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The Escalating South China Sea Dispute - Lessons for India

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 01, 2016

    In recent days, the fight for dominance in the South China Sea has escalated. A few days after a Washington-based think-tank released a report which featured satellite imagery showing further development of several of the Spratly Islands, China landed fighter aircrafts on the Woody Island, a subset of the Paracel group of islands. More worryingly, China has placed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on the Woody Island, providing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with the capability to target aircrafts in the South China Sea’s contested spaces.

    Needless to say, there has been much speculation over China’s ‘strategic’ intentions in the South China Sea. The act of placing missiles on a disputed territory has been widely interpreted as hardening of Beijing’s maritime posture – not just on account of the direct threat the missiles pose to foreign air-operations in the South China Sea, but also because the new armament complements PLA’s existing air warfare capability on the Woody Island. For regional watchers, the fact that the missiles on Woody Island support Chinese J-11 fighter operations is a sign that Beijing may be looking to enhance its political and military control over the South China Sea. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric from Washington painted the Chinese move as an aggressive act intended to fortify a long-held territory and promote Beijing’s territorial claims in contested waters. Chinese analysts, meanwhile, portray the deployment of military assets on the Paracels as a defensive measure to protect the PLA facilities on the island from other disputants.

    There are four reasons why these developments should interest India. First, regardless of the claims and counter-claims by the United States and China, it is clear that Beijing operates from a position of strength in the South China Sea, wherein it has physical control over critical islands in the region. China has shown the US and its allies that what matters in a maritime territorial dispute is the actual ‘possession’ of the islands, and as long as the PLA exercises military control over the features it will exploit their location to support broader territorial claims. For New Delhi, which has been concerned about the security of its trade-flows and energy interests in the South China Sea, however, China’s placement of missiles might hold a hidden message. Greater militarisation of the disputed islands could translate into less freedom of navigation for foreign warships in the South China Sea, as the range of ‘permitted’ maritime operations will now be defined by Beijing. Even commercial vessels might now ply at China’s sufferance.

    Second, China’s preferred means to exert its authority over contested maritime territory is through indirect control. In the immediate aftermath of the new radar installations in the Spratlys and deployment of missiles on the Woody Island, it looks increasingly likely that Beijing would impose an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, ensuring the PLA’s dominance over the surrounding air-space and seas. At present, the likelihood of such an eventuality might only be confined to the Pacific littorals. Yet, there is no discounting its occurrence in other maritime areas where China might have strategic interests – including critical spaces in the Indian Ocean.

    For Indian observers, it is useful to extrapolate known Chinese position in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and assess Beijing’s likely strategic behaviour after the PLA has established a foothold in critical Indian Ocean states. Could the PLA, for instance, play a role in assisting Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Maldives in securing vital sea and air spaces in the Indian Ocean? What could the implications of such a move be for India? As a key security provider in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi appreciates the need for greater stability in the region. Will India, however, accept an expanded Chinese role in securing important spaces in its primary area of interest?

    Here, Indian analysts might take note of the Chinese maritime tactics in the South China Sea. Notwithstanding its military deployments on disputed islands, China’s real ‘implements’ of aggression are the maritime militias in the South China Sea. Earlier this month, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the US 7th Fleet, lamented China's use of paramilitary agencies in territorial disputes, complicating the US attempts to avoid violence in disputed areas. According to the US naval sources, the presence of Chinese non-military vessels, including its coast guard and fisheries fleets, have jeopardised naval operations in the region because such vessels are not governed by agreements like the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). As China’s unconventional forces respond with greater aggression to perceived challenges in the region, American analysts point to the possibility of a dramatic rise in the risk of an inadvertent conflict.

    China’s maritime militias, however, aren’t autonomous agencies, but centrally-controlled organisations that work in tandem to enforce China’s writ in its near-waters. Their regular employment in dominating maritime spaces is an instructive pointer for Indian watchers. With the expansion of Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean, the presence of non-grey hulls in the IOR is likely to rise. Admittedly, this wouldn’t be to the same degree as witnessed in the Southeast Asia. But even a relative increase could complicate the security situation in littoral South Asia. Already, Beijing’s distant water fishing fleet is now the world’s largest and is heavily subsidised. China’s rise as a fishing power, however, has been linked to its geopolitical aspirations. With rising Chinese non-military presence in the Bay of Bengal, India’s maritime agencies would be faced with the unenviable task of regulating their maritime activity. Indeed, just as the US is now calling for a new Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to include state-aligned maritime assets, India might need a fresh set of rules of engagement to deal with increased Chinese non-military presence in the IOR.

    Third, Indian maritime policymakers might well recognise the fact that once China finds itself in a position of maritime advantage, diplomatic engagement has limited utility as a bargaining tactic. The missiles placement at the Woody Island came within a day of the US President Barack Obama’s meeting with ASEAN leaders at California, where the participants sought to evolve a consensus for a peaceful solution to the disputes in the South China Sea, and the need for common norms and rules of behaviour. China’s latest military move, the US analysts say, is an obvious attempt at normalising the idea of Chinese military assets and advanced defenses in contested territories.

    This also underscores the contested nature of the maritime domain in Asia. Regional observers cannot help noticing the practiced ease with which China and the US play the ritual of cooperation and conflict at sea. Just days after the passage of the USS Curtis Wilbur for the second freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) patrols near the Triton Island in the Paracel group, the US Chief of Naval Operations consulted with his Chinese counterpart about unplanned encounters at sea. Both naval chiefs appeared satisfied with the implementation of the code. Yet, only a few days later, China had placed missiles on the Woody, and Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S Pacific Command, announced that the security situation had worsened to a point where the US Navy was contemplating intensifying the FONOPs. India’s maritime managers would note the need to factor in greater strategic and operational uncertainty into future security operations.

    Lastly, there is a need for India to strike a balance between maritime security imperatives in the Indian Ocean, and its legal stand on freedoms enjoyed by user states in territorial waters. New Delhi’s real dilemma is that while it opposes Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, it also disagrees with Washington’s interpretation of maritime law and the freedoms enjoyed by foreign warships in littoral spaces. In particular, India does not concur with US attempts at claiming a “right to uninterrupted passage” in coastal waters without the prior permission of the subject state – especially in areas that are deemed to be within a nation’s territorial waters. New Delhi’s view on the subject, in fact, broadly corresponds with Beijing – particularly on the need for prior notification by foreign warships before entering a coastal state’s territorial waters or EEZ claiming innocent passage.

    For India, unannounced forays through territorial waters and EEZs – ‘innocent passage’ or absolute ‘freedom of navigation’ - are ethically (if not legally) untenable. Even though the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) permits continuous and expeditious passage in coastal waters - necessitated by needs of navigation – the law does not appear to legitimise the practice of conducting maritime operations for political purposes. India therefore has reservations about supporting a US naval manoeuvre in the South China Sea as it could potentially encourage similar behaviour by the PLA Navy in the Andaman Seas.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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