Resolving South China Sea Dispute Critical For World Peace – Analysis
By Dr. Rajaram Panda*
The South China Sea (SCS) has emerged as a major flashpoint in the Asia Pacific region. There are several claimants to this disputed maritime territory. Several smaller nations of the ASEAN grouping claim to some parts of the SCS which are in their exclusive economic zones. On the other hand, China claims its sovereignty over this maritime space almost in its entirety. It even rejected the ruling in July 2016 of the international tribunal which ruled that China’s claims lack any historical validity. It has declared the SCS as one of its core interests, along with Tibet and Taiwan. Over the years, China is engaged in various activities such as island building, making new fishing zone, with the aim to take control of this ocean space to the exclusion of other claimants.
When the Hague tribunal invalidated most of its claim over the SCS in a case brought by the Philippines, China was enraged. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who had taken office a month before the ruling, downplayed the ruling with a view to improve his country’s relations with China. Despite Duterte’s attempt to mollycoddle ties with China, China protested when Philippines’s defence and military chiefs visited to a disputed island in the SCS. The Philippine government maintained that it owns the territory where Filipino troops and villagers have lived for decades.
In order to achieve its objectives, China has tried to create disunity amongst the ASEAN states. At other times, it has used economic diplomacy to get a certain member state of the grouping into its fold. For example, China took maximum advantage of the Philippines when controversial Duterte took power and willingly tried to reach out to Beijing. According to a recent report, China had even installed rocket launchers on the disputed Fiery Cross Reef in the SCS, though China claims that the facilities would be limited to defensive requirements.
Resolving the dispute over contending territorial claims on the SCS by several countries at the soonest is paramount in the interest of securing peace and stability in the region. But China unilaterally continues to militarize the disputed territories without any consideration for the sensitivities of smaller nations who have their own legitimate claims. There are evidences that China has nearly completed structures intended to house surface-to-air missile systems on its three largest outposts in the disputed territory as part of a steady pattern of its militarization. Such structures have come up at Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and SubiReef, all man-made islands dredged by China and are now home to military-grade airfields. China started construction of these buildings in September 2016 and thus far built eight buildings on each of three outposts.
Whether or not the Chinese move is in response to America’s attempt to check Chinese assertiveness in the SCS is not important; what is a matter of concern is that it is a systematic part of a well-defined strategy of militarization by China to strengthen its stronghold in this oceanic space. China sent HQ-9 SAMs with a range of up to 200 km to its outpost on Woody Islands in the Paracel chain in the strategic waterway. The deployment of SAM batteries is aimed to extend its defence capabilities throughout its so-called nine-dash line claim to the waters and therefore project power. Dishonouring the pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping made in 2015 not to “militarize” the islands, Beijing has gone ahead to add anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on the man-made islets. Xi Jinping never defined his policy of not to militarize, arguing now that these deployments are necessary to defend the islands.
Beijing has several advantages from these structures on the islands. The “shelters would conceal launchers from view, thwarting overhead surveillance and preventing adversaries from knowing how many launchers (if any) are present at any given time”. Beijing claims these measures are in accordance with the nation’s security requirements and are the legitimate right of a sovereign state.
As expected, such Chinese activities raise alarm in other Asian capitals which have similar claims on the disputed territories. While none of the claimants are in a position to confront China militarily, they look at Washington and other stakeholders who do not have direct involvement in the dispute but respect global rules to come to their rescue to prevail upon Beijing from pursuing such an aggressive approach. In any given circumstance, there can be no better substitute than pursuing assiduously dialogue as the only desirable option to address the issue. At the same time, military preparedness to confront China if the situation so warrants cannot be abandoned either. It is therefore of paramount importance that a Code of Conduct (COC) should be the key to resolving disputes in accordance with international law.
The US has responded in flexing its own military muscle to end a clear message to China not to mess up things by precipitating the dispute. It sent its Carrier’s Strike Group 1, which includes the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, into the SCS, the first such “routine operation” in the waterway under the Trump administration. China reacted by observing that “the constant reinforcement of military deployment in the SCS by some countries outside the region goes against the endeavor of regional countries to seek peace and security, and it is not in the interests of the regional countries.”
Though the carrier strike group did not refer to its operations in the SCS as “freedom of navigation” patrols, it was a clear demonstration of its intention to limit Beijing’s excessive maritime claims. Beijing sees the US move as the greater military threat to peace in the waterway. It perceives the US deployment as a direct military threat. The nationalistic Global Times warned in an editorial that “If the U.S. military insists on showing that it is capable of taming the China Dragon, they are bound to see all kinds of advanced Chinese weapons as well as other military deployments on the islands.”
President Donald Trump has resolved to challenge Beijing and restore order in the SCS. The US Navy is soon to restart Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to challenge claims by China to exclusive access in the sea. The temporary suspension of the “freedom of navigation” patrol was because of transition of administration in Washington. The SCS remains a priority for the Trump administration.
Since Trump too office on 20 January, the US Navy did not conduct any FONOPs near areas claimed by China in the SCS. In such operations, the US ships or planes go near “disputed” Chinese features to test the claims to exclusive access. Washington is aware that it needs to demonstrate its commitment to its allies in such critical situations. Beijing is always paranoid with the US military presence, saying that it is only stirring regional tensions. The Trump administration is unlikely to loosen its grip as China continues to build massive military complex in the middle of the SCS. (Part 2)
* Professor (Dr.) Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org