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The unfolding dimensions of recent developments in South China Sea

Paper No. 6113                                 Dated 13-May-2016

Guest Column by Commodore RS Vasan IN Retd.

The initialreaction of the USA to review its invitation to China to participate in the forthcoming RIMPAC could be seen as a response to the turning away of the request to dock an aircraft carrier in Hongkong earlier this month.

However, USA has invited China to join in the forthcoming edition of claimed to be the largest joint maritime military exercise in the world. This will also have elements of HADR and SAR besides military maneuvers. It has also been announced by the US Navy that there would be live firing of a Harpoon missile during the exercises sometime in July 2016. It is obvious to any naval analyst that in joint exercises of any form anywhere in the world, there is a continuous evaluation taking place of the "means and methods" used in the exercises by both sides.  The type of vessels, sensors, weapons, levels of training, readiness of the ship's system and the appearance, response and the body language of the crew manning these ships would always be under close scrutiny. USA would not have allowed such an opportunity to go by (to understand more about a potential adversary).China would also use the opportunity to assess their own capability during the exercise by sailing with the best in the world.  Let there be no doubt that at the end of the RIMPAC there would be a complete analysis of the capability and potential of all the participating units that will go in to the data base and also in the tactical planning for counters and contingencies of the future on both sides.

In international relations, most countries will follow the twin track policy while dealing with emerging powers and possible adversaries. The economic, political and even military relations will continue on one track while the posturing on sensitive issues will go on at another level. The happenings in the SCS are demonstrative of this course adopted by USA in respect of China. USA has decided to undertake joint patrols with Philippines in the SCS. There has been a feeling that the USA has allowed things to drift in South China Sea  and  has given away the advantage to China by passivity  thus allowing China to consolidate its gains in the South China Sea.  The decision to undertake joint patrols to protect the freedom of navigation along with Philippines though delayed is to assure the traditional allies that USA will be with them in terms of containing the aggressive behaviour of China which considers the area with in the nine dash line as its own lake. China has invested heavily in building artificial Islands from reefs and rocks to have sea and air connectivity with the military hubs in the SCS. The cartographic aggression along with changes on the ground is in contravention of the provisions of UNCLOS and violative of the rule of law. The setting up of Radars, missiles and navigational facilities is clearly illustrative of the desire of China to buttress its claim in an environment that favours China.

China does not want to risk a war or confrontation with any of the claimants (or the super power USA) in the area knowing fully that such a misadventure will upset the apple cart of its progress and sustained development. China has also been constantly emphasizing on its desire for a peaceful periphery that would allow it to benefit from a no conflict scenario. This has hardly paid any dividends to the claimants in South China Sea who cannot challenge China militarily. This illusion of peaceful periphery has encouraged China to build on its naval potential and capability by creating additional infrastructure and facilities to support naval missions.  The period of peace virtually on China’s terms has been used wisely to invest heavily in cutting edge technology,modernising its forces and restructuring of its military formations. The other claimants in the South China Sea who are small nations with hardly any military prowess do depend on US to support them. USA on its part has been vocal in supporting the concept of the freedom of the high seas and right to navigation. It has also undertaken these passages in these areas using military vessels to support the concept. China has considered these passages as provocative and has even warned USA of dire consequences. It is quite possible that the permission for the US Carrier to enter Hong Kong was denied to signal China’s unhappiness over the moves of US Naval units sailing through disputed areas. Such exchanges as in the past have the potential to lead to inadvertent accidents and avoidable situations.

China is banking on the reluctance of USA to get in to a direct confrontation particularly when the nation is in the campaign mode to elect a new president.  The outgoing President Obama would not like to precipitate a direct confrontation in the SCS unless it is really very serious and would rather leave it to the new dispensation. The new President who would be in the Chair by end of the year would take some time to understand the nuances and full ramifications of the change of status quo in the SCS and ECS by direct intervention. So it is clear that time is on the side of China to consolidate its position in the South China Sea. Being in a position to mobilise its air assets and activate air defence measures, it could even contemplate declaring a new ADIZ area with in the nine dash line sometime this year.

Coming to the question of India's responses, China is an extra regional player in the Indian Ocean; albeit with legitimate interests. India likewise is an extra regional power with equally legitimate interests in the South China Sea. The more than two decade old cooperation with Vietnam is resulting in a strategic dividend and India is upping the ante in its South China Sea initiatives. The ASEAN countries with rich cultural linkages with India are comfortable with the presence of India which has been seen as a benign functioning democracy though it has its own share of domestic problems to contend with.

The ASEAN as a forum has not been able to pass any strictures against China. The Code of Conduct promulgated in 2002 is barely working with China insisting on resolving all issues only  by bilateral means and does not want any third party intervention let alone an International mediation. Thus, China was upset with the decision of Philippines to approach the International Court of Justice for resolving the maritime boundary disputes. Even before the verdict (which is expected to be in  favour of Philippines) has been issued, China has said that it will not honour the verdict and is not a party to the dispute. Coincidentally, this verdict is also expected towards the end of this year when there would be a new President of USA in chair and the temperature is set to rise in the South China Sea dynamics.

In conclusion, the South China Sea will be the area to watch in the coming years as the area will witness raising tensions, new alliances, military posturing and even some confrontations between fishing vessels, Coast Guard/Navy vessels and military/civil aircraft. The situation is fraught with danger. However, the elections in USA provide some leeway for all players and particularly for China to prepare its contingencies. The verdict in the case of the maritime border disputes with Philippines which is also expected towards the end of this year is unlikely to ruffle the feathers of China as it will reinforce the view that China is a bully not given to following international norms.  The policy makers and officials in Beijing have already shredded the undelivered verdict having vowed not to take cognizance of the either the dispute or the verdict.

The decision to invite China for RIMPAC notwithstanding the tensions in SCS is aimed at understanding the potential adversary better while simultaneously being perceived as an initiative to learn from each other in the art of war and raise the bar in HADRand SAR initiatives regionally in an area prone to natural and manmade disasters.

From the point of view of India, while seen as aligning itself with USA more and more, it is evident that it will retain its strategic autonomy but will continue to engage Vietnam and other ASEAN members at many levels to complement its act east policy. The strategic environment in the South China Sea will keep China tied up in knots and this favours India. The fact that the PLA-Navy will be bogged down in the SCS will dampen its IOR ambitions but only temporarily. But with eye on the long term strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean, China will continue with the Maritime Silk Route, China Pakistan Economic Corridor and also the Bangladesh China India Myanmar initiatives to gain access to Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal respecdtively through the sea routes. It will continue to woo India's neighbours through the economic route with heavy investments and soft loans/grants. India will need to reshape its policies both in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea to ensure that its own long term interests are protected.