Yesterday, there was a maritime security dialogue with US officials, including commander of the US 7th Fleet. The Americans no doubt urged India to join them in FONOPs (freedom of navigation patrols) through the South China Sea. Today a Chinese delegation was in town, as a paper reported, trying to convince New Delhi about China’s claims to all of the SC Sea, and not to join anyone in upsetting China’s order in that area.
China’s case does not have a legal leg to stand on. What it lacks in substance, China makes up with relentless bravado. Its fantastical claims in the South China Sea indicated on maps by the so-called “9-dash line”, which when Changkaishek’s Koumintang regime originally drew it, it was the 11-dash line in 1947. Based on “Chinese activities dat[ing] back to over 2,000 years”, Beijing says it owns every one of the rocky outcroppings, low-tide elevations and submerged features, many of which the Chinese have over the past decade diligently augmented into airstrips, small naval bases, and areas for radar emplacements by pouring sand and cement to create “islands” out of virtually nothing. That’s strategic imagination for you!! These physical creations are, by its reckoning, encompassed by the line dashes and constitute sovereign Chinese maritime territory. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea all these claims are nonsensical. Nonsensical because UNCLOS recognizes only the sea area within the 12 nautical mile-limit as sovereign territory. Nor has Beijing articulated the coordinates of these dashes and the sea territories they cover. Like the MacMahon Line — LAC — drawn with a flat, fat, blunt red pencil dividing China and India in the Northeast on colonial era maps, these inked lines in SC Sea are too indistinct to translate into actual geographical features, even less exact coordinates on the map. In any case, China has not attempted definition, relying rather on bilateral negotiations with the 7-8 other states in Southeast Asia who also claim the same islands and seas and who have always disputed China’s rights over them, in order to arm twist each of them separately to gain the most advantage. In fact the reasons for Beijing’s unwillingness to sit down and actually mark out the areas covered by the thick MacMahon Line, is the same reason why it is reluctant to articulate what the dashes mean on the map and what areas they cover.
A US State Department study reveals just why China is so keen on its expansive claims — it involves 2 million sq kms of maritime assets (oil, gas, seabed minerals) amounting to 22% of its land area. But more significant than its exaggerated claims on and below the water is China’s trying to dissuade in-area and extra-territorial powers from mounting FONOPs under “innocent passage” provisions of international law. Because should China’s control of these extended seas not be challenged by FONOPs even in peacetime, then the legitimacy of its actions in keeping all countries outside its elongated maritime security perimeter way outside the 9-dash line, would be firmed up by custom and usage and, in time, acquire legitimacy.
This is plainly not in India’s interests. But neither is it in India’s interest to join the US Navy in patrolling the waters in these narrow seas. Because that, as Zhongnanhai warned in February this year, “will do nothing but show its hostility against Beijing and devastate [India and China’s] mutual strategic mutual trust” and compel changes in Chinese policies towards India.
This makes one wonder about what trust Beijing is talking about? Has GOI ever accepted there’s such trust? If so then the Indian government should clarify. If China doesn’t want India to take sides on SC Sea, why has it sided with Pakistan all these years on Kashmir, terrorism, and generally about every thing, and going to the extent of nuclear missile arming the small, weak, unstable, Islamized neighbour to the immediate west? And why didn’t Indian governments 1970s onwards raise Cain, make international noises, and warn Beijing that to take the step of nuclearizing Pakistan would be to invite India to do the same vis a vis its neighbours — and there are more of them fearful of China than there are adjoining states apprehensive of India? Considering the Modi govt has not mustered the guts to even dispatch the Brahmos missiles to Vietnam that it promised, can it be expected to undertake more onerous actions to raise the costs for, and impose them on, China?
That China understands no other language except a hard one that it uses is the point I have been making again and again for the last 30-odd years. Unless there’s absolute, definite and immediate tit-for-tat action/policy after a warning, Beijing will go on merrily shoving India into an Asian corner. If India doesn’t like this, it should push back but this New Delhi — no matter what party or coalition is in power — has no stomach for.
But to return to the SC Sea, it doesn’t make sense for the Indian Navy to join the US Navy in FONOPs in SC Sea because it is not a good idea for would-be great power — India, to follow any one’s lead or be part of another great power’s retinue because then India’s status as a camp follower is reinforced. This will not do. But it makes a great deal of strategic sense to send Indian naval flotillas openly, deliberately, and repeatedly on criss-crossing patrols across this sea that Beijing would like to “close” — creating a ‘mere closum’ (closed sea), stopping at Brunei, dropping anchor in Subic Bay and Manila, having R&R at Cam Ranh Bay and Nha Trang, and repeating it all over again — with one warship designated to the area to this mission on rotation. Because China simply cannot be allowed to prop up its pretence of sovereign rights over this vast swath where India, jointly with Hanoi, has invested in oil rigs and has concessions for oil and gas exploration. In any case, India has also to wait and watch how the international community deals with China. If it concedes China’s claims in whatever manner, then there’s a good case for India to make similar claims, follow Beijing’s actions to the T, in the waterways off Komorta and Campbell Bay, closing off access to the Indian Ocean except to friendly westbound traffic. China, in that sense, sets a legal and practical precedent — whatever it is. Just as it has set a strategic precedent by missile arming Pakistan which absolutely permits India to return the favour and respond in kind by nuclear missile arming Vietnam for starters as I have been advocating for, what, 20-odd years now.
But when has New Delhi shown the gumption to thump its 56-inch chest in China’s face — not the same as belabouring a weak and decrepit Pakistan, is it? Just how bereft of ideas MEA is may be evidenced in recent op/eds of former senior diplomats. Ex-Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, other than saying, on the Masood Azhar issue that India needs to impose costs on China, has no ideas whatsoever about how to do so. (http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160517/jsp/opinion/story_85967.jsp#.Vzr4zfl96Ul). It will be safe to venture that pushed to explain what a reasonable counter to China would be, Sibal would probably support the Sino-Indian anti-terror pact on the anvil!!! Another diplomat, Hardeep Puri, member (still?) of the BJP foreign policy cell, (in a Hindustan Times op/ed, May 17, 2016) writes at an even more elevated and abstract level of focusing “on merits while mending the wall” as a way of earning “respect that is rightfully ours”. He says nothing about how to minimize the Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka and Nepal except to note that these two states have joined Pakistan in forging an “all weather friendship” with China. He offers no panacea other than use of the diplomatic “back channel” but whether this will right the skewed situation in the subcontinent, leave alone farther afield, is questionable.
If this is the passive-defensive best solutions to win “respect” that MEA types (and hence MEA) can come up with, than it won’t be long before India truly recedes to the millennial old jambudwipa — islanded in the Chinese seas lapping at all our borders.