Even in this year’s summit the ASEAN joint statement has not been categorical in pointing the root cause of problem as China’s assertive behavior since no one is willing to bell the cat. Whatever references to China that were made were indirect and there was hardly any country which was willing to call spade a spade.
It is countries like Vietnam and Philippines that are most affected by Chinese aggressiveness which have been very vocal against Beijing’s policies and activities in the SCS. While Philippines has revived its defence pact with the US and is looking towards Washington for succor and help if Chinese push comes to a shove many experts feel that Obama has been amiss in its efforts to ‘rebalance’ in Asia Pacific. Possibly, China had appreciated this persistent weakness on part of America to reposition itself in Asia-Pacific which encouraged China to indulge in its much practiced game of bullying the smaller nations in its maritime neighbourhood.
China has for long been blatantly laying maritime territorial claims in South China Sea based on its so called ‘nine dash line’ which has no legal or historical or for that matter any other internationally accepted norms and rules. The important territories and waters of Scarborough Shoal and Paracel islands are claimed by China based on the above mentioned line and the Chinese action in May is clearly in support of reinforcing such a claim. The nine dash line is objected to by Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
It is well known that China has been adopting long term strategies along its both land and maritime borders to obtain land and maritime areas which it perceives to be its own. Over the years it has used legal warfare, psychological warfare and media warfare to achieve its goals and objectives.
According to a Pentagon Report the aim of such warfare is to weaken the resolve of its opponents and their partners to defend islands and oceans in East and South China seas. Psychological warfare seeks to disrupt adversary’s decision-making capacity, deceive and diminish the will to fight.
Legal warfare can involve enacting domestic law as the basis for making claims in international law and employing bogus maps to justify China’s actions which China has done in the case of the SCS. And media is the platform based on which goals of legal and psychological warfare are achieved. As a manifestation of its ‘three warfares’ China started issuing new passports in end December 2012 with a map showing areas encompassing by nine dash line as Chinese territories as part of its disinformation campaign.
Further, Chinese declaration of ADIZ over East China Sea can be viewed in the perspective of Beijing’s adoption of strategies for legal and psychological warfare. It can also be said that Beijing was largely successful through such a stratagem in achieving its objectives of reinforcing its claims over Senkaku/Diaoyu.
The moot point is whether, as a next step, China would declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea? Given the Chinese propensity for doing things in incremental steps or what can be termed as ‘creeping strategy’, announcement of an ADIZ is quite likely in the coming time. Only a well concerted international pressure and a unified action by the ASEAN can restrain China from adopting such a destabilizing step in the SCS.
India and the international community remain concerned with likely adverse impact created by China’s activities in SCS. Over 50 percent of the oil shipments pass through the SCS which is said to be thrice the amount of traffic as compared to the tanker traffic through Suez Canal. Over 5.3 trillion US dollars worth of trade per year is carried out through the SCS. Thus freedom of navigation through the SCS is an imperative. India has consistently supported the ASEAN nations in their quest for freedom of navigation through the SCS and resolution of the dispute based on the international norms and UNCLOS.
Philippines has taken China to a UN tribunal to adjudicate on Beijing’s claims of nine dash line. Even though China is likely to ignore the verdict, if it is in favour of Manila, it would be a moral victory for Philippines. Vietnamese leaders are also considering following the same course either independently or along with Philippines. This appears to be a good idea as China could be put under pressure not to violate international convention like UNCLOS which Beijing has acceded to.
Recent reports suggest that China has shifted its drilling rig from the previous location but it is not very clear whether the new position is in or outside the continental shelf/EEZ of Vietnam.
Lastly, it is incumbent upon ASEAN, India, Japan, Australia and US to work together in maintaining status quo in South China Sea and encourage China to solve the SCS dispute through peaceful means.
(The author is a Senior Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation)