FPRC Interview with Commodore R S Vasan IN (Retd.), Director General, C3S
Image Courtesy: Crisis Group
Interview credit: Foreign Policy Research Centre
Q1. Do you agree that the SCS problem is all about China's sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea?
By and large, the problem in SCS is definitely about the aggressive, expansive unsubstantiated claims in the SCS based on manipulated charts and historical records that are not factual. The claims based on cartographic manipulation/modification more so with respect to the overlapping EEZs, were debunked in 2016 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in Hague, upheld the claims of Philippines and passed verdicts which favoured Philippines. The reference to the so-called nine dash line (scaled down from an earlier 11 dash line) was to claim the entire South China Sea and control the SCS for furthering its military, political and strategic objectives. The reported possession of trillion cubic meters of gas and food resources was alao a factor for China flexing its muscle and rejecting the claims of the smaller maritime neighbours. Also as per the provisions of the UNCLOS, even if there is allowance for building artificial Islands in own EEZ, there is no provision for either building these in disputed EEZs or for claiming an EEZ based on the outer limits of the islands so built. While sovereign nations are allowed to build artificial Islands the extent of control around such Islands are governed by Article 60 of the UNCLOS 82.The artificial islands now house the military garrisons, airfields with support systems and C4ISR architecture which have been created in contested EEZ of neighbouring countries.
Q 2.The disputed waters have emerged as a delicate front in the rivalry between China and the US. Why are other western nations and the EU opposed to China’s claims on SCS?
The basis for the opposition to the exaggerated claims in the SCS is driven by the fact that China does not believe in Rule Based Order (RBO) despite being a signatory to the UNCLOS( it has also ratified the conventions locally) which has stood the test of time since 1982 when it was accepted by the members. The unresolved dispute in SCS with neighbours Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia has contributed to the sense of unease amongst smaller neighbours in the SCS. The emphasis on RBO is noit restricted only to the maritime domain but also in many other global forums where China has been exposed as a defaulter. China on its part has been quite happy, to defer the implementation the Code of Conduct (COC) which has been going on for over two decades. The delaying tactics has not instilled confidence with its smaller neighbours. The use of military militia and muscle power to deal with the fishers of smaller nations has hardly contributed to a sense of security and stability in the region. China continues to use the threat of economic disengagement with the countries and induces them with promises of heavy investments. The developments in the region on multiple fronts have resulted in strong responses by the international community. Even the identification of the Indo Pacific as a confluence of oceans which brings many stake holders together has many layers of strategic, political and economic contestations. It is clear that the opposition of the western nations and the EU stem from the demonstrated reluctance of China to accept the provisions of UNCLOS and the reluctance to follow the RBO. The behavior of China vis-à-vis its neighbours continues to be a sour point in the relations of China with the free world.
Q 3. How do you look at ASEAN's approach to SCS?
ASEAN even as a grouping of the ten nations has found it challenging to deal with China. ASEAN countries are heavily dependent on China's investment in the host countries. The recent RCEP has brought about greater interdependency with China occupying the central pole in trade and commerce dealings in the region. Due to its economic, military and political clout with the ASEAN countries, China has consciously avoided dealing with the group and prefers to deal with each nation on a bilateral basis as it allows China to negotiate from a position of strength to ensure that issues are either resolved on China’s terms or put on the back burner as per its agenda. FPRC JOURThe COC is a classic example of how China avoids/defers/prolongs decisions in a grouping. While each country desires to have a productive healthy relation with China, the past experience has shown that this has resulted in a disadvantageous situation for the ASEAN countries.. This also explains why the members are also looking out for options to diversify and decouple/derisk to reduce their dependence on one single country. Militarily, each member is also shoring up their defences and preparing deterrent forces in the face of a belligerent China. The recent exercises with the Indian Navy by the ASEAN countries designated as AMEI 2023 conducted in the South China Sea is a clear indicator that even as a group, the countries are exploring multilateral options with other players for protecting and furthering their interests. The export of Brahmos to Phillipines, possible setting up of a military naval base in Sabah in Indonesia, the transfer of a naval vessel to Vietnam etc., are indicative of the enhanced leve of cooperation with these countries.
Q 4.What are Japanese and Australian perspectives on SCS?
As far as these two countries are concerned, they are members of the QUAD and Australia is a member of the newly formed AUKUS, a military alliance with potential to challenge China’s might beyond the second line of defence. Japan has recently indicated that it may not be a silent spectator in the event of a Taiwan flare up. Japan has ongoing issues with the East China Sea whereas Australia has no direct disputes in the maritime domain.Japan has also upped the ante by spending more on military capacity and also increasing its options by engaging with South Korea and other nations in the region. However, the enhanced engagement of China with the neighbouring Island nations of Australia will add to the dynamics of power play in the Pacific. The relations between China and Australia have not improved. It is not incorrect to even say that China has enabled (compelled) new alliances due to its actions and behaviour in the SCS as well as its international dealings.
Q 5. Should India be worried about the developments in SCS?
India is a legitimate stakeholder in the happenings of SCS. This is accentuated by the fact that over 55 percent of the trade of India passes through SCS. India is also now an active partner of the QUAD which has diversified into many areas that would impact the region in other than military matters. The initiatives of vaccine diplomacy, HADR, MDA, S&T initiatives, student exchange and education initiatives, and collaboration with the countries bordering the SCS have the potential of influencing Chinese behaviour. India has consistently upheld the concept of the RBO and from a position of moral high ground as demonstrated by its acceptance of the verdict favouring Bangladesh in the case of adjudication of the overlapping EEZ claims. China on its part is obviously worried about the increased perceived tilt with the USA and the western powers and considers it as a challenge to its ascendancy as a Super Power. The statements from the Chinese leadership and from the media clearly acknowledge the changed landscape in the Indo Pacific with all the recent initiatives notably since 2017 when the QUAD2.0 came in to being with renewed vigour and sense of purpose. India has been seen as a useful ally in taking up many challenges post Covid. The Russia Ukraine war is a clear example of how such conflicts impact the global order. There have been issues of food security, energy security and even a threat of crossing the nuclear thresholds . Similar developments in the SCS would be of great concern to all the nations . India which depends on free and open Indo Pacific would find it difficult for carrying on trade with the East Asian economies should there be disruption in the SCS due to a clash over Taiwan or aggressive patrolling by Chinese forces.
Click the link below to read the FPRC JOURNAL (J-55) 2023 (3) South China Sea : Global Stakeholders .