Beijing’s defiance of an international court over its South China Sea policy will have an impact far beyond South East Asia. Humphrey Hawksley argues that India in particular needs to decide how to react
The recent international court ruling against Beijing’s claim to some 90 per cent of the South China Sea gives Asian governments a pressing reason to turn to their history books, and learn how best to handle a rising economic power with global ambitions.
China has refused to recognise the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that came after three years of examination by five maritime judges of the intricacies of tidal flows and submerged rock and reefs off the coast of the Philippines. In a lengthy 500-page ruling, the court found that China had been violating Philippine sovereignty.
On the one hand this is a warning to China about its strategic assertiveness in South East Asia. On the other,
Its blunt reaction therefore has repercussions far wider than South East Asia. In the short term, they stretch north towards the East China Sea’s disputed islands with Japan, and west through the Malacca Straits into the Indian Ocean. It is no coincidence that within days of the announcement, India put down its own marker by sending three warships into the South China Sea to work with the Royal Malaysian Navy.
In the past century, the two main global powers have been the Soviet Union and the United States, both of which routinely rode roughshod over international law. When the Soviet Union sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, no one suggested the Permanent Court of Arbitration would sort things out. In the same way, the United States invaded Grenada in 1983 to stop a Marxist government taking hold there and Panama in 1989 as part of its War on Drugs, and over the decades has carried out a string of other hostile foreign policy operations. Earlier, when European colonialism held sway, Britain waged the 19th Century Opium Wars against China and ruled South Asia with scant regard for legal niceties and human rights as they would be defined today.
Against this backdrop, China has been far more benign than its predecessors. Nevertheless, it is now moving to secure its political influence in Asia and its maritime trade routes. Much of its proclaimed ‘peaceful rise’ will depend on what it comes up against on its way.
There are similarities here to America’s expansion when almost 200 years ago, in 1825, with barely a navy to its name, the US introduced the Monroe Doctrine to wrest control of the Caribbean and Latin America from colonial European governments.
This, essentially, is what China is saying: in the American phrase, it regards the South China Sea as its back yard. Therefore, despite the involvement of smaller Asian countries, this dispute is a confrontation between America and China, and only they can resolve it.
A hundred years from now, it is unlikely that the US will still be the predominant power in the Asia-Pacific region, but, as yet, there is no road map on how to change that balance without military conflict. The language of warships, missiles and fighter jets might play well to nationalistic audiences, but it is not conducive to a diplomatic settlement, and the possibility of miscalculation has become very real.
‘There is an urgent need to get all concerned back to the negotiating table,’ said Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s former ambassador to the United Nations and author of Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and Politics of Chaos. ‘The alternative will be the law of the jungle.’
After the US and China, Asia’s two biggest hitters are India and Japan, who were holding a defence summit in Delhi at the time of the court ruling. The Indian and Japanese defence ministers reacted with a carefully-phrased joint statement, calling on all parties to work towards a peaceful settlement ‘without any threat or use of force’, adding that the security of the Indian and Pacific Oceans were ‘indispensible for the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region.’
The US has been encouraging an increasingly close India-Japan defence relationship as a lead element in a loose coalition that it initiated almost 20 years ago to counter China’s rise. Its effort began with Japan, India, South Korea and the Philippines, but now includes Malaysia, Vietnam and most recently Indonesia, which has no territorial claim in the South China Sea, but is angry at incursions into its waters by Chinese fishing fleets.
But progress in coalition-building has been painfully slow. There is much bad history between these countries, particularly with Japan, whose current nationalism and military expansion is causing worry. The alliances are far from resembling an Asian NATO, and each of these countries is treading carefully to avoid challenging Beijing head to head, for fear of damaging entrenched economic relationships with China. Beijing has already shown its muscle by cutting trade with the Philippines.
Over the past two decades, China has made no secret of its plans for expansion, and has been running its South China Sea and Indian Ocean operations in parallel. In the early 1990s, it rigged makeshift shelters of bamboo scaffolding on reefs in the South China Sea, ostensibly for its fishermen. Back then, it had neither the wealth nor hardware to do much more.
Further afield, it has been launching high-profile projects such as the One Belt, One Road plan, the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the Maritime Silk Road, or String of Pearls, bolstering its military and trade interests around the Indian Ocean. They include port and other facilities in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, posing a a direct challenge to India, to which New Delhi has been slow to respond.
In development terms China, has far outstripped India. The large disparity in their economies is reflected in their 2015 defence spending – China’s $145 billion against India’s $40 billion. In military terms, India cannot match China, which has now shown its disregard for the international rule of law.
‘India is going to have to come to terms with China’s entry into the Indian Ocean,’ says Nilanthi Samaranayake, of the US-based Center for Naval Analysis. The question is, how? The Sino-Indian relationship remains fractious, from the unresolved land border dispute to the more recent attempts by Beijing to block India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The coming years will be filled with similar frictions.
As the South China Sea dispute continues to escalate, India will be under pressure to put itself firmly inside the American and Japanese camps, but that may not happen. India may have moved on from its non-aligned status, but it still values its independence from locked alliances. The alternative would be to break from that coalition and find its own arrangements with Beijing. However, if China’s rise continues, India will be operating from a position of weakness.
There is a historical comparison to be made with America. Once the Monroe Doctrine took hold, the US military, its money and political muscle swept through Latin America with such momentum that even a vast, but weaker, nation like Brazil came under the American thumb. Without forensic thinking and hard planning, China’s rise may well sweep through Asia in a similar manner.
Humphrey Hawksley, a former BBC Beijing bureau chief, is author of Dragon Strike: The Millennium War, a fictional account of conflict between China and the US in the South China Sea