Managing South China Sea Challenge – Analysis


he South China Sea is one of the significant potential flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific region. This important oceanic space contains enormous amount of important raw materials and straddles through exclusive economic zones of some of the countries of the ASEAN bloc, besides being a maritime route through which trillions of dollars of cargo pass through to countries such as China, Japan South Korea and other nations. This global common is being threatened by China through massive land reclamation measures and artificial island building activities, besides militarization with a view of intimidate the small ASEAN nations who have competing claims to areas falling under theirs EEZs. On the other hand, China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety, and threatens the smaller nations engaged in economic activities in their EEZs. When the Philippines won a case at the PCA in July 2016, China spewed venom and rejected the verdict with disdain being aware that the PCA lacks enforcing powers. The Chinese advance continues to surge, leaving the smaller nations in the region under constant fear of Chinese attack. 

This issue is so important and has so huge implications that the geopolitical and geostrategic dynamics are threatened to be altered by China’s unilateral actions that no scenario in the foreseeable future can be made easily. This issue has attracted significant academic discussions engaging scholars from several affected countries to find out if any solutions and policy prescriptions could be made available for the governments to consider. Vietnam has been in the forefront in taking this initiative to debate and engage with scholars of think tanks of other nations in the region. India, though not a claimant to any part of the South China Sea, adheres to the global rules and advocates peaceful resolution to disputes. For a friendly country such as Vietnam, India supports Vietnam’s stance.   

There have been several seminars and conferences in the past to discuss and debate this issue and there shall be many more in the future too. The latest in this exercise was an international conference on this topic organized by the Centre for Security Studies, O P Jindal Global University on November 29 at the India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi that addressed the current challenges and sought to seek future perspectives. Views of 14 eminent Indian scholars from different think tanks and universities of India, two Vietnamese scholars and one Sri Lankan scholar were shared with an enlightened audience comprising of students, scholars, defence personnel, media persons, and diplomats with a view to recommend doable prescriptions for the stakeholders to consider. 

The brainchild of this important day-long brain-storming exercise spread over three sessions and moderated by three able academics and security analysts was Dr. Pankaj Jha of the CSS, who in his introductory remarks said that the purpose was to highlight the evolving dynamics in the South China / East Vietnam sea, and how they would have an impact on great power politics as well as the faith on the international maritime order. He underscored the point that it would be suicidal for the international community to overlook the developments in SCS and thus work out a feasible solution protecting interest of smaller nations. 

While the opening address was made by Professor Sreeram Chaulia, Dean of Jindal School of International Affairs, the special remarks were made by an eminent strategic analyst Professor Brahma Chellaney. Prof Chaulia’s remarks focused on US president Donald Trump’s perspective on the post-US international order. He referred to how that impinges on Beijing’s perception of worldview, seen as a concern for the international community. He exhorted the scholars and academics to raise the issue in every forum to highlight the problems and cautioned that the US has to commit itself to international responsibilities rather than asking for a raise for the costs of stationing US troops in Korea and Japan. He said the all UNSC permanent members should take cognizance of the developments and urge for a meeting of UNSC to highlight the need to take precautionary measures. The draft COC need to be finalized without compromising on the rights of smaller nations such as Vietnam. 

Professor Chellaney said that Vietnam’s response to Chinese activities in Vanguard Bank needed to be noted and lauded. He said that despite dismal and minimum support from international community, Vietnam saw to it that its EEZ and its maritime interests are not hampered and put up a strong resistance to China. He exhorted the global community for more actions, and to demonstrate more commitment to the cause, lest the world will soon see the South China Sea converted into a Beijing lake. He reminded the audience that China has created a reclaimed area in the South China Sea that is equivalent to Washington DC, and it would take lot of ammunition to flatten the reclaimed land. For a free Indo-Pacific Vision, South China Sea is the critical connector. The attention that should be given to the region should be more from India as it impinges on the Indian interests in the Indian Ocean too. The expanding military activities and demarcation of illegal maritime zones by China would lead to the South China Sea coming entirely under Chinese control. He expressed concern that Exxon Mobil, a US company, is planning to withdraw from South China Sea, implying thereby the erosion of US influence and emboldening the Chinese advance further. The withdrawal of Exxon Mobil implied that the company was not sure of US support for its exploration activities. Should that happen, the Chinese would rejoice and see this as a victory for its foray in the South China Sea and consolidate its position further there. 

