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Maritime Security: Coping with the Chinese Challenge By Dr. Rajaram Panda

C3S Paper No. 0088/ 2015

A meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G-7) leading industrialized nations was held on 14-15 April 2015 in Germany city of Lubeck. In a landmark decision, the meeting released a “Declaration on Maritime Security” document separately from the main joint communique. It was unanimously agreed that cooperation amongst nations must be bolstered so that international order of the seas is maintained and unilateral maritime development and provocative actions by any single country shall be unacceptable. The declaration demonstrated the high importance that major countries such as Japan, the US and Europe attach to international order of the seas and was therefore a subtle message to China. Usually known as a club of the world’s seven major developed economies with a focus on economic issues, the unilaterally passing of the declaration on maritime security relating to the situation in the East and South China seas is unprecedented in the nearly 40-year history of the group. The foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US and the high representative of the EU reiterated their commitment to maintaining a maritime order based on international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the declaration.

Although maritime security emerged as the main focus of the annual gathering since the forum was formed in the late 1970s, the reference to territorial disputes in the South and East China seas formed now a part of the six-page document for the first time. The declaration also addresses a number of other subjects including piracy off Somalia, human trafficking and how better to share information. The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who chaired the two-day Lubeck meeting, said: “Japan, as the host of G7 meetings next year, is greatly interested in keeping this issue [maritime security] on the agenda in coming years.” The maritime security document came amid a growing anxiety among the G-7 about territorial assertiveness involving the use of force, heightened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a development that led to the eviction of Moscow from the then G-8 framework. Though Japan laboured hard for the issuance of the declaration, it, however, was not successful in securing European assurance of support in the event of an incident arising from China’s territorial claims.

Although it avoided singling out China by name, the declaration explicitly stated concern over China’s unilateral activities to change the status quo, such as large-scale land reclamation in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Lately China has been resorting to the use of “intimidation, coercion or force” and therefore the G-7’s strong opposition to such means was incorporated into the declaration to send a message to China. In recent times, Chinese ships have intruded almost routinely into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. In disputed waters in the South China Sea, Beijing has been pushing ahead with landfill operations on reefs to construct installations. The declaration noted that it is highly important that not only Japan and the US, but also the European countries, share a sense of urgency regarding the current state of affairs in Asia. As bulk of international trade is conducted through maritime transport, maritime security is a prerequisite for the freedom of economic activity. Development and exploitation of maritime rights and interests must be conducted cooperatively among the countries concerned, on the basis of internationally accepted rules.

The smaller nations of Southeast Asia usually face the brunt of Chinese threat. Though several Southeast Asian nations make contending claims on some parts of the South China Sea, China claims almost the whole of it. In particular, Vietnam and the Philippines have come under direct Chinese threat or attack. Both these countries are, therefore, strengthening defence and strategic relations with countries friendly to them. Japan and India, in particular, share their concerns and articulated their voices strongly in bilateral and regional forums. Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are other nations with their own claims and thus hotly contest Chinese claims. Even President Barack Obama voiced concerns as contention over the South China Sea recently increased and openly said that China is using its “sheer size and muscle” to push around smaller nations in the area. His comments came after Beijing unveiled details of its plan for building and maintenance projects on some of its islands there. Beijing was quick to retort in saying that America has the “biggest muscle” in the world. It was therefore appropriate that the G-7 countries now join hands with Southeast Asian nations to push Beijing to employ restraint on its self-serving actions and comply with international law. Though opinion among the G-7 is split over whether to participate in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, they are unanimous in their views to step in the field of security.

What has been the latest Chinese strategy to strengthen its stranglehold in the South China Sea? According to IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, China is stealthily and rapidly building its first airstrip on an artificial island in disputed South China Sea (SCS) waters capable of landing large military aircraft. Satellite imagery captured on 23 March 2015 show section of runway 503 metres by 53 metres on reclaimed parts in the north-eastern side of Fiery Cross Reef, which China began to turn into the Spratly Islands in late 2014. This move is likely to escalate regional tensions over the vexed issue. The newly created landmass is capable of housing a runway about 3,000 metres long. The imagery, provided by Airbus Defence and Space, also shows China building islands on Subi Reef that if linked up would provide enough land for another airstrip. Paving and ground preparation of other sections of the runway has also begun further along the island. In addition, workers have paved about 400 metres by 20 metres of apron. The Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says that the runway is more than one-third complete and when in operation, it will be able to “accommodate almost any type of aircraft that China would want to land”.

The CSIS further adds that before this construction, China lacked the refuelling and resupply capabilities to reach the southern part of the South China Sea. “While they have not yet been built, Fiery Cross should be big enough to accommodate hangar facilities for Chinese aircraft,” it added. Beijing is also installing port facilities, which may be capable of docking military tankers, the CSIS said.

