The long shadow of sea power and the South China Sea dispute - Hindustan Times
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The long shadow of sea power and the South China Sea dispute

ByHindustan Times
Jan 22, 2022 05:19 PM IST

The study is authored by Priyanka Pandit, PhD, is an Ashoka-Harvard Yenching post-doctoral fellow at the department of international relations & governance studies, Shiv Nadar University.

The tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) region over navigational rights and freedoms are showing no signs of a thaw. The U.S. navy’s latest naval deployments in and around Paracel and Spratly Islands to assert the freedom of passage and China’s reported counter deployments have yet again amplified the risks of the potential face-off and accidental breakdown of crisis. The tensions in the South China Sea have been steadily building up over the past decade with various regional and non-regional navies aggressively patrolling the region to claim the innocence of passage as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

The tensions in the South China Sea have been steadily building up over the past decade with various regional and non-regional navies aggressively patrolling the region to claim the innocence of passage as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). PREMIUM
The tensions in the South China Sea have been steadily building up over the past decade with various regional and non-regional navies aggressively patrolling the region to claim the innocence of passage as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

 

The islands, reefs, atolls, and cays of the SCS region have been historically contested by several countries including China. Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines have long claimed sovereignty over these features. The contest over sovereignty, however, has taken a dangerous turn in recent times as China started expanding its claims through both economic and military means involving the construction of airstrips and military-grade infrastructure at various islands and reefs in the South China Sea despite a 2016 international arbitral tribunal ruling invalidating any historic or traditional maritime claims there. The People’s Liberation Army’s navy’s aggressive takeover of various features together with a manifold increase in its naval warfighting capabilities have triggered acute concerns over the free and openness of the SCS waterways and caused security dilemmas for various regional and non-regional players. 

 

Being a geographical pivot linking the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean and East Asia with West Asia and Africa, the SCS region holds a unique importance in global trade and commerce. The transport of oil and LNG from SCS is three times higher than that of the Suez Canal. Moreover, the economic resurgence of the Indo-Pacific region has made SCS among the busiest shipping routes around the world. Apart from its importance as an important sea route, the SCS is also among the resource-rich oceans of the world with its large fisheries and hydrocarbon reserves. Oil deposits have been found in many of the continental shelves surrounding the sea and its vast natural resources are also among the sources of dispute among various claimant and non-claimant states.

 

The ongoing competition at the SCS thus demonstrates an interplay between geography and power politics at three different planes with diverse implications. They are the changing power balance in Asia, growing competition for maritime resources in the developing world, and the lack of a rule-based framework for managing security competition in the region. The region, in turn, represents a unique structural complexity where territorial sovereignty, economic interests, and navigation freedom converge, to form a potential flashpoint based on a plethora of diverse and overlapping claims and interests that are triggering some of the profound geostrategic shifts in world politics. 

 

These shifts are increasingly being witnessed in form of growing importance accorded to the SCS region in the strategic calculations of the United States (US) and many European nations. President Barack Obama’s famous “pivot to Asia” and his doubling down of alliance commitments to Asian partners were primarily aimed at ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific. As part of its ‘Asia pivot’, the US has been regularly holding joint naval exercises with partnering navies of Japan, Australia, India, and the Philippines and concluded several key defence and intelligence-sharing agreements. 

 

An increased military threat from China has also driven many Southeast Asian nations to increase their military spending by about 33% between 2009 and 2018. These countries have reportedly doubled their arms acquisitions within a decade as China is weighing heavily in their decision to pursue military modernisation. According to SIPRI data, for instance, both the Philippines and Vietnam have increased arms imports by 426% and 202% respectively between 2012–16 compared to 2007–11. This mainly includes various sea-based weapon systems to deter China’s maritime bullying and harassment missions. 

 

The geostrategic rivalry is also unfolding through the plethora of multilateral and minilateral groupings that seeks to address power asymmetries caused by China’s exponentially increased economic and military capabilities. These mainly include the quadrilateral security dialogue also known as ‘quad’ involving informal strategic dialogue between the US, Australia, Japan, and India that aims to ensure a free, and open Indo-Pacific region through freedom of navigation and over-flight. Similarly, the US has also announced a new trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US called AUKUS wherein the US has committed to augment Australian patrolling capabilities by agreeing to share its most prized nuclear propulsion technology with Canberra. 

 

This geostrategic churning is in many ways reminiscent of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s famous Sea Power thought outlined in 1904 that called for the acquisition of strong naval capabilities to expand overseas markets. Both the US and Chinese activities in the SCS broadly conform to Mahan’s Sea Power tenets in their bid to safeguard core interests that, in turn, is giving rise to a potentially risky action-reaction duel. 

 

Beijing’s claims of the SCS as the historic corridor for trade and a principal gateway to the world, for some 2,000 years, has also been a subject of much legal contestation. It is, however, the failure UNCLOS which entered into force in 1994 in providing a coherent geographical and legal definition has been a source of overlapping claims in the SCS. According to the UNCLOS, foreign ships, including warships, have the freedom to sail in the exclusive economic zones of sovereign states. Using this international law as a justification tool, the US opposes China’s claims on the SCS, but the justification becomes thin and subject to Chinese criticism as the US is yet to ratify UNCLOS that governs these matters. 

 

Furthermore, an adequate amount of both misperception and misinterpretation complicates the relationship that makes the development of pragmatic cooperative approaches quite difficult. It is therefore hard to justify the acts of China as well as the US in the SCS region, where both the countries are involved in exploiting the natural resources to the maximum, to serve their increasing energy demands and entangled in efforts to contain each other. The situation in SCS thus poses a serious concern. Only, a flexible accommodative approach that takes into account broader concerns of marine environment on the part of all rival claimants as well as non-claimants will bring about a long term, peaceful solution to this potential flashpoint.

 

(The study is authored by Priyanka Pandit, PhD, is an Ashoka-Harvard Yenching post-doctoral fellow at the department of international relations & governance studies, Shiv Nadar University.)

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