11 May, 2017

India and the South China Issue

By Prof. G.V.C. Naidu, Chairperson, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies, JNU

Goeman’s Research Analyst Swati Jha interviewed Prof. G.V.C. Naidu, Chairperson, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies, JNU on 5 May 2017. G.V.C. Naidu is Professor and Chairperson of the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in the affairs of the Indo-Pacific region, including Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean region, and India’s relations with East Asia. His visiting appointments include Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore; Japan Foundation Visiting Professor at the Daito Bunka University, Japan; Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu; and Visiting Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Visiting Professor at Gakushuin University, Tokyo, Visiting Professor at National Chengchi University, Taipei, etc. He has to his credit five books, five monographs and a large number of articles, chapters in books, and research papers published in India and abroad. His most recent publications include two books: Building Confidence in East Asia: Maritime Conflicts, Interdependence and Asian Identity Thinking (Palgrave, 2015) (edited with Kazuhiko Togo) and India and China in the Emerging Dynamics of East Asia (Springer 2015) (edited with Mumin Chen).

Why the South China Sea issue has acquired such significance?

The South China Sea is important due to its geostrategic location connecting the two fastest growing regions of the world, that is, the West Pacific and the Indian Oceans. Moreover, this is a key global trade route on which more than US$ 5 trillion worth of goods are transported each year. Nearly 50,000 ships(comprising about half of the world’s shipping tonnage) use the sea lines in the South China Sea. It includes the crucial oil and gas for some the largest consumers such as China, Japan and South Korea. The Indian imports of energy (though small volumes) from Russian Far Eastern oil fields such as Sakhalin also pass through this sea. The hydrocarbons transported through the South China Sea are three times larger than that pass through the Suez Canal. Since the Asia Pacific countries are at the forefront of globalization and hence their reliance on trade (and its critical role in promoting economic prosperity) will constantly grow and that would further enhance the overall salience of the South China Sea.

The second dimension of the South China Sea is the reported large reserves of oil and gas. Many littoral countries are already engaged in exploring for oil and gas, the most prominent being Indonesia (around the Natuna Islands in the south), Vietnam on its east coast and China. In fact, China has launched the world largest and most expensive (about $ one billion) oil exploration platform specifically designed for the South China Sea in the disputed waters. A clear indication of vast reserves of oil and gas.
The third aspect is with respect to abundant fishing grounds in the South China Sea. As counties in East Asia get rapidly prosperous, the demand for marine food is also skyrocketing. This is also linked to foo security. At a time when rampant and indiscriminate fishing is wreaking havoc, no country would spare any effort to secure as much exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as possible for economic exploitation. Legal control or sovereignty over islands entails large tracts of EEZ. It is also the case in the South China Sea.

Fourthly, geographically the South China Sea is at the heart of the Asia Pacific region. Its rim region is economically the most vibrant in the world. Thus, whoever (especially if it happens to be a great power such as China) establishes control over this Sea, it will accrue enormous strategic advantage. For China, it is strategically very vital since this provides an outlet into the open seas.

What is the dispute all about in the South China Sea?

The dispute is over the sovereignty of the islets, reefs, shoals, etc., mostly clubbed into Paracels and Spratlys. There are six claimants—China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei (there is also some issue about overlapping EEZ claims between China and Indonesia near the Natunas)—to the islands although their claims vastly vary. Among these China and Vietnam have staked claims over the entire two groups of islets, while others have claims over relatively smaller islet. There is no island that is inhabited by humans except the one that Taiwan controls called Itu Aba where it has been maintaining a small military garrison since 1946. According to international law, even this does not qualify to be called island since it not self-sustaining. The first instance when the South China Sea issue into limelight was in 1974 when China occupied the Paracel group of islands, which South Vietnam resisted. It became a big issue when the naval forces of China and Vietnam had a bloody face off in 1988. The Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef, which Manila claimed fell into its territorial waters, in 1995 brought the global spotlight on its potential to destabilize the entire region. Ever since, there have numerous instances of tensions, military deployments, reclamations and installation of permanent military facilities mostly by China, the conduct of freedom of navigation exercises by the U.S., etc. The problem is that the historical basis, as contended by China, is extremely tenuous. Nor the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a framework to resolve these kinds of issues.

What are the Implications of Standoff?

Efforts to find an amicable solution have not been successful so far. Whereas China insists on bilateral approach, the other claimants want it to be resolved in a multilateral environment since China is too large and too powerful. For Southeast Asian claimants, the sovereignty issues need to be resolved first rather than participate in joint development as China wants since it will remain the dominant partner and will dictate its terms. It has resulted in occasional tensions, military skirmishes, military deployments, and China’s assertive stance.

Are there ways in which this can be resolved?

Legal way is ruled out because it is not enforceable though legally binding as demonstrated in the 2016 verdict by the International Court of Arbitration that struck down the validity of Chinese claims but Beijing has dismissed the judgement. There is nothing that can be done about it. A military solution is also not an option because militarily China is no match even if all others claimants put together. That leaves only way out to resolve the dispute is through political means. ASEAN has been trying to use its good offices but has not been very successful so far. A key aspect would be to quickly finalise a legally binding Code of Conduct so that parties commit themselves not to use force and resolve it peaceful. However, it is easier said than done.

What are India’s stakes in the South China Sea?

India’s stakes are both strategic and economic. Even as India’s economic links and interactions with Asia Pacific grow faster than any other region, its strategic stakes too will continue to grow. Indian interests too would be affected if regional stability is affected. New Delhi ostensibly does not want China establishing its control over the entire South China Sea, which will have implications for regional security architecture and thus to India’s interest as well. The Indian public sector oil major, ONGC, is involved in the oil and gas prospecting in collaboration with Vietnam off Vietnam’s east coast in the South China Sea since the mid-1980s to which China has taken objections. So, it does not want those operations to be affected.

What is India’s policy toward the South China Sea issue?
India has made it clear that since does not have any claims in the South China Sea, it prefers to keep off from the dispute. However, the standoff should under no circumstances should affect freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea and there should be absolutely unimpeded access to maritime commons. Towards that end, it has articulated that the dispute should resolved peacefully and according to the international legal framework, certainly not unilaterally or through use of force.

Will India in any Way Take Part if a Conflict Breaks Out?

For a variety of reasons, most unlikely.

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