As expected, China reacted sharply over the declaration on maritime security. The Chinese news agency Xinhua accused Japan as the mastermind behind the declaration and that Japan did a lot of work on stage and behind the scene. China accused that as the sole Asian member of the G-7, Japan laboured hard to successfully convince other members to create a document on maritime security issues. China feels that as host country for the G-7 group meetings in 2016, Japan was keen to retain maritime security issues on the agenda for discussion in following years. The six-page declaration includes issues involving commercial marine exchanges, smuggling and illegal migration activities, biodiversity and clamping down on piracy. Even if as it appears that Japan is ambitions to play a larger role in the East China Sea and South China Sea disputes, there is nothing wrong when international laws are violated with impunity by China.

In the fourth paragraph of the declaration, it said that G-7 ministers shall continue to pay close attention to the situations in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and expressed concern about any unilateral actions such as marine land reclamation that alter and even increase tense regional situations. “We strongly oppose any attempt to assert territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion, or force,” the declaration stated. The declaration urged all concerned countries to resolve maritime disputes through peaceful means, comply with international law including legal resolution mechanisms recognized by the international community. The declaration also appealed to all sides to accelerate negotiations on the South China Sea Code of Conduct and announced a senior G-7 group meeting on maritime security issues will be held later in 2015. It thus transpired that as a peace abiding nation, Japan wants to draw support from other G-7 member countries for its policy toward the East China Sea and the South China Sea disputes and even exert pressure on China through the declaration.

Reacting to the declaration, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told the press on 17 April 2015 that “the situation of this region is generally stable, and relevant cooperation has been moved forward with positive results.” China has urged relevant countries to do more that are conducive to regional peace and stability. When asked to comment on maritime disputes issue, Lei said. “We hope relevant countries can respect the efforts made by countries in the region to maintain the region’s peace and stability, and do more that is helpful to regional peace and stability”.

While reacting to the maritime dispute issue, Lei said that “China holds a consistent and clear position on maritime issues in the neighborhood. We maintain that the relevant disputes should be resolved through negotiation and consultation by countries directly concerned, and stay committed to safeguarding regional peace and stability and pushing for mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation along with countries concerned. The situation of this region is generally stable, and relevant cooperation has been moved forward with positive results. It is hoped that relevant countries would fully respect the efforts by regional countries to safeguard regional peace and stability, and do more things that contribute to regional peace and stability.” The Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai also said that China’s build-up of its capabilities in the South China Sea aims to serve the interests of maintaining security, stability and freedom of navigation there. “We always hope for peace and stability on the South China Sea as it’s just at the doorsteps of China. Nobody likes chaos at their doorsteps. We are unable to interfere with what the others do, but we oppose anyone who endeavors to make trouble on the South China Sea.” What this means is that what China thinks is just and correct and others should accept it without dissent. If it is not Chinese bullying, then what is it?

The manner China has started to become assertive, the countries affected directly by its policies have no option than to persuade other friendly countries to come to their help. Though Vietnam and the Philippines are strong opponents of Chinese aggressive posturing, both are no match to take on China militarily on their own. Both these countries are seeking friends and Philippines have even moved the International Court of Justice at The Hague for arbitration. Japan too is using the G-7 forum legitimately to prevailing upon China to see reason and respect global laws. And this is not recent. In fact, since joining the G-7, Japan has not been shy to articulate its views consistently that global norms and universal values should be respected. On the contrary, China accused Japan of using G-7’s international influence to discredit it.

The Philippine government was pleased to support the Declaration on Maritime Security. In particular, it endorsed the G7 Foreign Ministers’ concerns on “unilateral actions, such as large scale land reclamation, which change the status quo and increased tensions.” The appeal in the declaration for international efforts to strengthen maritime governance in pursuit of rules-based, sustainable use of seas and oceans was endorsed by the affected nations. The Philippines emphasized its appeal to stop unilateral actions that violate the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and international law.  According to them, such actions demoralize efforts to pursue the peaceful, rules-based resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea and to promote regional stability. The Philippine government welcomed the declaration as it highlights the international community’s commitment to uphold the principles of international law, particularly the 1982 United Convention on the Law of the Sea, which underlines the stable maritime code that serves common interests.

The relations between Japan and China cannot just be measured by differences in the maritime domain. Historical issues keep cropping up now and then whenever those suits the Chinese interests to browbeat Japan. Linking those irrelevant issues to the present tensions does not elevate China’s image. It seems to be immaturity of Chinese diplomacy to attempt to correct a historical wrong that is no longer relevant in today’s time. Does China aspire to be new Asian hegemon and does it expect the rest of Asia to accept and tolerate it? Historical precedents prove that not to be the case. Co-existing with the nations of present times and sharing mutual prosperity by respecting global rules shall be in everyone’s interests and China should follow that path. Mutual accusations serve no one’s interests but only complete problems and create newer ones.

