Rough Waters Ahead

South China Sea verdict has changed the ground rules for future engagement with China.

Written by Bhopinder Singh | Published:July 21, 2016 12:02 am
South China sea issue, South China Sea, China, South China sea dispute, South China Sea india, Indian on South China Sea, India SCS, world news, MEA, indian express news Philippine crewmen gesture towards a Chinese Coast Guard ship as they block them from entering Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. (AP File Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The verdict of the international tribunal over South China sea has collaterally vindicated the maritime concerns of Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and obviously, the principal litigant Philippines. Enforcement of the verdict aside, the legitimacy of China as a responsible power is formally tainted — a dangerous import for China’s strategic aspirations. Incompatibility and belligerence with prevailing international laws and verdicts can impact crucial transactions in a globally aligned world, especially for China, which is the world’s largest export economy.

While the verdict nailed the Chinese falsity of historic claims on the rocky outcrops at sea, sovereign rights, construction of artificial islands, commercial aspects like fishing and petroleum exploration etc, it did not mention the overarching sweep of geo-strategic intent that
subsumes the intentions and actions of the Chinese behaviour.

China’s bizarre claims to 90 per cent (using the “nine-dash line” methodology) of the South China Sea owe its brazenness to insecurities of ensuring control on the $5 trillion seaways. In 2015, Chinese exports and imports were $2.2 trillion and $1.6 trillion respectively, leaving a very positive balance of payment status. This bankrolling hinges on the uninterrupted free flow of goods out of, and into, the Chinese mainland. The oft quoted “overheated” economic infrastructure and model is essentially energy-guzzling and vulnerably thirsty. This economic susceptibility, coupled with the historic disputes with wary neighbours and the US, posits the real issue of regime survival and the seaway to a bi-polar world, with China fancying itself as the fundamental “other”.Pursuant to this hegemonic dream are tectonic initiatives like the “One Belt, One Road”, which connects the energy-flush Central Asian nations and Europe with China’s hinterland, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. However, the more immediate and semi-working geopolitical approach

Pursuant to this hegemonic dream are tectonic initiatives like the “One Belt, One Road”, which connects the energy-flush Central Asian nations and Europe with China’s hinterland, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. However, the more immediate and semi-working geopolitical approach of safeguarding and promoting the Chinese interests and assets is the fabled “string of pearls”. This envisages a dual, commercial-military Chinese footprint along the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) dotted with both natural and artificial ports (like the recently contested Spratly archipelago, which saw over 3,400 acres of land reclamation) in the contentious South China Sea, right up to the ports along the African coastline. Besides, the South China Sea based “pearl ports”, the foreign ports envisaged to be stringed are Sittwe and Coco Islands (Myanmar), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Marao Atoll (Maldives), Gwadar (Pakistan), Port Sudan (Sudan) etc.These “pearl” ports conceptually ensure clear passage for Chinese traffic and, especially protect and dominate veritable choke points like the Strait of Mandeb, Lombok Strait, and Strait of Hormuz. However, the proverbial “chicken’s neck” and the uber-vulnerable passage is the narrow and unavoidable, Straits of Malacca, in the dangerous proximity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Given that 80

These “pearl” ports conceptually ensure clear passage for Chinese traffic and, especially protect and dominate veritable choke points like the Strait of Mandeb, Lombok Strait, and Strait of Hormuz. However, the proverbial “chicken’s neck” and the uber-vulnerable passage is the narrow and unavoidable, Straits of Malacca, in the dangerous proximity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Given that 80 per cent of Chinese fuel passes through this narrow strait (only 1.5 nautical miles wide at the Philips Chanel), connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, coupled with a reality of 2 to 3 weeks of known strategic fuel reserves available on the Chinese mainland, the nightmare of even a temporary blockage would be debilitating and irreversibly damaging to the Chinese juggernaut. It is unarguably, the world worst maritime choke point with over 1,00,000 vessels crossing annually, and accounting for a fourth of the world’s trade. Choking herein, is the ultimate (and the most plausible) doomsday situation for China, from a traffic perspective. Militarily and legitimately, only India has the real estate to dominate the mouth or the entry of the narrow passage, given the providential geography and the clean status to the property papers (unlike the ports involved in recent fracas of the South China Sea, the Andaman and Nicobar is a shining outpost and indisputably Indian from a “claim” perspective). India, like China, is a signatory to the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas) that mandates a certain maritime behaviour and norms. In 2014, India had accepted an unfavourable ruling versus Bangladesh, in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. For now, the international court of arbitration’s verdict is restricted to the China-Philippines context. However, the narrative, template and ground rules for the future engagement with China, and any of the other sparring countries, has been irrevocably altered. India is not a direct party to the issue, but given that the China-Philippines impasse is a sub-component of a wider ecosystem, the national capitals along the South China Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Oceans will be keeping a close watch on the developments as they evolve.

For now, the international court of arbitration’s verdict is restricted to the China-Philippines context. However, the narrative, template and ground rules for the future engagement with China, and any of the other sparring countries, has been irrevocably altered. India is not a direct party to the issue, but given that the China-Philippines impasse is a sub-component of a wider ecosystem, the national capitals along the South China Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Oceans will be keeping a close watch on the developments as they evolve.

The writer, a retired lieutenant general of the Indian army, was lieutenant governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.

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