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South China Sea: Why India cannot afford to be silent

Last updated on: July 27, 2012 19:31 IST

How to manage China's rise and mould its behaviour will be one of the biggest diplomatic challenges facing New Delhi in the coming years, says Harsh V Pant.

As was expected there was no movement on the contentious South China Sea dispute at the ASEAN summit held in Phnom Penh a few days back. But what was striking was the fact that the looming shadow of China prevented the meeting from even issuing a joint statement for the first time in the organisation's 45-year history.

China succeeded in playing divide and rule politics, thereby ensuring that the dispute remains a bilateral matter between Beijing and individual rival claimants. As a consequence, the waters of the South China Sea will not be calm any time soon.

At a time of domestic political transition, China is embroiled in a range of disputes with its neighbours. Conflict in the region has the potential to disrupt global trade flows. The South China Sea waterways carry around half of the world's total trade and are claimed in whole or part by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. Proven and undiscovered oil resources in the South China Sea are estimated to be as high as 213 billion barrels. Fears have been rising in Asia that China is seeking to use its growing maritime might to dominate not only the hydrocarbon-rich waters of the South China Sea but also its crucial shipping lanes, the lifeline of regional economies.

The Philippines and Vietnam, in particular, have been raising concerns about China's assertiveness in the South China Sea. The Philippine President Benigni Aquino III has even suggested that he may ask the US to deploy spy planes over the South China Sea to help monitor disputed waters in the region. The impasse between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, which started when Philippine naval vessels discovered Chinese fishing boats in a lagoon of the shoal, shows no signs of abating with China refusing to remove its fishing boats from the shoal.

Just weeks back, the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Company opened nine blocks for exploration in waters also claimed by Vietnam and the Chinese navy has been conducting combat-ready patrols in the area. The state-run Chinese media has been very vocal about states like the Philippines and Vietnam asking Beijing to "teach them an unforgettable lesson when it is time to hit back."

Japan has also asked China to clarify its maritime claims. Though Japan may not have a direct stake in the dispute, it has increasingly taken a proactive role in the dispute. Tokyo remains worried about the implications of China's assertiveness in South China Sea for its own dispute with China in the East China Sea. The manner in which South China Sea issue gets resolved will have significant implications for maritime conflicts in the region and beyond.

China blocked efforts to resolve long-running tensions over claims in the disputed South China Sea, warning participants at the ASEAN summit that it is 'crucial' they leave the issue out of their discussions. The US had been hoping that ASEAN member states would work on developing a code of conduct for activities in the sea to ensure future disagreements are resolved amicably and has been pushing the ASEAN nations to unify around a legally binding code of conduct based in international maritime law as a means of managing disputes and cultivating ASEAN as a partner in engaging China.

Despite agreeing to draft a code of conduct almost a decade back, there has been little movement towards completion primarily because of China's position that disagreements should be settled on a bilateral rather than a multilateral basis. China has refused to discuss the South China Sea dispute with the ASEAN as a group because they want to negotiate on a one-to-one basis where they are much bigger than any individual Southeast Asian country and they can bully their interlocutors seriatim.

But there is a clear need to stress the importance of principles such as the freedom of navigation, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.

By putting up for global bidding a Vietnamese petroleum block under exploration by an Indian oil company, China has forced India into a diplomatic logjam. Not surprisingly, India was very vocal about its concerns at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Cambodia demanding "access to resources in accordance with principles of international law." New Delhi, which so often likes to sit on margins, can no longer afford the luxury of inaction if it wants to preserve its credibility as a significant actor in East and Southeast Asia. China's assertiveness is not good new for the region but it should be particularly troubling for India.

Beijing's rapidly rising defence expenditure, its expansive maritime sovereignty claims; its aggressive behaviour pursuing them; its support for states such as North Korea and Pakistan; and its non-transparent military build-up all raise questions about its willingness to act as a responsible stakeholder in the region.

How to manage China's rise and mould its behaviour will be one of the biggest diplomatic challenges facing New Delhi in the coming years. Many in India argue that given the high stakes that China and India have in each other's economies, conflict between the two is highly unlikely. But as tensions in South China Sea exemplify, economic interdependence has never really been an antidote to conflict.

New Delhi should watch China's behaviour closely and learn due lessons in dealing with the rising dragon its vicinity.

Harsh V Pant