Author : Abhijit Singh

Originally Published 2016-08-18 11:38:30 Published on Aug 18, 2016
political warnings are part of a state’s predisposition for regime survival.
A season of 'warnings' in the Asia-Pacific

We’re in a season of warnings. Japan recently warned China over its maritime adventurism in the East China Sea. After six Chinese coastguard ships and over 200 fishing vessels sailed close to the Japanese-held Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, Tokyo make it clear that any future Chinese incursions in the region — for reasons other than innocent passage — would invite a strong response from the Japanese navy, even if it meant a potential escalation in bilateral tensions.

China, meanwhile, has delivered its own warning to Australia against interfering in the South China Sea. Beijing is unhappy Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop expressed support for Philippines' right to seek international arbitration, even demanding China explain its construction activities on South China Sea (SCS) reefs. An angry editorial in the Communist Party's unofficial mouthpiece Global Times denounced Australia as a "paper cat" with an "inglorious history", often “mocked by others.”

Canberra isn’t the only one at the receiving end of China’s ire. Beijing has issued notice to other states perceived to be unsympathetic to its cause in the South China Sea. Ahead of its Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to India, the Global Times carried a commentary that warned New Delhi of dire implications if it failed to support Beijing’s stand in the South China Sea. Chinese leaders are surprised that India openly contradicted Beijing as it sought to portray New Delhi as a supporter of China’s stand in the South China Sea.

Read: Telling China like it is about the South China Sea

Beijing is also sore that Indian observers continue to hold China responsible for scuttling India’s bid for NSG membership a few weeks ago. New Delhi’s “puzzling” attitude over the NSG and South China Sea, the Global Times editorial averred, “might risk unnecessary side effects to Sino-Indian ties and potentially set up obstacles for Indian exporters…including the revision of tariffs on Indian imports.”

In response to China’s warning, India has announced the deployment of BrahMos supersonic missiles on its Northeastern border — a-none-too-subtle cautionary that if China continued with its political bluster, India is prepared to up the ante. New Delhi also announced that its Sukhoi Su-30 MKI fighters are being modified to carry the air variant of the BrahMos missile, even as the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) has begun receiving air dominance fighters modified to carry air-launched BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.

The United States too is playing the warning-game, by spelling out the implications of failure on China’s part to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision on the South China Sea. In the past few days, more US naval ships and submarines have been deployed in the South China Sea than ever in the recent past. Not to be put down, China and Russia have collectively warned the US against carrying out naval drills in the region, even displaying military strength though joint exercises in those waters.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has taken exception to the UN Tribunal’s verdict on the South China Sea — especially its ruling that Itu Aba or Taiping, the biggest feature under Taiwanese control in the South China Sea, is a “rock.” Taipei has warned the international community that accepting the UN court’s ruling without due regard for Taiwan’s rights, will have implications for the region. Echoing the sentiment, many Chinese observers have warned that Beijing might consider quitting the UNCLOS, if its claims in the SCS are not recognised.

The anatomy of a political warning

In international relations, warnings are part of a strategic dynamic, where one side expresses its intent to act, without really revealing what its specific response might be. The idea is to inject a dose of deterrence into a situation fast turning unfavorable for the side issuing the warning. Interestingly, a thoughtless recourse to warnings, serves to harm the interests of the issuer, as it creates the impression of a desperate actor, whose options have shrunk to a point where the only available recourse is verbal bluster. Not surprisingly, hurriedly issued threats in international relations rarely elicit a favorable response by their intended targets.

This does not detract from the larger efficacy of political warnings. When a warning is delivered by a state as part of a carefully constructed strategy, it has the potential to strongly influence the adversary. A smartly issued warning, in fact, almost seems like an act of benevolence on the part of the issuer, as if the advance notice served is a gentle substitute for punitive action.

The thing about a good warning is that it preempts prevarication — which can be toxic in international diplomacy. While nations are always drawing red-lines for others to heed, the act of drawing the line needs to be undertaken well before an impression has been created that the political leadership is in a bind over an issue. The challenge for state is to act before it is seen to be dithering. Here strategically rendered threats can be an effective tool. Most often, a thoughtfully conceived cautionary, issued in good time, can create the illusion of a leadership in control — supremely self-assured of its own position. On the other hand, hastily issued threats, made more in a huff than as an act of careful political calculation, can be severely counterproductive.

In his first book “World Restored Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problem of Peace” Henry Kissinger, revealed that political warnings needed to be seen as a negotiating tactic that tend to maximize bargaining power and influence. Indeed, if diplomacy is the art of deal-making, as Kissinger characterised it in a later work, then a well-timed “warning” is an effective instrument. Interestingly, threat-issuance isn’t always a verbal act. Sometimes, nations undertake discreet actions that convey a strategic signal to the adversary. Political compellence of this nature goes by the name of ‘strategic deterrence’, and tends to shape an evolving situation in favor of the threat-issuer.

Ultimately, as many observers point out, political warnings are part of a state’s predisposition for regime survival. National political leaderships feel compelled to act when confronted with security crises. Each government, however, is guided by a distinct set of strategic principles, geared to tackle the challenges before their consequences exact a heavy price. What publically issued threats do is to limit the costs involved. By issuing a timely cautionary, a party notifies an adversary about the undesirability of its acts, without needing to resort to counter-action. In many ways, therefore, a smartly issued warning is a “win-win” for both sides.

In the case of the South China Sea, it is interesting that almost four weeks after the tribunal passed a verdict there has still been no real military action. While the security picture remains grim — with more ships and submarines positioned in the contested waters than at any time in the recent past — there has been a clear absence of overt aggression.

Even so, each party continues to issue warnings to the other, urging respect for its own rights, claims and perspective. A case in point is Vietnam that has placed anti-air missiles on its occupied features in the Spratly Islands. Despite the rhetoric, however, there is a healthy empathy being displayed by Vietnam and ASEAN towards China. The occasional public denouncements of each other’s positions, do not alter the fact that all sides remain wary of military action.

While India isn’t directly involved in the South China Sea dispute, the nature and type of Chinese threats are useful, however, in assessing Beijing’s political attitude towards New Delhi. It is noteworthy that the tenor of commentary in the Chinese official media appears dismissive of India’s stand on international issues. If Chinese observers hold a low opinion of Indian foreign policy positions, a pragmatic settlement between India and China on contentious bilateral issues seems a fair distance away. For its part, New Delhi has refrained from publically criticising China for its blatantly aggressive South China Sea policy. But Indian leaders recognise the indirect threat that China poses to the international legal system, especially the prospect of a restructuring of rules to favour Beijing’s interests.

That is certainly a warning India cannot afford to take lightly.

This commentary originally appeared in The Interpreter.

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Abhijit Singh

Abhijit Singh

A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. A maritime professional with specialist and command experience in front-line ...

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