Beijing’s expansive claims in the strategically important waterway, the South China Sea, are a matter of concern for several countries in the region. While some Asian countries claim portions of the South China Sea that fall within their exclusive economic zones, China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety. This region has thus become a hotspot and any adventurist measures by any of the claimants can result in unintended consequences and dramatically alter the strategic equations among nations. The issue can be resolved if all stakeholders respect rules of law, rights of navigation in international waters, over-flight and rules governing maritime trade. Unfortunately, China rejects all such suggestions and threatens to impose its will by using threat of force.
How to address this situation is now a challenge to not only the claimants to the South China Sea but several outside powers whose maritime commerce would face disruption if peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea is disturbed. The latest country to join the issue is Japan, which has joined a battle of diplomatic notes over the South China Sea, adding to pressure on Beijing. In a note verbale – a type of diplomatic communication – Japan’s permanent mission to the United Nations said China’s “drawing of territorial sea baselines … on relevant islands and reefs in the South China Sea” failed to satisfy conditions set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It also accused China of restricting freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea.
Earlier when the Philippines had moved the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague for arbitration, it won the case in its favour in 2016. The tribunal rejected Beijing’s claims observing that several of the land features were “low-tide elevations” without territorial waters. Beijing rejected the award, being aware that the tribunal did not have law-enforcing authority. In its note addressing the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Japan said that China has not accepted the 2016 award, and “has asserted that it has ‘sovereignty’ in sea and airspace surrounding and above those maritime features found to be low-tide elevations”. Japan’s concerns are that “China protests the over-flight of Japanese aircraft in the surrounding Mischief Reef and attempts to restrict the freedom of over-flight in the South China Sea”.
Thus, Japan became the first Asian country outside of Southeast Asia that spoke out for its own interests and coordinated with other countries to prevent excessive activities that threaten pace, stability and development in the region as well as the freedoms of high sea in the South China Sea. China is worried that Japan’s note to the UN shall contribute to accelerating the internationalization of the South China Sea. Japan’s move also signals that Yosihide Suga, who chose Vietnam and Indonesia for his first overseas visits after coming to power, is serious to strengthen relations with the countries in the region. This is a worry for China.
Japan taking up the issue at the UN is significant because it had earlier urged Beijing to accept the ruling of the tribunal but never before took up its grievance before the UN in this matter. Japan itself has its own territorial disputes with China in the East China Sea but now chose a tough stance to openly challenge China’s activities in South China Sea. This oceanic space is a potential military flashpoint between China and several other claimants and the United States because of its geostrategic location. The South China Sea is rich in oil and gas reserves and natural resources in its sea bed and China’s aim is to take control of these resources by first claiming ownership in its totality so that no outside country can make any claim to such resources when harvested. It is also the most exciting sea routes in the world as over $5 trillion of merchandise goods transit through the South China Sea every year and any disruption in this maritime commerce can severely and negatively impact the economies of many countries. But China seems determined to control the South China Sea to prove its position and strength to the world.
In continuation of the tough stance adopted by the outgoing Abe Shinzo administration, the administration of Suga chose to go on a diplomatic overdrive to take up cudgels against China at the UN after receiving unsatisfactory response from China in a high-level consultation on maritime affairs wherein Japanese diplomats lodged a protest against the growing presence of Chinese coastguard vessels near the Senkaku Islands. The Senkaku Islands are known as the Diaoyus in China, Diaoyutai in Taiwan and Senkaku by Japan and all three entities believe they have a legitimate claim to the islands. Therefore the timing of the note verbale is significant.
The United States which has a long battle with China on economic and trade issues is also concerned about China’s growing assertiveness and threatening posture on many regional and international issues and therefore Japan being a close ally shall welcome that it choose a tougher stance against China. In the US perspective, it would make no difference whether a Republican or a Democratic President is in office and therefore Joe Biden is likely to continue with Donald Trump’s tough stance on China.
It needs to be noted that there seems to be greater convergence of interests on the issue of South China Sea between several countries, many outside of the region. By issuing the diplomatic note at the UN urging Beijing to comply with the landmark 2016 ruling, Japan joins the US, Australia, Britain, France and Germany outside of the region, as well as rival claimants Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines in urging Beijing to respect the tribunal’s ruling. The addition of Japan to the international legal coalition would add greater strategic heft to Japan’s global standing on issues of global concern.
Japan’s latest position on South China Sea could harden Beijing’s position on the East China Sea. Japan’s guarded protest at the UN against China on the issue of over-flight and mention of “low-tide elevation” without territorial waters and making a specific reference only to Mischief Reef could be for its consideration that Beijing could complicate bilateral ties on the Senkaku Islands issue. The fact that China has occupied Mischief Reef and built a military base there after turning it into an artificial island, an area also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, assumes greater importance as Japan’s position could be seen as endorsing other nations’ position. The truism however is that Japan seems convinced that China’s growing assertiveness in both seas – South and East China Seas – “has common roots in nationalism and expansionist intent”. Despite that international pressure on China to change course is growing, it seems unlikely that Beijing shall change its position.
