of the CSCAP International Study Group on Naval Enhancement in Asia Pacific)