China at Sea

| by Maloy Krishna Dhar

(November 39, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The banner does not mean that the PRC has reached geopolitical wit’s end and is floating helplessly. Far from it. The PRC is the second super power in the present context of global power play. Even the giant United States lean heavily on the PRC for its economic revival. Ceaseless US war mongering, living beyond means, market debauchery and dipping GDP etc have generated economic decline. The US decline has cascaded down to European and global recession. Perhaps China and India have managed to survive the shockwave to some extent. The axis is becoming east-centric.

This newly acquired economic and military prowess is not solely responsible for China’s obsession with the South China Sea, claiming a vast segment of the Pacific Ocean as its backwater. Increased sea presence in South China Sea by Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, USA and China has prompted China to aggressively display its rights in the open seas.

In an earlier essay I had stressed on the aspects of the need for greater Indian presence in the Indian Ocean, right from the Malacca Straits to the mouths of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Hormuz. Increased collaboration between India and the US in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea was also suggested. It was pointed out how China was Thailand to create a Panama Canal type passage from the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Thailand to escape any future crunch on the Straits of Malacca. A Chinese effort to open up rail and road connection to the sea ports of Myanmar was also highlighted. All these are directed at greater Chinese access to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf oil routes. For the purposes of creating strategic outposts around India, China has been successful in establishing string of Pearls in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. It’s presence in Bangladesh, Maldives and Afghanistan is on the increase. So is the situation in the Central Asian Republics.

However, Chinese media often come up with undisguised warning whenever India successfully lands in forward airfields like Vijaynagar in Arunachal Pradesh, reinforces troops presence near Indo-China border, stations fighter units and missile positions in the forward border regions. China played funny game when an Indian Navy vessel made a routine call at a Vietnamese port. On a routine call at a Vietnam port, Indian naval assault vessel, INS Airavat, was harassed by the Chinese navy when it was travelling in open international waters in the South China Sea. The Chinese naval ship had warned the Indian ship for entering the territorial waters of China. The Indian Captain called the Chinese bluff by ignoring the warning and asserting that it was navigating in the international waters.

India has several times protested China’s presence in the Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir now under illegal occupation of Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan), their engagement in hydro-project, road, rail and other construction matters. Reported presence of over 11,000 Chinese PLA personnel in Pakistan was also protested by India. China refused to take even diplomatic cognizance of the Indian protests.

However, China has vehemently protested against India’s ONGC exploring oil and gas in the Vietnamese territorial waters, considered a part of the so-called South China Sea. The issue came up in the recently concluded ASEAN summit in Bali. India firmly rejected China’s objections to its presence in the South China Sea, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telling Chinese leader Wen Jiabao that Indian interests were “purely commercial” and sovereignty claims must be settled according to international law. The same view has been reiterated by Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Sources said the PM’s response came during the interaction that saw Wen seek greater coordination between India and China on the agenda of the East Asia summit. Wen’s raising of the South China Sea issue with Singh signaled Beijing’s growing concerns particularly as it has fought hard to keep this out of the purview of both ASEAN and East Asia Summits, preferring to deal with the matter bilaterally. Other nations are not interested in Chinese approach. They prefer international adjudication.

Addressing Asean leaders during the Asean-China summit later this morning, Wen warned “outside forces” from getting embroiled in the South China Sea dispute. The Chinese uneasiness reflects increased preoccupation with neighbors like Vietnam with whom the Asian giant has not always had peaceful relations.

“The dispute which exists among relevant countries in this region over the South China Sea is an issue which has built up for several years,” Wen told Asean leaders. “It ought to be resolved through friendly consultations and discussions by countries directly involved. Outside forces should not, under any pretext, get involved,” he added.

China has reason to sweat. Not only is India exploring for oil in areas Beijing feels lie in its territory. China’s Asian neighbors and rival claimants to South China Sea want the differing perceptions to become a multilateral issue so they together have a stronger case. And now the US has jumped into the dispute as well by pushing maritime security to the forefront of the East Asia summit.