The first session of the conference was moderated by (present author) Professor (Dr.) Rajaram panda, Lok Sabha Research Fellow and member of the Governing Council, Indian Council of World Affairs, a think tank supported and fully funded by the Ministry of External Affairs. In his initial observations, he cautioned that the time has come to arrest Chinese assertive postures and undertake deep thinking so that the increasing Chinese activities can be curbed, and ensure that China complies with international rules and regulations. He said that the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to which China is a signatory need to be revised and amended so that threat or use of force should be seen as an act of aggression by any dialogue partner. He said that there are a number of issues involved in the strategic sea lanes and it needs ASEAN activism to address these issues so that the ASEAN multilateral organization stay relevant for its members and its centrality is not compromised.

There were four presentations in the first session. Dr Vijay Sakhuja, a maritime expert, observed that while maritime domain awareness and standard operating procedures need to be framed in the context of South China Sea, the challenge is to create marine domain awareness also which is more about undersea minerals, and other valuable resources. Unfortunately, the debate is about maritime zones, not the huge resources which exist and for which China has started exploration and research activities taking non-contentious zones as its domain. He referred to the increasing naval, submarine and air activities and the possibility of accidents with potential debilitating consequences. Oliver Gonsalves of National Maritime Foundation, an Indian Navy think tank, remarked that the oil exploration activities and legitimate research activities have been thwarted by Chinese naval activities and many nations have withdrawn from the EEZ of the claimant states with the exception of China. Chinese dominance in strategic sea lanes has an impact on international trade and commerce and affected marine life as well as fishing activities.

Dr Faisal Ahmed of FORE School of Management underlined the economic aspects of Chinese activities and proposed that the coastal countries and other partner countries can engage in joint exploration, knowledge sharing, and mutual capacity building in this area. Moreover, fisheries in SCS accounts for an estimated 12 per cent of the global fish catch. It is however likely to witness a decline owing to the damaging coral reefs caused due to artificial islands building and installations by China. The marine ecosystem is becoming gradually vulnerable, which is a serious cause of concern. 

Dr. Nguyen Ba Cuong, from Scientific Research Institute of Sea & Islands, Vietnam, made a passionate argument in Vietnam’s defence and highlighted Vietnam’s perspective on developments in the SCS and said that China has dispatched a ship for a months-long seismic survey, together with armed escorts, into Tu Chinh–Vung May Basin along with its continued harassments with Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities in Nam Con Son Basin since June, which is well within Vietnam’s EEZ. These and other developments underscored the increasing violations of China on its neighbours’ EEZ and continental shelves, implying how critical managing and resolving tensions in the South China Sea are for Vietnam and for region. He said that the international community needs to take note of Chinese expansionism, the power of international law in securing the rule-based international system, and the effective balance of power which is essential for maintaining the law and order in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The second session was chaired by Brigadier (Dr.) Vinod Anand, Research Director, Vivekananda International Foundation. He opined that the resolution of SCS is important for the safety and security of the maritime trade and commerce and if not resolved in accordance with international guidelines, the situation would look grim and alarming. Captain Sarabjeet Singh Parmar of the Indian Navy and Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation, opined that the South China Sea is host to multiple case studies revolving round power dynamics, rules-based order, sovereignty of islands, and the interpretation, respect, and adherence to international law.The tribunal ruling on the Philippines-China case can be viewed as a landmark judgement, which unfortunately cannot be enforced as UNCLOS works on the principle of global acceptability. He underlined and analyzed critical aspects that are germane to sovereignty, international laws and related aspects vis-à-vis the South China Sea.

