Deterring China from the South China Sea
Prof Rajaram Panda

In the wake of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine and the strong response from the West, the world’s focus has shifted more towards China, how it behaves in the new situation. As global politics are being reset with shifting priorities by countries around the world, China seems to be taking advantage by increasing incursions into the South China Sea and threatening Taiwan. There is a fear that China might take advantage of the current volatile situation and launch into adventurism on Taiwan with its aim of integrating with the mainland. In particular China’s aggression in South China Sea has evoked strong global pushback with the US supporting Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations having claims to parts that fall within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Though the US has deployed aircraft carriers into the contested sea and as show of force in defence of global rules, the smaller nations too are strengthening their own military capabilities to deter the Chinese if their own sovereignty comes under threat. However, China does not feel deterred from its continuous intimidating statements and actions.

Of all the claimant nations, only Vietnam has taken up the cudgels to stand up to the Chinese threat in bold manner. The spokesperson of Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs Le Thi Thu Hang reminded on 14 January that Vietnam opposes all claims by China in the South China Sea that are inconsistent with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). [1] Since the South China Sea emerged as a contentious issue, Vietnam has remained consistent in its views both at bilateral and multilateral forums. It has never issued any threats against China for making advance into the region but has only pleaded that concerned parties should respect its sovereignty, sovereign right and substantive contributions to maintaining peace and stability, besides safeguarding security, safety and freedom of navigation and aviation, the integrity of the UNCLOS and the rules-based order.

When China announced military drills early in March in the six-nautical mile area covering Vietnamese waters, Vietnam protested saying that part of the drill area fell within Vietnam’s EEZ and that it would not tolerate any violations. [2] This was in response to China’s Hainan Maritime Safety Administration’s announcement on 4 March that it would launch military training in the sea of Hainan from 5 to 15 March and warning foreign ships to stay away. In a polite but stern message Vietnam asked China to respect and not violate Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf and not take measures that could precipitate tensions in the area. Vietnam underscored the importance of peace and stability in the region surrounding Vietnam and the South China Sea. China routinely conducts military exercises in the South China Sea and that raise tensions between Vietnam-China relations.

What are China’s policy objectives in the South China Sea? China’s policy objectives are driven primarily by strategic and military interest first and economic interests second. In its grand design, China wants to dominate the South China Sea in military and paramilitary terms as part of its strategy to protect what it believes to be its vulnerable southern coastline from potential threats.

How does Beijing respond to Vietnam’s charges of incursion into its EEZ? Beijing premises its argument that its deployment of ships in the area is legal, labelling the illegal intrusions as an “exercise on the right of innocent passage”. [3] This was the case with the Philippines when China deployed its vessels in the Philippines’ maritime territory in the Sulu Sea. The Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian in Manila was summoned by the Philippine Foreign Ministry lodging protest over the People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s (PLAN’s) illegal incursion in the Sulu Sea located in the south-western area of the Philippines. China claimed that its naval vessel’s sailing through the Philippine waters was an “exercise of the right of innocent passage pursuant to UNCLOS”, and that the passage was safe and standard, and consistent with international law and international practice. Beijing also hoped that the relevant parties can view it in an “objective and rational manner”.

The Philippines has valid reason to protest when the PLAN Electronic Reconnaissance Ship (Dongdiao-class), with bow number 792, sailed into Philippine waters from 29 January to 1 February without informing Philippine authorities. This time, the Chinese military vessel reached the Cuyo Group of Islands in Palawan province and the protected Apo Island in Mindoro. The vessel lingered in the area for three days despite being repeatedly directed by the Philippine Navy to leave immediately. [4]

Like Vietnam, Philippines too have issues with China with regard to ownership claims in the disputed South China Sea. In 2016, the international arbitral court in The Hague invalidated China’s sweeping claims and recognised the Philippines sovereignty and sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea.

The question that begs an answer, is China a revisionist power challenging the rules-based international order? The related question is how China’s Asian neighbours dealing with China’s rise, including its actions in the South China Sea, are coping with the new situation? The short answer to the first is Yes. The answer to the second question is not easy to answer as any response to China’s advances can have consequences. That is the concern that stakeholders, including India, are worried about.

