Senior Fellow, VIF
While last year China created an avoidable controversy by sending its giant drilling rig HD-981 for drilling for oil within the EEZ of Vietnam to bolster its claims in South China Sea, of late Beijing has adopted innovative strategy of building islands of sand for supporting its maritime claims.
Recent reports indicate that China has been converting small atolls and reefs in the Spratly archipelago into islands where besides harbours even airfields are being constructed. For instance, Fiery Cross Reef which was under water sometime back has been developed into an artificial island with a runway and other facilities that have military implications. Not only PLA Navy and Air Force would be able to project power further afar the construction of islands by China is expected to strengthen its maritime claims in the South China Sea.
The runway that has been constructed on Fiery Cross Reef is around three kilometers in length which would enable the operations of jet fighters and military transport aircrafts. Apparently, the length of the runway is more than even some of the runways on the mainland where the length ranges from 2.7 kilometers to 4 kilometer. Another runway of 3,000 meters in length is under construction on Subu Reef that has been developed into an island also located in Spratly group of islands.
As is well known Vietnam, China, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have contesting claims on this group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands in the South China Sea. Some of these locations have military constructions and/or civilian posts for fishing purposes. However, China’s territorial maritime claims in South China Sea are by far the most blatant based on its so called ‘nine dash line’ which, in fact, makes the whole of South China Sea as somewhat of a Chinese lake. This line lacks any legal or historical basis and does not follow any internationally accepted norms.
Building islands and converting them to military posts is designed to alter the status quo. While such actions enhance the strategic influence of China in South China Sea it also enables China to expand its EEZ thereby enabling it to exploit the natural resources of the area be it oil, fisheries or the mineral wealth lying under the sea. Basing men and material in the artificial islands also allows it to reinforce its maritime and territorial claims more vigourously.
The ASEAN member countries and the international community in general remains concerned with China’s assertive policies in the South China Sea which are against the accepted international norms. ASEAN countries meeting at Malaysia on 26 April expressed serious concerns on China’s land reclamation in the sea and called for ‘self-restraint in the conduct of activities’. China’s activities in the SCS are violative of agreed Code of Conduct Of parties in South China Sea concluded in 2002 and UN Convention on Law of Sea. In the last ASEAN Summit held at Nay Pi Taw in Myanmar the ASEAN members had stressed on resolution of jurisdictional disputes through peaceful means. China’s approach has been to deal bilaterally with the countries involved in the dispute rather than through a multilateral mechanism. In fact, in 2012 ASEAN summit in Cambodia no joint statement could be issued because of China’s influence on the host country and its insistence on not making a reference to the same in the communiqué.
According to one estimate a total of about 5.3 trillion US dollar of international trade passes through South China Sea and 90 percent of the intercontinental trade is carried out through the Seas and 40 percent of the entire world trade passes through the SCS. Therefore, freedom of navigation through the Seas remains an important principle to be upheld by the international community.
At a G 7 meeting in Lubeck, Germany, convened this month to reflect on maritime domain security, the Foreign Ministers of the seven nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, US and the High Representative of the European Union) made a pointed reference to the situation East and South China Seas and expressed their concerns about ‘any unilateral actions, such as large scale reclamation which change the status quo and increase tensions’. They were against any attempts to assert claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force. They also called for acceleration of work on a comprehensive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and, in the interim, underlined their support for the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea.
ASEAN members like Vietnam and Philippines are the worst affected by China’s aggressive policies and they have been looking for outside support to balance China’s aggressiveness and safeguard their interests. Philippines has revived its defence pact with the US and is looking towards Washington for succor and help if Chinese push comes to a shove. Similarly, Vietnam has shored up its relationship with the US and has also become a member of the US sponsored Trans Pacific Partnership in order to adapt to changing dynamics in the region. However, many experts feel that Obama has been amiss in its efforts to ‘rebalance’ in Asia Pacific as it lacks commitment.
Yet, recently President Obama while speaking at the Caribbean Summit in Jamaica observed that “Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions”. Obama again expressed his concerns about China’s activities in South China Sea during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the US in end April. The U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris Jr has also expressed his concerns about China’s creation of a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also recently expressed anxieties about the militarization of the South China Sea disputes.
India has been consistently supporting freedom of navigation and adherence to UNCLOS by all the parties to the dispute in the SCS. India’s own activities in the exploration of oil by ONGC Videsh Limited off the coast of the Vietnam but well within its EEZ have been impacted by China’s assertive approach. China has raised objections to India’s exploration activities. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj while addressing the 12th India-ASEAN meeting in Myanmar in August last year had supported freedom of navigation and access to resources in the South China Sea in accordance with principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Therefore, the ASEAN, India, Japan, Australia and the G7 nations need to work together in maintaining status quo in the South China Sea and influence China in resolving the dispute through peaceful means.
Published Date: 5th May 2015, Image Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk