Strategic waters reach boiling point

The unequivocal joint statement by Japan and India on tension in the South China Sea in early December marked the latest stage of an American-led policy that began almost two decades ago to bring India into an alliance of Asian democracies.

The original concept was to create a strategic bloc with Japan, India and the United States that would forge a balance against hostilities arising from the ascent of China. It gathered momentum at the start of the War on Terror which, in the mind of the administration of George W Bush, would be won by spreading democracy in far-flung foreign parts.

India immediately highlighted a contradiction. Its status was overtly neutral and non-aligned and its relationship with the West was prickly and occasionally openly hostile.  Yet it shared, on paper at least, the same political values as the big beasts of democratic government in the United States and Europe.

With more than a billion citizens, India was the biggest of them all. Therefore, it was time to bring it formally into the fold.

Things began to move quickly. 

Less than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the United States began to lift sanctions imposed because of India’s nuclear programme. Delhi and Washington signed a strategic defence agreement that resulted in routine joint military exercises and in 2008 a nuclear cooperation agreement brought India firmly inside the Western strategic camp.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has adopted a no-nonsense, pro-Western outlook and has forged a personal rapport with his equally bullish Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. Together with the announcement of billions of dollars of trade deals came this brief joint statement on the South China Sea, the pivotal polarising issue of the region.

It did not mention China by name, but it called on all countries—‘in view of the critical importance of the sea lanes in the South China Sea’—to ‘avoid unilateral  actions’  that could lead to tension in the region.

On the one hand, the careful wording could categorise it as just another bland diplomatic statement. On the other, it underlines a truth that China is sandwiched between two substantial Asian powers who view its South China Sea policies as aggressive and plan to stop them.

NO-NONSENSE: Indian PM Narendra Modi (r) has forged a personal rapport with his equally bullish Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe (l)
NO-NONSENSE: Indian PM Narendra Modi (r) has forged a personal rapport with his equally bullish Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe (l)

The key question that follows is to what extent Asian powers are willing or able to handle this issue without the visible flexing of muscles from the United States—and whether that would be the best way forward.

After several simmering decades, the South China Sea has now emerged as the issue in which China’s expanding ambitions are facing down the United States and its long-held status as the predominant Asia-Pacific power.

The South China Sea itself is a crucial area because more than half the world’s commercial shipping uses it, notably passing through the choke-points of the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar Straits that link with the Indian Ocean. This is three times the shipping that goes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times that of the Panama Canal.

Any disruption would jeopardise energy supplies to Japan, South Korea and to China itself, which gets 80 per cent of its crude oil imports along this route.

There are also untapped fossil fuel reserves which China claims. But these are far less of an issue than the spectre of the Chinese navy intercepting and controlling the passage of free trade—a concept that is anathema to the United States.

The present tension began in 2009 when Beijing formally submitted its South China Sea claim to the United Nations. A U-shaped area delineated by what has become known as the Nine Dash Line follows the coastlines on both sides. Locally, it is often referred to as the Cow’s Tongue because of its shape.

Around that time, China began reclaiming developing reefs and atolls as strategic outposts hundreds of miles from its recognised territory, including airstrips for warplanes. One is 3,000 metres long.

The claim is disputed by Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, together with the Philippines and Vietnam, who are bearing the brunt of this early showdown. Their fishermen are regularly intercepted and attacked by Chinese coastguards, underpinning the international fear that China could up the stakes against bigger prey at any time.

From the Vietnamese island of Ly Son alone, 20 out of 50 fishing boats have been violently intercepted this year when operating in waters towards the Paracel Islands. According to the Vietnamese government, the boats have been rammed, boarded and the crews beaten. China’s only response is to say that it ‘stays unswervingly committed to peacefully resolving relevant disputes with countries directly concerned through negotiations and consultations’.

The upshot of these attacks and China’s refusal to negotiate has been the strengthening of one particular pro-Western alliance. The Philippines, which expelled the Americans from its military bases a quarter of a century ago, has forged new military agreements and is on the cusp of asking them back.

And 40 years after the Vietnam War ended with American defeat, the country’s communist regime is now forging new military, maritime and intelligence-sharing arrangements with the United States, Japan and, of course, India. The visit to Delhi a year ago by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung cemented an Indian policy to help Vietnam with the modernisation of its armed forces.  Within India itself a phrase has been coined—the ‘Vietnam card’—to keep China in place.

But while Beijing might appear circled, in reality things are far more complex because all involved are entwined with China through a network of different relationships, mainly economic. For example, China has responded to the Philippines taking it to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague by banning Philippine fruit and discouraging its tourists to go there.

Each Asian government has its own issues with China—the Sino-Indian border; the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands between China and Japan in the East China Sea; Vietnam’s cross-border electricity supply, and so on.

VITAL CHANNEL: The South China Sea is a crucial area because more than half the world's commercial shipping uses it
VITAL CHANNEL: The South China Sea is a crucial area because more than half the world’s commercial shipping uses it

It is far better that these are handled within the region because America’s intricate relationship with China is entangled more than any other, from the economy to climate change to terrorism. There is even disagreement within the US administration on how far to push Beijing. The Pentagon wants more US warships and aircraft to enter China’s claimed territory; the White House wants more caution.

So far, Asian governments, acting alone, have shown no ability to steer China towards a compromise. The last attempt in November at a regional Asian summit failed because of a straightforward block from Beijing.

But it is far preferable that Asia as a region, and not the United States, drives through any South China Sea deal with China.  If it fails, then the issue will continue along its present path of becoming a face-to-face superpower showdown.  When that happens, a final deal will be struck in Beijing and Washington, with trade-offs on issues that might have little to do with Asia, putting them out of their hands and at risk of being against the interests of the governments involved.

This is why India’s voice, however soft, is now so important.

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