US President Barack Obama, attending his first East Asia Summit here, told PM Manmohan Singh that this forum should be the premier one to discuss maritime issues, despite China’s objections. The gathering “can be the premier arena for us to be able to work together on a wide range of issues: maritime security or nonproliferation,” Obama told Singh. India has raised China’s hackles because of an oil exploration agreement with Vietnam, signed during the Vietnamese president’s recent visit to New Delhi. A joint statement after that visit said pointedly, “disputes in the East Sea/South China Sea should be resolved by peaceful means… in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”

The issue of South China Sea (?) is required to be understood in historical context.

South China Sea
It would be seen that the so-called South China Sea is a part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometers (1,400,000 sq mi). The area’s importance largely results from one-third of the world’s shipping transiting through its waters, and that it is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. This sea touches the shores of South China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Singapore and Philippines. The area is important for two reasons: vast reserve of oil and natural gas and one of the busiest shipping routes. Though historically it was named by the westerners as Mar da China, it was named Champa Sea, at the height of Hindu Champa power in Cambodia and Vietnam. In modern times the Philippines call part of the sea as West Philippines Sea.

The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs, and sandbars, most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some of which are permanently submerged. The features are grouped into three archipelagos (listed by area size), Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal:
Main islands are: The Spratly Islands, The Paracel Islands, The Pratas Islands, The Macclesfield Bank and The Scarborough Shoal. There are raging disputes over the Spartly, Paracel and Pratas Islands. Countries in dispute are PRC, ROC, Japan, Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore. It is an extremely significant body of water in a geopolitical sense. It is the second most used sea lane in the world, while in terms of world annual merchant fleet tonnage; over 50% passes through the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait, and the Lombok Strait. Over 1.6 million m (10 million barrels) of crude oil a day are shipped through the Strait of Malacca, where there are regular reports of piracy, but much less frequently than before the mid-20th century.

The region has proven oil reserves of around 1.2 km³ (7.7 billion barrels), with an estimate of 4.5 km³ (28 billion barrels) in total. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 7,500 km³ (266 trillion cubic feet). According to studies made by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Philippines, this body of water holds one third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity, thereby making it a very important area for the ecosystem.

The following map will illustrate the audacious expansionist demand of China in the so called South China Sea:

Such belligerent attitude of China, as indicated by the red dotted line, indicate that recent attitude displayed by China at ASEAN + conference in Bali is confrontationist. With further growth of Chinese maritime power and indicated declining presence of the USA this part of the Pacific Ocean may turn to a virtual war zone.

Such belligerent attitude of China, as indicated by the red dotted line, indicate that recent attitude displayed by China at ASEAN + conference in Bali is confrontationist. With further growth of Chinese maritime power and indicated declining presence of the USA this part of the Pacific Ocean may turn to a virtual war zone.

In the recent meeting between Obama and Wen Jinbiao the South China Sea issue had come up. US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said the “informal meeting” between Mr. Obama and Mr. Wen focused mainly on economic issues. He said the two leaders discussed “specific issues around business practices” as well as Chinese currency controls. Mr. Donilon said the United States did not have a view on sovereignty on the South China Sea, but wanted to see shipping lanes remain open.

“We don’t have a claim, we don’t take sides in the claims, but we do as a global maritime power have an interest in seeing these principles applied broadly,” he said. On Friday, in comments which appeared directed at the US, Mr. Wen warned “external forces” not to get involved in the maritime dispute. The Philippines had asked the US to step in to help solve the row, but ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan said that ASEAN and China could resolve the issue peacefully by themselves. India, however, pointed out that it was not interested in territorial claim or permanent naval presence in South China Sea. However, India mentioned that its presence in Vietnam waters for oil and gas exploration was only commercial in nature. The ONGC has been exploring oil and natural gas in different parts of the world under bilateral contracts. As India’s look east policy gathers strength in coming years such commercial activities may extend to the waters of the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei etc countries. India’s approaches to Myanmar for oil and gas exploration are also likely to mature in commercial activities. Bangladesh has not formally approached India. With improved relations such commercial activities cannot be ruled out.

Besides growing tensions along the land borders, diplomatic and strategic observers believe, India-China maritime confrontation is likely to increase around the countries considered as Chinese String of Pearls around India and in and around the South China Seas. Indian naval power growth is no more Pakistan specific. It is China oriented too. Confrontation with China at sea is a part of the strategic game the two countries are playing, with Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the USA as keen stage-players.