Run FONPs, solo, in South China Sea

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. ( 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.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Culture, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Missiles, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, society, South Asia, South East Asia, Sri Lanka, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US., Vietnam, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Run FONPs, solo, in South China Sea

  1. MS says:

    You amaze me-how could our thoughts match so much! to quote- That China understands no other language “except a hard one that it uses” is the point …
    I hope there will be a growing list of powerful, assertive men in India who will take to this thought and act accordingly.

    China does need any shiny goodies in its bag for negotiation with India because it thinks it can look our leaders in the eye and tell them, “you know, our soldiers can come marching down again”. Even before Chinese leaders could complete their sentence, our people would start nodding and ready to comply.

    But all this can change if we act courageously and also deftly-don’t rush in there to SC Sea but wait for global player’s tactic, as you have articulated.

    We fool ourselves into giving too much to weight to once active officials, you mentioned, not acknowledging that they have retired and do not have the energy to comprehend and exposure to the new dynamics(even though the old China tactic is also there).

    That is why there is need for MEA to be linked to professionals and strategists in the private domian.

    Once India gets entry into the mtcr and other clubs, it can do for vietnam what you suggest.

  2. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Sitting back and digesting the idea of independent FoNP. It does not appear an unthinkable idea actually. Makes sense in fact. But I guess only so long as it is independent. Without independence our own people will ensure it that such patrols become another excuse to drive us into the fading US club. But independent of US influence it does make sense.

    Because even legally speaking, it becomes far far more important to register protest against somebody intent on making claims based on usage. The least one can do is protest and if somebody cannot do even that much then he deserves whatever follows. Over and above registering protests there is the sky to be gained (mapping of seas for our subs)

    Would be the right response to the PLAN sub activity in the IOR. PLAN is already here in multiple ways. How long before this state of affairs (where China is in IOR but India is out of Indo-China Seas) begins to appear normal?

    One smart thing the Chinese are doing for themselves is that they are dealing with each of the countries independently which basically divides their strengths. But a bunch of biggies like US, South Koreans, Japanese and Indians can go on independent FoNPs every now and then. South Korean and Japanese Navies are actually quite big and capable, in some respects better than Indian Navy. While Vietnam and Philippines are good places to visit and refuel for these larger navies. There is tonnes of merchandise going along these sea lanes for everybody involved and Chinese hegemony should not be acquiesced to.

    What I don’t like and would remain beware of, is the ceaseless desire of our Gungadins to tag along with the big dog’s owner. I would doubt their willingness to actually do something worthwhile for Indian interests. They would be more than willing to have the Indian interests negotiated in some foreign lands by foreigners. And independent FoNP also guarantees that the opportunity for such unholy consorting does not arise in the first place.

    In any case if we have to deploy 5-10 Nuke subs and 3 Carriers, as is the plan, the freedom of navigation must then be pursued for our own strategic needs. This becomes especially important for the Arihant which currently is 100% of our second strike but can carry only 750 km ranged K-15s. Each of those K-15s can carry a city buster but can only be used from beyond the Malaccas. Even if we decide to reduce payload size still K-15 will not be able to work from the Bay of Bengal. FoNP provides excellent cover for this preparation.

  3. Shiv says:

    Very nice article. Keep up the good work.

  4. Atul says:

    By the way, that talk, on the South China Sea in the IIC that you have mentioned, was quite interesting. The Chinese harped mostly on traditional Chinese fishing rights, 2000 years of control, KMT claims etc etc. They didn’t clarify any 9-dash line coordinate and evaded questions on Scarborough Shoal’s probable buildup in future. One of the speakers, Ye Hailin was quite hostile towards any Indian/American role in the SCS and consequently, one of the audience even mentioned that if this seminar was a convincing exercise, I think China was failing in it.

    Most interesting contribution came from an Indian-American scholar Sourabh Gupta who strongly supported Chinese legal claims and went through the legal merry-go-round on the SCS.

    This issue is going to become quite fun to watch in next 30 days !!!!

  5. It is alright to talk of solo FONOP on our own.But are we prepared if there is a fight.The whole world knows of our severely depleted submarine fleet.It is to better prepare ourselves first.

  6. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    By: PTI | New Delhi | Updated: May 18, 2016 10:42 PM

    “Indigenously built guided missile stealth frigates, INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri, INS Shakti, a sophisticated fleet support ship, and INS Kirch, an indigenous guided missile corvette, will participate in the MALABAR-16 exercise.

    During this overseas deployment, the ships of Eastern Fleet will make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay (Vietnam), Subic Bay (Philippines), Sasebo (Japan), Busan (South Korea), Vladivostok (Russia) and Port Klang (Malaysia).”

  7. KP says:

    If push comes to shove, will India be ready? You seem to be very optimistic about India’s Armed Forces. Also the biggest cowards are the politicians and bureaucrats. They are mortally scared of bombs and missiles hurtling towards Lutyens Zone that may derail their gravy train. So Status Quo is the best option.

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