Ms. Sana Hashmi, ex- consultant MEA observed that over the years, China has strived to enhance its naval capabilities in the region, and a major objective behind this naval expansion is to reinforce its sovereignty claims on the South China Sea. The Chinese claims, based on arguably dubious historical precedents, are challenged by a number of countries in the region. So far, some of the claimants involved have maintained strong uncompromising positions. It has internal political dynamics involved in its international posturing. Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh from IDSA said major powers reacted to the South China Sea developments differently. As pointed out by a Chatham House study, while the leadership of Australia, India and Japan, respectively, do not have common views on China, they agree that China must be managed. Neither India, nor indeed Japan or Australia would like to see the relationship with China as a zero sum game. The US takes no position on competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, and has not signed UNCLOS. But the US does encourage all countries to uphold international law, including the Law of the Sea as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, and to respect unimpeded lawful commerce, freedom of navigation and overflight, and peaceful dispute resolution.

Dr. Xuan Vinh Vo, Deputy Director General of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, Hanoi, opined that ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in 2012 failed to release the communique due to the disagreement over the South China Sea dispute. After the release of a separate statement on the current developments in the South China Sea in the wake of China’s illegal deployment of oil rig in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf in 2014, ASEAN’s cooperative spirit has continued to decrease. Although expressing the grouping’s position, phrases such as ‘some leaders’, and ‘some ministers’ have appeared in chairman’s statements and joint communique recently instead of ‘leaders’ or ‘ministers’ as it used to be. The process of COC negotiation process has heavily affected by Chinese approach, especially close economic relations between China and some ASEAN member states. It is difficult for ASEAN and China to reach a legally binding COC in 2021 as scheduled.

Presiding over the last session of the Conference Dr. Jyoti Mankotia Pathania, Senior Fellow, Conflict Resolution and Non Traditional Security of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), an Indian Army think tank, observed that there is a need to look for possible solutions of this problem and the international community will have to undertake the task of bringing order in the region. General Shashi Asthana from United Service Institution (USI) remarked that much has been said about Quad in strategic circles but SCS is the possible theater where the utility of this grouping can be explored. However, it has its limitations. It can be put to tests through group sail and joint exercises. Undertaking surveillance activities and enforcing order through military means should be an option. There are chances of flare up but then the Quad members will have to activate their international standing to force China to comply with international maritime order. He also saw relevance of raising this issue at the United Nations with a view to internationalise it and embarrass China.

Rudroneel Ghosh, Assistant Editor, Times of India gave a media perspective and said that the South China Sea has been in media limelight in recent years due to China’s aggressive activities in the region. Beijing has been building artificial islands and militarizing some of them to bolster its claims over the entire SCS area. This, despite the fact that its so-called Nine-Dash Line cartographical claim was rejected in 2016 by the PCA, a case brought by the Philippines. He cautioned that there is also a tendency to view the SCS issue exclusively through the prism of China and a matter between China and Southeast Asian nations. And this can be counterproductive to sustaining international media attention on the SCS, which is necessary to evolve a consensus-based architecture in line with international law. He stressed for greater media attention to this critical issue that has global relevance.

Dr. Sripathi Narayanan of the Jindal University said the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and Indo-Pacific region symbolises the shift in the global centre of gravity from the Euro-centric Atlantic order to the Asian landmass. The prevailing contestation is not only confined to hegemony and power politics but also scripting the discourse on the global order. While the MSR, as a subset of the BRI is a political articulation stemming out of infrastructure projects, the Indo-Pacific is a reverse, wherein the political posturing is yet to fructify in any visible form. 

In his concluding remarks Dr. Pankaj Jha observed that China’s assertive postures and threatening tactics towards India’s oil exploration initiatives conducted on the invitation of Vietnam in Vietnam’s EEZ and the intimidation through radio messages to Indian naval ships are issues of concern and worry. Given the fact that South China Sea, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits are areas of secondary maritime interest for India, Chinese actions to demarcate the non-contentious area and disputed zones add to India’s worry. The Chinese dominance in South China Sea would trickle down to the Indian Ocean, which is why India will have to make tactical and strategic choices to constrain Chinese actions in the region. Indeed there is a need for dialogue partners on the subject while keeping ASEAN in the loop. There is a need for elevating East Asia Summit for more proactive role in the region.

The issue is too complicated and demands concerted actions by all stakeholders to cope with the China Challenge. There could be differences in the approaches but the ultimate aim and objective has to be towards securing regional peace and stability. In the ultimate analysis, China has to be deterred from the advances it has been making in the South China Sea by its island building, reclamation and militarization activities. The challenge form the stakeholders is huge.

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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