Chinese checkers: India must act with global community to contain China

Attempts to create order after experiencing extreme disorder has been the story of mankind since creation.

More recently, the League of Nations, the Geneva Convention, the UN and many more such measures have been pursued with the sole intention of creating law and order where little existed. The situation is equally applicable at sea where the absence of laws could result in anarchy, collisions and worse, destruction of the entire ecosystem that has the capacity to support life on earth.

 Chinese checkers: India must act with global community to contain China

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, though other nations also have claims. Reuters

International maritime laws covering a wide spectrum of activities at sea have been conceived and activated to cater to maintaining good order and discipline in oceans which are international highways, where ships of all nations ply. These laws find application among heads of state, legislatures, courts, diplomats and indeed among those who man, commercial as well as war ships.

The two better known convention/rules/laws that affect all those who are associated with the sea are the UN/IMO sponsored International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea and the United Nations convention of the laws of the sea (Unclos).

Since this article is confined to the recent judgement of the dispute brought to the international tribunal by the Philippines, against her powerful neighbour China, on the illegal claims to her maritime territory in the South China Sea (SCS), let me limit the discussion to consequences to law abiding coastal and island states and the world at large.

Given that Philippines or her other neighbours Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan either singularly or collectively do not have the capacity to stand up to China, the continued presence of a powerful US Navy carrier task force in the area coupled with a strongly worded Japanese white paper released just a couple of days ago are indicators of the immediate reaction to China's bizarre and crude response to the verdict delivered by the international tribune.

Can China be allowed to get away by not abiding by the convention that she voluntarily signed and ratified? What if China is emboldened by a meek response of the international community, to violate the clauses of NPT for instance? Is this the beginning of the end of an era of initiatives taken by the UN and other multi-national bodies to regulate and maintain a conflict free environment especially at sea? In this context, the non-military and if necessary military response to contain China's aggressive thrust in the South China Sea merit examination and consideration. A brief review of China's apparent change of strategy after Xi Jinping took over, would clarify the situation.

China under Xi Jinping

Xi has introduced a shift in Chinese declared policy about her willingness to project and use power, as is evident in the May 2015 White Paper on Military Strategy. He has, with great resolve, steered China away from the direction proposed by one of his predecessors Deng Xiaoping. The silent and subtle methods suggested by the latter have been gradually replaced with show of power and aggressive intent. Ongoing People's Liberation Army reforms appear to focus on power projection outside her own territory and in the immediate periphery.

What then are the options open to law abiding coastal and island nations who have benefitted by the provisions of Unclos?

Non-military measures

These include diplomatic, judicial and economic. Sensing that sooner than later the international community with or without the cover of UN would launch a diplomatic offensive, China has adopted some unprecedented countermeasures. A battery of diplomats and Chinese military personnel have descended on the capitols of countries that have a say in the UN. Hurried consultations and meetings with decision makers to justify their stand of rebutting the verdict of the international tribune is the agenda. Massive graphics and video clippings of their stand are available on the official Chinese media. Not even the Times Square in New York has been spared of the media onslaught on a giant screen. This is an unprecedented show of diplomatic/media offensive that has not been attempted by any global power.

It is to be seen if the Americans can or will mobilise their allies in the Asia Pacific including Australia and Japan to match this diplomatic offensive.

The judicial measure initiated by the Philippines has been justly rewarded. It is to be seen whether UN Security Council will attempt to rebuke one of its erring permanent members with a veto power. The very fact that in the past too, the permanent members of the security council have violated laid down procedures to establish peace in crisis ridden areas, strengthens India's repeated call for reforms of the UN.

Economic measures against China have repercussions on almost all powerful nations who trade with China. It would need consensus of a unique nature.

Military measures

The US in its attempt to continue to engage with China is expected to adopt a twin track approach of openly challenging China's claims in South China Sea by claiming the right to innocent passage and freedom of navigation as enumerated in Unclos. Japan and Australia may join this venture. This will be supplemented by inviting China to join powerful displays of warships drawn from many nations including India, as was the case in the recently held RIMPAC off Hawaii.

India has the option of participating in non-military and military measures of her choice. We need to support the desire of the international community to contain China before she assumes the role of a permanent bully in the critical waters of East and South China Sea.

Lack of action or sitting on the fence is not an option we can afford, given that China is expected to flex her muscle increasingly in the immediate future and in our backyard too!

The author is a retired vice-admiral of the Indian Navy and former chief, Southern Naval Command. Views expressed are personal.

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Updated Date: Aug 10, 2016 15:45:17 IST