Ending militarisation, maintaining transparency of intention and following the rule of law can de-escalate tensions in the South China Sea, currently a hot dispute between Beijing and the littoral countries of the region, a top US commander has said.
“We have been very transparent, we would appreciate all countries being transparent with their intentions in the South China sea; that would help a lot,” Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin, the commander of the US 7th Fleet who was on a visit to India, told a select group of journalists in New Delhi. “We certainly don’t want that,” he said in reference to armed conflicts.
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“Exercising our rights under international laws to travel to the South China Sea, I do not see that as provoking something into a war. For over 70 years we have been sailing in those waters through the Indian Ocean, to ensure this major sea lane of communication remains open,” Aucoin said in response to a question by IANS. The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan, has been patrolling Asia’s waters since World War II. Its coverage area extends from Japan to India.
China has blamed the US for militarising the area with its increasing presence, while the US has blamed China for this. Aucoin stressed that the need of the hour is “to stop militarising, and state what their intentions are and then peacefully settle their territorial claims in a court of a law. That would tremendously de-escalate the angst that is now in the South China sea.”
Tension has been escalating in the South China Sea with China claiming more than 80 percent of the area. The other major claimants to the area include Vietnam and the Philippines. In recent years, China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres in the waters that see trade worth $5 trillion annually. Satellite images have shown that China has deployed surface-to-air missile launchers on an island in the South China Sea. Of late, it has also increased reliance on non-naval ships to assert its claims in the sea as per reports.
China also rejected a recent decision by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Attribution (PCA) over strategic reefs and atolls that Beijing claims would give it control over the South China Sea. The judgment was in favour of the Philippines. Aucoin, in the past, has called for patrolling of the South China Sea by multiple nations.
Asked what role he expected India to play in the South China Sea, he said that was for the country’s leadership to decide. He, however, added that India has set an example by abiding by the international order when it accepted a decision of a UN tribunal on its maritime boundary with Bangladesh. “I look at India as an example, the country that does it the right way. There was a claim between India and Bangladesh. India agreed to take that to court. That would be a terrific path forward in South China Sea that they take it to court and then following the ruling the countries would heed to the ruling,” Aucoin said.
At the same time, he said that communication with the Chinese PLA Navy had improved, and a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is now in place. “We interact with the Chinese Navy quite a bit. We talk about the South China Sea, we talk about a number of things and there is good progress in some areas like CUES,” Aucoin said. “China has adopted that and has really eliminated a lot of uncertainty.”
The Vice Admiral added that India and the US, being two major democracies in the world, need to act together to encourage other countries to follow the rule of law. “I think as big democracies, we need to act together to encourage following the rule of law because this demand on resources is only going to be more exacerbated in coming years. I very much look forward to working closely with the Indian Navy and the example they set for the world stage,” he said