For many in India, the South China Sea ruling presents an opportunity for India to underscore its credentials as a responsible global power, Harsh V Pant writes.
It was widely anticipated. Yet when it came, it seemed like a shock. Dealing a major blow to Beijing’s insistence that it has special rights to the South China Sea and in a victory for the Philippines, an international tribunal of judges decided that China’s claims to the critical waterway are without legal merit.
The ruling handed down by the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in response to the complaint made by the Philippines after the seizure of Scarborough Shoal by China in 2012 has set the stage for more tension in one of the world’s flashpoints. It will radically alter not only China’s relationships with its Asian neighbours, but with other major regional and global players such as the United States, Japan, Australia and India. China claims almost all of the South China Sea but its claims are fiercely contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China has long refused to recognise the tribunal and has repeatedly said that it will ignore the decision, which is binding and not subject to appeal. And Beijing reacted quickly to the tribunal’s decision with China’s defense ministry suggesting that its troops would “unswervingly safeguard state sovereignty, security, maritime rights and interests.”
Defying the tribunal’s ruling, Beijing insisted that it had sovereignty over the South China Sea. China was “the first to have discovered, named, and explored and exploited” the islands of the South China Sea islands and their waters, and had “continuously, peacefully and effectively exercised sovereignty and jurisdiction over them”, Beijing said in a white paper on settling disputes with the Philippines.
That Beijing was preparing for an adversarial ruling was evident even before the ruling was announced when a Chinese civilian aircraft successfully carried out calibration tests on two new airports in the disputed Spratly Islands. And immediately after the ruling, China’s Defence Ministry announced that a new guided missile destroyer was formally commissioned at a naval base on the southern island province of Hainan, which has responsibility for the South China Sea.
Within hours of the court’s ruling, Chinese social media erupted with anger and rage in a sign of growing grassroots nationalism. There are many in China, especially in the People’s Liberation Army, who would like Beijing to adopt a harder line by, say, renouncing UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) altogether and declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over most of the South China Sea. And with its Seventh Fleet long deployed in Asia and having to play an important role in reassuring its allies about freedom of navigation in the region, Washington is now confronted by some very difficult choices about the extent to which it would like to confront a potentially aggrieved and even more aggressive China. After declaring South China Sea as one its ‘core national interest’, the Communist Party in China too will find it very difficult to go to the negotiation table without a loss of face.
The US response has been measured so far with Washington asking Beijing to follow the ruling and suggesting that the ruling won’t change much about American policy and that US freedom of navigation operations will continue. Other states have also responded along similar lines.
Within hours of the tribunal’s ruling, India’s external affairs ministry issued a statement that, without naming China, called on all stakeholders to resolve disputes peacefully and to show respect for the UNCLOS. This was a position on principles, not on China or Philippines and important for India which is looking for a role as a regional security provider. For many in India, this moment presents an important opportunity for India to underscore its credentials as a responsible global power.
China, which was talking about global norms to block India’s bid at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) last month, now seems prepared to flout international law with impunity. But India managed to resolve its maritime dispute with Bangladesh using the arbitration route. US Assistant Secretary of Defence for East Asia Abraham Denmark alluded to this when he suggested that China should follow India’s example of resolving its maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh by implementing the award by a similar tribunal appointed by the PCA. The PCA-appointed tribunal awarded Bangladesh 19,467 sq. km of the 25,602 sq. km sea area of the Bay of Bengal on the dispute regarding the delimitation of the maritime boundary between India and Bangladesh in 2014 which the two sides have since implemented.
India is also now ready to significantly enhance its presence in China’s periphery as underlined by Modi government’s readiness to sell the supersonic BrahMos missile to Vietnam after dilly dallying on Hanoi’s request for this sale since 2011. In their recent joint statements both the US and India have repeatedly declared their support for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, signalling that the Modi government is not reluctant to highlight New Delhi’s convergence with Washington on regional issues.
India’s engagements with states like Australia, Japan, Vietnam and Philippines have become more serious. India has publicly supported Vietnam and Philippines in their disputes with China. Indian naval ships have been visiting Vietnam in the South China Sea region and the two nations have continued to cooperate on hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea despite Beijing’s warnings.
New Delhi would like to use this strategic opportunity to shore up its profile in the larger Indo-Pacific as the region comes to terms with China’s assertiveness. There has always been a demand for a greater Indian role in the region. After China’s reaction to the tribunal’s ruling, it is only likely to increase.