Friday, September 6, 2019

Big Brother Bullying: China’s actions in the South China Sea are bound to lead to counter-mobilisation

There is no denying that the last few months have been extremely tense for the South China Sea (SCS) region. China has been undertaking what can only be described as unilateral, provocative manoeuvres that threaten regional peace and security. A Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 accompanied by Chinese coast guard vessels and often supported by Chinese military aircraft — including H-6K bombers — has not just traversed the contested waters but also intruded deep inside Vietnam’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

In fact, Haiyang Dizhi and Chinese coast guard ships have even tried to interrupt legitimate oil and gas production in Vietnamese blocks. One such block – 06/1 – that has seen a joint venture between India, Russia and Vietnam for oil and gas production for 17 years was targeted by the Chinese with warnings issued through loud speakers. Beijing’s message appears to be that no one can undertake commercial activities in SCS without involving China, even if the said project was inside a regional country’s legitimate EEZ.

This is nothing but bullying tactics. Since China today is the largest and most powerful country in the region, it thinks it can literally throw its weight around. Now, Haiyang Dizhi is reportedly moored around 155 km from Vietnam’s coastline without Hanoi’s permission. This is nothing but provocation and is meant to show the region and the world that China can get away with anything in the SCS area.
It is understandable that China believes that SCS is crucial to its rise. After all, the region sees a huge percentage of Chinese trade and energy flowing through it. But SCS is equally important for neighbouring Southeast Asian nations. Therefore, why should China’s interests take precedence over those of others? Perhaps there is another explanation as well. As the axis of power shifts from the West to the East in the 21st century – thanks to demographic, governance and technological factors – the global focus will naturally shift to East Asia with China being a big pole. But East Asia, given its geography, is a largely maritime zone with myriad coastlines. If the previous century saw contestations among European nations – rising nationalist powers then – across land borders, the current century will see countries in the Indo-Pacific zone try to assert their dominance across sea lanes.

And SCS is at the heart of this new maritime power playground. China, being the pre-eminent resurgent power, clearly wants to dominate here. But there is a flaw in the Chinese thinking. Contestations in Europe in the previous century led to two devastating World Wars. If a large-scale armed conflict is to erupt in East Asia today, it will be many times more catastrophic given the weapons at our disposal. Either China thinks that the threat of devastating war will actually prevent war in the region or it feels that Southeast and East Asian nations are too economically interlinked to risk a war. And in this scenario, Beijing thinks that it can slowly creep and assert itself in SCS without actually provoking a conflict.

However, every action has an equal and opposite reaction and it is unlikely that countries in Southeast Asia and those with stakes in the region will sit idly. In fact, Beijing is inviting counter-mobilisation against it which can’t be good for its interests. The US and Asean nations are currently undertaking a joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Thailand and SCS. Eight warships, four aircraft and more than a thousand personnel from the US and all 10 Asean countries are taking part in the first of its kind drill. Then in the Maldives, the fourth edition of the Indian Ocean Conference is being organised from September 3-4 with the focus on navigational security entailing freedom of navigation, the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and developing effective regional institutional mechanisms for actualising international rules. The conference is being attended by the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, and the foreign ministers of India, Singapore and the Maldives.

Then recently, during Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad’s official visit to Vietnam both sides underlined the importance of maintaining peace and stability in SCS and expressed concerns about recent developments in the region – read by China. They also agreed that all disputes should be resolved through peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, and in accordance to the principles of international law. Plus, both sides emphasised the importance of self-restraint, non-militarisation and observance of international legal obligations. China falls foul of all of these – it has built artificial islands in SCS, militarised some of them and rejected the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that negated Beijing’s claims over SCS.
All these moves are implicitly aimed at counter-balancing China. And if Beijing continues with its assertiveness in SCS, things will come to a head sooner or later. If that happens, one small miscalculation can lead to a big conflict. After all, even in the run-up to the World Wars, small, initially overlooked incidents escalated into things that were far bigger. A modern version of the same mistakes threatens SCS. And conflict will be disastrous for everyone including China. Even if conflict doesn’t occur, the current tensions in SCS are hardly conducive for development and growth of the regional countries. The opportunity cost is huge and China is actually failing to realise its full potential by choosing unilateralism instead of a consultative approach.

There is still time and China would do well to abandon its assertiveness in SCS, engage in meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders without preconditions, uphold international rules, and jointly ensure security of regional maritime waters. For this expediting a legally binding Code of Conduct for SCS with Asean nations is imperative. China can still realise a peaceful rise rather than a problem-filled rise that will see regional countries becoming resentful towards it. China can actually provide a blueprint for joint peace and development. But it must give up its unilateralist, arm-twisting approach in SCS.



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