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South China Sea and the MEA’s ambivalence; By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0100/2016

Courtesy: DNA India

The South China Sea dispute is now headed to the next level of power play. The award of the Arbitral Tribunal set up under the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) on the dispute between the Philippines and China has gone against China.

In awarding the Philippines jurisdiction over most of the waters of the Spratly Islands, the tribunal rejected China’s claims of “historical rights” over the disputed area known as the “nine-dash line”.

There are no two ways to interpret the verdict. The case has gone against China. China cannot be said to have “lost the case” because China neither accepts nor recognises the tribunal’s verdict; and, was not a party to the case.

Thus, while China did not lose the case, it has lost face. Although this may not change the reality of the situation, China would be seen as setting itself against world opinion. That is a major political and diplomatic challenge, which may explain China’s angry reaction to the verdict. “It will certainly intensify conflicts and even confrontation,” the Chinese ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai said in Washington.

The country that expects to make the most out of this verdict is not the Philippines, but the US. Therefore, it was only to be expected that the warnings to China’s rivals — against turning the South China Sea into a “cradle of war” — were meant for Washington, and other western states.

The Philippines, though it won the legal case, is far from jubilant. Manila welcomed the award, as form demands, but with restraint. The Philippines knows that the award cannot be enforced, and any hope of securing its interests lie in negotiations with China. The newly-elected president of Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has made it clear that he is opposed to a confrontation with China. Duterte would like to use the outcome of this case to upscale economic cooperation with China and strike some lucrative deals.

The question is can Duterte resist the US pressure to have the Philippines lined up against China. Washington’s tried and tested tactic in this region has been to set other countries up against China while avoiding any direct confrontation that puts Sino-US cooperation at risk.

Similarly, the US and China have expectations of India, and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) did not disappoint. The MEA’s stated position does not lean in favour of either Washington or Beijing. Yet it allows not only Washington and Beijing but also Manila to claim that New Delhi is firmly on its side.

The statement said: “India supports freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS. India believes that States should resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability.

“Sea lanes of communication passing through the South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development. As a State Party to the UNCLOS, India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans.”

Obviously, this pleased Beijing enough for a state-owned publication to count India among the 70 countries supporting China’s position on the South China Sea. At the same time, Washington can cite the second para as being critical of China. And, the Philippines has reason to be delighted with every line of the statement.

The MEA’s calculated ambivalence (or, neutrality) is appropriate at this juncture as the muscle-flexing and power play is yet to begin in earnest.

(The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator.)

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