13 July 2016

Drawing a line in the sea

China’s rejection of international arbitration raises questions. Delhi’s reaction must focus on need to de-escalate conflict in South China Sea.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: July 12, 2016
China’s so-called nine-dashed line in the South China Sea constitutes a claim for nearly 90 per cent of its waters. Its claims clash with those of its neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. (Source: AP Photo/File)
Tuesday’s ruling on the South China Sea disputes by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague is bound to mark a definitive moment in the evolution of international maritime law and Asia’s geopolitical order. It will also highlight India’s own stakes in promoting peace and stability in the contested waters of the South China Sea.
More than three years ago, the Philippines, which was locked in an escalating territorial dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, decided to go court. China refused to participate in the proceedings at The Hague and called them a “farce”. Beijing has declared it will not accept the ruling from the PCA.
In anticipation of the award this week, China has launched naval exercises in the South China Sea. It has embarked on a massive political campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the arbitration and defend its expansive claims over the South China Sea.

China’s so-called nine-dashed line in the South China Sea constitutes a claim for nearly 90 per cent of its waters. Its claims clash with those of its neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Amidst the widespread expectation that the PCA award is likely to go largely against China on a range of legal issues involved, Beijing has warned other powers against meddling in South China Sea affairs. It has pressed many countries, big and small, to express public support for its position on South China Sea.
Maritime disputes are not new in East Asia; they are indeed a legacy from the ambiguous territorial settlements that followed the Second World War. The growing regional economic integration and the normalisation of China’s relations with most Asian countries after the Sino-US rapprochement in the 1970s seemed to create a framework for pragmatic management of disputes. A number of reasons, however, have turned the dormant disputes into dangerous flash points.

For one, the resources of these waters — from fisheries to minerals and hydrocarbons — have acquired greater economic significance. For another, the growing prosperity in Asia has brought forth resurgent nationalism that is willing to aggressively pursue territorial claims rather than find compromises. The shifting balance of military power between China and the US, and the expanding naval capabilities across Asia have added to this turbulence.

In the era after the Second World War, most Asian conflicts expressed themselves as land wars — in Korea, in Vietnam, in the subcontinent and on China’s borders with India, Russia and Vietnam. The locus of inter-state conflict has now shifted to the sea and is visible in the intensifying maritime tensions between China and its East Asian neighbours, especially Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

These maritime disputes threaten regional peace at precisely the moment when the seas have become lifelines for Asian well-being and prosperity.

That South China Sea is one of the busiest maritime thoroughfares in the world underlines the depth of Asia’s economic globalisation.

China’s rejection of the PCA arbitration raises fundamental questions about the future of maritime rule of law in the South China Sea. Some of the core tenets of the law of the sea — for example, the idea that “oceans belong to every one” — emerged in this part of the world amidst the need to regulate the rivalry in the East between the European powers four centuries ago.

That the waters of the South China Sea might be enclosed today by a rising China has sent a chill down the spine of Asia. The hope that regional institutions will help dampen the territorial conflict between China and its neighbours has been dashed. The Association of South East Asian Nations, for example, has become increasingly divided between those who have a direct territorial dispute with China and those who don’t.

The contestation has inevitably drawn in the US. For Washington it is a question of the credibility of its alliances with the Asian neighbours of China and its traditional role in defending the maritime commons. The US Navy has begun to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in the teeth of opposition from China.

Washington has urged Beijing to show respect for international law and abide by the PCA ruling. The US has also pointed to the example of India, which accepted two years ago the award from the PCA in the maritime territorial dispute filed by Bangladesh.

Whether Delhi wants it or not, its reaction to The Hague ruling will be closely watched. Some Chinese analysts worry that India might take a hard line on the South China Sea as a tit for tat response to Beijing’s opposition that stalled India’s quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group last month. Many in Delhi would want India to speak up; others would say India has no dog in this fight.

The fact, however, is that Delhi in recent years has often affirmed its growing interest in the South China Sea. Delhi’s reaction must necessarily focus on the merits of The Hague award and on the pressing political need to de-escalate the territorial conflict in the South China Sea.

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