When the Philippines won a verdict in its favour at the Hague Court in June 2016, hopes ran high that China can now be deterred. That did not happen. With disdain, China dismissed the verdict well aware that the tribunal lacked enforcing authority. Though six years have passed since the verdict, China’s aggression in the South China Sea continues. This does not deny the fact that the award is the most legally significant development in the long-running, complicated, and multi-party territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The award’s significance for a fair and equitable allocation of jurisdiction and resources of a common area between several competing nations is noteworthy.

However, China’s dishonour of the award and continued military aggression has resulted in pushback from the USA and other global powers. Countries which are not claimants and party to the dispute such as India, Australia and key European powers are also concerned over the impact of China’s aggressive policies as the South China Sea is a major gateway for trade and their maritime trade is under threat of disruption.

As regards India, it has in principle all along stood for rules-based order in the region. At the 16th East Asia Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised on the importance of Free, Open and Inclusive Indo-Pacific region. The South China Sea issue has also been discussed extensively at the India-ASEAN summit, wherein the same has been reiterated more forcefully. The overriding concern and commitment is to maintain and promote peace, stability, safety and security in the South China Sea and ensure freedom of navigation and overflight.

Like India, Japan and Australia too stand by the ASEAN on promoting peace and stability in the region, and call for fully implementing Declaration on Code of Conduct (DOC) and complete Code of Conduct (COC) soon. Japanese and the US Navy units also conduct maritime security operations to include flight operations, coordinated tactical training between surface and air units, refuelling at sea evolutions and maritime strike exercises in the South China Sea to deter China’s incursions.

Such measures by countries upholding global rules demonstrate that Vietnam is not alone but has friends who share its concerns and common values. The commitment of friendly nations also stems from the respect for global rules and those for common good. It is hoped that China gets matured and sees the merit of cooperation and not impose its policies unilaterally, else there shall be inevitable backlash with perilous consequences.

As it transpired during the Modi-Kishida summit in New Delhi, Russia-Ukraine conflict has threatened to alter the existing geopolitics, in particular, the regional order. This gives an added opportunity to India, Japan and Vietnam to seek common ground in a trilateral forum to work for peace and stability in the region. Both India and Japan are also in sync in the realm of maritime cooperation to deter China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Kishida is also expected to discuss with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen such issues on the second leg of his trip to Asia.

The forthcoming ASEAN-US summit could be another ideal forum for continuing the dialogue process to work for regional peace. Initially scheduled for 28-29 March, it is postponed apparently in response to critics who speculated that Cambodia as ASEAN chair would not agree to meet with the US. [5]

Given the perception of Cambodia’s closeness with China, critics view Cambodia as chair of the grouping in 2022 from a different prism. This is unfortunate. What is important that ASEAN’s centrality must not be allowed to be diluted lest the outside world may not take seriously how the grouping takes position on all regional issues. The truism is that in any given year, one country is the chair and another plays the role of the facilitator. This year, Cambodia is the chair and Indonesia is the facilitator and therefore the responsibility of arranging the dates for the ASEAN-US summit lies with Indonesia. Indonesia is yet to get confirmation from all the members about the commonly agreed dates. It is expected that this small glitch is overcome soon as larger important issue confronts the region and discussion with the US is much-needed at this critical time.

[1] “Vietnam opposes East Sea claims inconsistent with international law: spokesperson”, 15 January 2022, https://vietnamnet.vn/en/maritime-sovereignty/vietnam-opposes-east-sea-claims-inconsistent-with-international-law-spokesperson-809138.html
[2] “Vietnam demands China stay away from its SEZ”, 3 March 2022, https://m.hanoitimes.vn/vietnam-demands-china-stay-away-from-its-eez-320171.html
[3] Daphne Galvez, “‘Innocent passage’: China defends ship’s illegal in Sulu Sea”, 16 March 2022, https://globalnation.inquirer.net/203040/innocent-passage-china-defends-ships-intrusion-in-sulu-sea
[4] https://globalnation.inquirer.net/203040/innocent-passage-china-defends-ships-intrusion-in-sulu-sea
[5] Sochan, “ASEAN-US Summit dates rest upon Indonesia, PM explains”, 17 March 2022, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/asean-us-summit-dates-rest-upon-indonesia-pm-explains

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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