 Besides the declaration on maritime security, the joint communiqué criticised Russia for its annexation of Crimea, which is a part of Ukraine. It also explicitly stated the stance of not lifting anti-Russia sanctions as long as Moscow fails to fully implement a truce agreed upon in February between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels. The Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian militants are engaged in armed combat, which has intensified again in recent times. There has been no progress on withdrawal of heavy artillery on either side. In order to arrive at a ceasefire, it is indispensable for Russia to exercise its influence over the pro-Moscow militants. The G-7, for its part, must address the matter strategically to get concessions from Russia. Both dialogue and pressure were stressed to be used on Moscow through sanctions. When the summit of G-7 leaders is held in June, policies towards China and Russia are likely to dominate the agenda.

Ensuring regional stability of East Asia and deterring any unilateral method by any single country to change the status quo by force is of utmost importance for global peace. Rule of law ought to receive primacy in foreign policy calculus of responsible countries and the G-7 nations must hammer out a set of truly effective measures to achieve this. Japan, which is scheduled to chair a G-7 summit meeting next year, should play its role actively. Among other issues, the joint communique strongly condemned the extremist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for perpetrating atrocities and human rights abuses, as well as their destruction of cultural heritage. The challenge of containing international terrorism is not limited to the Middle East but shared by the entire international community. Strengthening regulations on the flow of funds into terrorist organizations and steps for stemming moves of terrorist fighters are other priority issues.

What role the ASEAN as a regional organisation has in dealing with the escalating tensions in the South China Sea over contending claims? This issue will be critical one in the agenda when the ten-member groupings meet at Malaysia on 24-27 April 2015. This shall be the 26th summit and Malaysia as the host and chair ought to take the lead to addressing this issue. Unfortunately, not all members are united and some of the members prefer to deal with China on their own. The members ought to realise that Beijing shall exploit such disunity amongst ASEAN members to its advantage. In the past, Malaysia has traditionally preferred to deal with the issue rather quietly protecting its interests and preserving its relationship with Beijing. But situation during the past two-three years are pretty different and Malaysia as the Chair cannot afford to maintain its old policy and overlook the interests of the other fellow member states of the regional grouping. If, however, Malaysia chooses to continue maintaining its much-touted capacity of “moderation” without addressing to the issue of conflict resolution, it is likely to receive flak from other member nations. What the ASEAN need to focus to address the problem with China is to strengthen solidarity and cooperation with the US, Japan, India by engaging in joint exercises, strengthening maritime surveillance, information sharing and other means. Both Vietnam and the Philippines are already enraged by China’s belligerent behaviour in the past year by such acts as putting oil drills in areas claimed by Vietnam and water cannon firing on Vietnamese fishing boats. Philippines are too waiting a decision from the arbitral tribunal at The Hague with a positive mind. Moreover, regional community building as the core of building bridges in place, the target to form an ASEAN Community by 31 December 2015 could be a good occasion to forge unity to deal with the South China dispute and address the China challenge.

As already mentioned earlier, Vietnam and the Philippines are the two countries of the ASEAN whose tasks are cut out. By welcoming the American troops to its bases in 2014, the Philippines have already conveyed its willingness to depend on the US deterrence. Similarly, by strengthening defence and military cooperation with India and Japan, Vietnam has announced to Beijing that it is not alone and has friends. India has its own economic interests in drilling oil in blocks claimed by the Vietnamese. The former Indian naval chief D.K. Joshi has made a firm statement that the Indian Navy shall move to the area if its interests are at stake. The Obama administration by its rebalance to Asia policy shall not be found wanting to intervene if tensions escalate. What is therefore needed is unity among the ASEAN member states on this particular issue as economic interests of all are at stake.

Does India have any position on the South China Sea dispute issue? India does have a position and does not approve of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea who wants to address the issue on its own terms without any consideration to the sensitivities of other nations involved in the dispute or without any respect to global laws. India is also concerned that China is spreading its influence in the Indian Ocean region in a slow but subtle manner. But Beijing should not overlook the fact that the presence of Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean is unlikely to be affected anytime soon and that Chine should desist from any adventurism compelling a robust Indian naval response.    

Does the Asean as a regional organisation have any role to deter China from its assertiveness posture in the South China Sea? In terms of military capability and strengths, none of the ASEAN member nations having issues are in a position of dealing with China independently. What is required is to strengthen and resolve to take a unified regional stance in the ASEAN platform, while at the same time strengthening relations with countries friendly to them. India and Japan rightly qualify for that kind of role and thus needs to be strengthened. The declaration on the maritime security issue at Lubeck deserves to have universal support and endorsement by any nation that respects international law and universal values. Moreover, India too has its economic interests in the South China Sea as it is involved in oil exploration activities in cooperation with Vietnam and therefore ought to defend its maritime interests.

(Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow, IDSA, is now an Independent Researcher on security/strategic issues of Northeast Asia, based in New Delhi. E-mail: )

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