A more solid albeit gradual positioning appears to be taking shape, and it would be vital to not only bolster the policy approaches that are crystallising — but to ensure that the momentum and concerted nature of these developments are not lost.
Unrest in the South China Sea (SCS) has continued to be on the upswing even during the ongoing global pandemic with Washington and Beijing being locked in a game of chicken. In the last couple of months alone, China has conducted naval drills and fired missiles; the US has announced a revised and stronger worded position on the SCS and sanctioned Chinese companies involved in illegal constructions in the area; India has deployed a naval warship to the Sea in response to repeated border incursions in the Himalayas; and Southeast Asian littorals have determinedly censured maritime transgressions.
For years now, the SCS has witnessed political turbulence and some loaded repartee or a few naval fly-bys have become routine. Despite periodic upswings in the ante, neither countries who are directly engaged in the dispute nor those which condemn Chinese activities in the region have been able to arrive at a concerted strategic approach towards addressing the issue. Approaches in general have been piecemeal and arguably conservative, whether by individual countries or by regional groupings.
Opinions, perspectives, analyses and approaches around the South China Sea question reflexively refer to the happenings in the context of the maritime space as being “disputed” as opposed to a direct acknowledgement of them being fuelled by one instigator, routinely, to keep an unstable condition persistent. Herein lies a fallacy. The “disputes” in the South China Sea are in contravention of international maritime law. Hence what has instead been taking place is a continual disruption of maritime stability and a challenge of legal maritime sovereignty and rights. Approaches towards addressing or responding to escalations in the SCS have till date been short term (barring the 2002 non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea) with the primary trend being an immediate reaction which has seldom materialised into a more substantial response.
Since 2019 however, there have been a few noteworthy developments which have indicated that a more coherent position is perhaps coming about with Chinese actions being called out more often and more firmly. Whether this eventually translates into a concerted strategy is something that is yet to be understood.
A consolidated and dynamic strategy is essential. It is vital because while regional and global response has been mostly haphazard and hasty, the Chinese approach has been regular, unrelenting, and systematic. Systematic approaches require a systematic response. China’s quest for influence and control over the South China Sea is widely believed to be for two main reasons: securing energy access to hydrocarbon resources which are believed to be present in these waters and securing physical access to position and maintain naval bases which would allow the country to enhance its power projection capabilities. A recently released map of the SCS demonstrates how China has augmented its ability to monitor and deploy power (radar range, missile platforms and combat aircraft) from the facilities it has been constructing in the Paracel and Spratly islands since 2014.
Over the last year and a half, there have been gradual yet steady developments in the policy approaches of the ASEAN, US, and SCS littorals. For instance, till the adoption of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) in 2019, the organisation had been reluctant to identify the Indo-Pacific as a theatre where its centrality is to be exercised. While on the one hand the Indo-Pacific narrative gained ground and not only regional but external actors became interested and vocal about it, the ASEAN had refrained from taking a clear position on the competing maritime territorial claims and China’s overtures, settling instead for general pronouncements on the importance of freedom of navigation. This was largely since the various member states had varying equations with China. But while these issues continue to linger, the adoption of the AOIP signals that the ASEAN as an organisation is not keen on continuing to remain on the sidelines of happenings in its own backyard.
Another example is that of the US which has been leading the charge on the international front. The recently released US position on maritime claims in the SCS, on the other hand, is clear and strong in its view on China’s claims and what it refers to as China’s campaign of bullying. While Washington has been among those most vocal about China’s activities, the official statements and responses of the previous administrations was buried in legalese that was ultimately ambiguous and desisted from engaging with specifics. The new position not only identifies the illegality of Beijing’s claims, but also affirms its commitment to stand by countries in the region in the event of any escalation. Indonesia and Malaysia which habitually refrained from the sort of vocal criticism which Vietnam and often the Philippines is known for, have also begun to denounce China’s claims and repeated incursions. In this same period, Australia has also become more assertive and with a regular frequency regarding Beijing’s advances. Washington and Canberra’s positions have also been endorsed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
A more solid albeit gradual positioning appears to be taking shape and it would be vital to not only bolster the policy approaches that are crystallising but to ensure that the momentum and concerted nature of these developments are not lost. It is also essential to assess the weaknesses of existing legal frameworks and undertake measures to remedy them. Although China has yet to show regard, let alone adherence, to legal frameworks already in place, it is crucial to adjust diplomatic measures in a manner which puts a higher premium on the contravention of the same.
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Pratnashree Basu is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, with the CNED programme. She is a 2017 US Department of State IVLP Fellow ...Read More +