Position of Vietnam to Japan’s move
Vietnam is already engaged in oil drilling activities in collaboration with friendly countries such as India in areas that fall within its exclusive economic zone of South China Sea defying China’s assertion of total control of the area. India’s OVL, overseas arm of the ONGC, is already there on Vietnam’s invitation drilling oil despite threat from China. India has said in no uncertain terms that it would defend its interests if there is any Chinese attempt to disrupt its activities and would be ready to deploy its Navy to defend its national and maritime interests. Now Hanoi is proceeding with joint drilling ventures with Japanese firms in the disputed waterways despite the failure of similar projects with other countries. If Vietnam goes ahead, China is likely to test Vietnam through maritime provocations if the energy ventures go ahead.
It may be recalled that Japanese energy firm Inpex settled a four-year legal battle against a Singaporean firm in November 2020 to retain its oil and gas concession with Vietnam in the South China Sea. Japan won the rights to drill in some of the world’s most fraught offshore fields. Vietnam also approved field development plans for Blocks 05-1B and 05-1C for the Japanese firm.
Inpex is aware that a joint project between the Vietnamese state energy company PetroVietnam and the Russian giant Rosneft at a nearby field collapsed in July 2020 following a year of on-and-off stand-offs between the drilling rigs and Chinese maritime forces. Operations in a nearby field were also halted after a deal between PetroVietnam and the Spanish firm Repsol was cancelled in 2017, allegedly under Chinese threats of military attacks. The following year, Repsol pulled out of its final concession with PetroVietnam. Despite these ugly incidents, Japan is ready to join the battle and not willing to succumb to Chinese threat. In the wake of this, a trilateral cooperation between India, Japan and Vietnam can yield concrete outcome and possibly deter China from any further adventurism. Hanoi is hopeful that Japanese involvement in drilling oil and gas shall proceed without any hiccup but is ready to deal with another country that dare attempt to cross the red line.
Choices for Beijing
China is well advised to give up the 9-dash line claim so that its national interests are not dramatically affected. This is the international trend, which Beijing should be expected to honour. International opinions against Beijing’s illegal claims are rising and if Beijing ignores such opinions, it would be at its own peril. This is because China’s claims lack legal basis. More than 80 organisations and associations in Europe, Canada, Australia, the United States and Japan have sent letters to the foreign ministers of UK, Japan and India urging them to speak out against China’s claims in the South China Sea. It is to be seen how Beijing would deal with this as international pressure is building up. Beijing needs to realise that its 9-dash line sovereignty claim hinders negotiations on settlement of disputes in South China Sea and also affects its relations with many other countries. Given the world now increasingly inter-connected, that would be a bad choice if Beijing does not relent. Also, its soft power element in foreign policy would have dramatically diminished as it would have lost friends within the ASEAN grouping and elsewhere.
Is China bothered about such possible negative consequences? From all available indications, the short answer seems to be ‘NO’ as conceding from its often-stated position would mean giving up its ambition “the Chinese Dream”. Are we then heading to the Thucydides Trap, argued by Harvard political scientist Professor Graham Allison in 2015 which identified scenarios in which a rising power challenges the dominance of an established power and that the dominant power is likely to respond with violence? In this case, the established power, the United States, is being challenged by a rising power, China, and since both these powers are in possession of nuclear weapons, consequences could be enormous for both sides and the world if war breaks out. As a prelude to such a scenario unfolding, a new “cold war” is already brewing between the two and unless halted now and not allowed to go further, the world’s future could look grim. All stakeholders ought to prevail upon China that it sees reason of such potential perilous consequences if it does not change course. The South China Sea issue must not be allowed to be the caucus bellie for a global conflagration.
US ups the ante
In order to send a stern message to China, the United States deployed the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea on 9 February. It was to demonstrate the US Navy’s ability to operate in challenging environments. The strike groups conducted a multitude of exercises aimed at increasing interoperability between assets as well as command and control capabilities. By this dual-carrier operation the US assures its partners and allies in the region that it is committed to maintain peace and to promote a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The last time the US conducted dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea was in July 2020, when Ronald Reagan and Nimitz carrier strike groups twice operated together in the South China Sea. This deployment not only shall reassure the partners and allies in the region of the US support but also send a message to China against going on an overdrive and violate global rules for its selfish interests.
Choice for the ASEAN states
Despite that there are some differences in the ASEAN grouping as was the case in the recent developments in Myanmar, recent survey shows that majority of ASEAN will choose the US over China if forced to decide on their positions on the South China Sea. Outside of the ASEAN grouping, Japan emerges as the most trusted partner. There is greater confidence on the Biden administration among the ASEAN member states and that can help in coping with the China challenge. Despite China’s economic heft, combined with its military power, it is seen as a potential threat to the respective member states of the grouping’s interest and sovereignty. In view of these developments, an India-Japan-Vietnam trilateral mechanism can be a promising prospect to deal with such regional issues as and when they arise.