By Ranjit B Rai
The concerns over China’s strident ‘9 dot claim line’ over the Parcels and Spratlys islands as its ‘sovereign sea’ on historical grounds to gain EEZ and territory, vis-a-vis ASEAN’s joint objections have somewhat abated. Though Philippines’ objections to China’s actions in Scarborough Shoal (Huayang Reef) and Vietnam’s over Sansha, still resonate. In October 2011, China reached an agreement with Vietnam not to use force or the threat of force to settle their territorial disputes and inked ‘principles to guide the settlement of maritime disputes’. A hot line was consequently established. Interestingly, UNCLOS (1982) enjoins nations to settle maritime boundaries mutually, though China can legally table its claims to UNCLOS for adjudication. China does not relish the collective approach adopted by ASEAN to discuss the impasse or US’ gun at its head, which is what US’ pivot in the East is about.
ONGC’s investments in Vietnam especially in block 105 with oil and gas production have prospered, but ONGC withdrew its stake in Vietnam Petro in the 2000 meter deep block 128 as unfertile and uneconomical. China has since put the controversial block for bidding. The withdrawal was done despite PM Manmohan Singh’s statement that India had every right to exploit its commercial contracts in Vietnam and China had no right to object, on the eve of the East Asia summit in Manila in last year. President Hu Jintao in his address warned nations to desist from exploring in disputed areas of South China Sea.
In 2002 ASEAN had agreed on the ‘draft guidelines’ for implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and issued it in July 2011. In 2002, China’s moves were not so marked and its economy and naval strength to operate in the area was limited. A decade later, China has a dozen hospital ships, 19 large warships, an auxiliary marine force and an aircraft carrier Shang Li (Variag) for deployment. The 2011 DOC reads ‘the parties to the DOC will continue to promote dialogue and consultations in accordance with the spirit of the DOC’, and adds, ‘Progress of the implementation of the agreed activities and projects under the DOC shall be reported annually to the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting’.
In end July 2012 all ten members of ASEAN met in Phnom Phem in Cambodia and reviewed the South China Sea issues but were unable to issue a joint communiqué. Differences arose. Cambodia broke ranks and was unwilling to embarrass Beijing, despite skirmishes between the Chinese PLAN (People’s Liberation Army’s Navy) and Philippines Navy and the stationing of the Xisha maritime garrison troops with structures on un-inhabited islands. The beefed up PLAN’s Nanhai Fleet from Hainan responsible for South China Sea, has come of age as Chairman Deng, had planned in the 1980s in his maritime strategy.
That the ASEAN leaders were unable to issue any statement makes China feel it has dented ASEAN’s resolve to act jointly. It is now left to the US, a non signatory to UNCLOS to make noises demanding unhindered navigation in the South China Sea. Rightly, India does so too. Thus far China has never acted to stop innocent passage of any ship, but has objected to USN survey ships snooping and military exercises in the area, and may soon ask warships to indicate when transiting the area on ‘innocent passage’, to police unlawful activity. The Indian Navy regularly exercises in the South China Sea with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) during SIMBEXes and is looking at basing facilities at Nha Trang in Viet Nam as USA discusses access to Cam Ranh Bay which irks China.
The renewed bar of a ‘China threat’ in the East has made Philippines rejuvenate its defence ties with US and facilitate its return to Subic Bay, which US forces vacated in 1992. USA direly needs bases for its ‘Pivot in the East’ as Pentagon sketches plans to base 60 per cent of US naval forces in the region. The US already has facilities in Australia for its marine deployment, the deep water Changi naval base in Singapore facilitates its aircraft carriers plus, and with Cam Ranh bay in Viet Nam USA can string Chinese forces in the area.
China on its part, has stated it is willing to enter into discussions with concerned ASEAN states individually and wishes to cut out any US (sic Hillary Clinton) involvement. The storm over disputes in the South China Sea seems to have abated for the present, but darker clouds hover over the dispute as a flash point. India with its non-aligned stance stands interested, but remains on the fence to side with US and ASEAN as it should for the present, and not get drawn into the South China sea imbroglio till freedom of the seas is not denied by China.
Ranjit B Rai
Vice-President, Indian Maritime Foundation