November 29th, India International Centre, New Delhi
Centre for Security Studies, O P Jindal Global University organized (November 29) an international conference on the topic ‘The South China Sea: Current Challenges and Future Perspective’ at India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi. During the conference presentations were made by 14 eminent scholars from different think tanks and universities of India and attended by more than 50 scholars, academics, media persons, and students.
While giving the introductory remarks Dr. Pankaj Jha, coordinator of the conference and Centre for Security Studies said that the purpose is to highlight the evolving dynamics in the South China / East Vietnam sea, and how it would have an impact on great power politics as well as the faith on the international maritime order.
He clearly said that the time has come for the international community to take note of the developments in SCS and work out a feasible solution protecting interest of smaller nations. In his opening address Professor Sreeram Chaulia, Dean of Jindal School of International Affairs said that the policy of US president while referring to his newly released book ‘Trumped’ talked about post US international order and gave a detailed description about how the Beijing led order would be a problem for the international community.
He exhorted the scholars and academics to raise the issue in every forum to highlight the problems and cautioned that US has to commit itself to international responsibilities rather than asking for a raise for the costs of stationing US troops in Korea and Japan. He said the all UNSC permanent members should take cognizance of the developments and call a meeting of UNSC to highlight the need to take precautionary measures.
The draft COC need to be finalized without compromising on the rights of smaller nations such as Vietnam. Professor Brahma Chellaney said that Vietnam’s response to Chinese activities in Vanguard bank need to be noted and lauded. He said that despite dismal and minimum support from international community, Vietnam saw to it that its EEZ and its maritime interests are not hampered and put up a strong resistance to China.
He said that the global community needs more action, and commitment to the cause otherwise the world will witness that the South China Sea might turn into a Beijing lake. He said that China has created a reclaimed area equivalent to Washington DC in the SCS region, and it would take lot of ammunition to flatten the reclaimed land. For a free Indo-Pacific Vision, South China Sea is the critical connector.
The attention that should be given to the region should be more from India also as the effect would be effect in Indian Ocean also. The military activities and also demarcation of illegal maritime zones by China means that it would become completely under Chinese control.
He said that Exxon Mobil a US company is planning to withdraw from South China Sea, and it means that US influence is incrementally eroding. The withdrawal of Exxon Mobil would mean that the company is not sure of US support for its exploration activities.
In the first session of the conference, Dr. Rajaram panda, the Governing Council member of ICWA of Ministry of External Affairs supported think tank said that the time has come to limit Chinese assertive postures and undertake deep thinking so that the increasing Chinese activities can be curbed, and China must comply with international rules and regulations.
He said that the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to which China is a signatory need to be revised and amended so that threat or use of force should be seen as an act of aggression by any dialogue partner. He said that there are a number of issues involved in the strategic sea lanes and it needs ASEAN activism to address these issues so that the ASEAN multilateral organization stay relevant for its members.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja said that while maritime domain awareness and standard operating procedures need to be framed in the context of South China Sea, the challenge is to create marine domain awareness also which is more about undersea minerals, and other valuable resources. Unfortunately, the debate is about maritime zones not the huge resources which exists and for which China has started exploration and research activities taking non-contentious zones as its domain. Oliver Gonsalves of NMF, an Indian Navy think tank said that the oil exploration activities and legitimate research activities has been thwarted by Chinese naval activities and many nations have withdrawn from the EEZ of the claimant states with the exception of China.
Chinese dominance in strategic sea lanes have an impact on international trade and commerce and also marine life as well as fishing activities. Dr Faisal Ahmed, said that there are economic aspects of Chinese activities and proposed that the coastal countries and other partner countries can engage in joint exploration, knowledge sharing, and mutual capacity building in this area. Moreover, fisheries in SCS accounts for an estimated 12 per cent of the global fish catch. It is however likely to witness a decline owing to the damaging coral reefs caused due to artificial islands and installations. The marine ecosystem is becoming gradually vulnerable, which is a serious cause of concern.
Dr. Nguyen Ba Cuong, from Scientific Research Institute of Sea & Islands, Vietnam, highlighted Vietnam’s Perspective on Developments in the SCS and said that China has dispatched a ship for a months-long seismic survey, together with armed escorts, into Tu Chinh–Vung May Basin along with its continued harassments with Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities in Nam Con Son Basin since June, whichever is all well within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. These and other developments underscored the increasing violations of China on its neighbors’ EEZ and continental shelves and just how critical managing and resolving tensions in the South China Sea are, for Vietnam and for region. He said that the international community needs to take note of Chinese expansionism, the power of international law in securing the rule-based international system, and the effective balance of power which is essential for maintaining the law and order in the Indo-Pacific region.
Chairing the second session, Brigadier (Dr.) Vinod Anand, Research Director, Vivekananda International Foundation said that the resolution of SCS is important for the safety and security of the maritime trade and commerce and in case it is not resolved under certain international guidelines then the situation would become grim and alarming. Navy Captain(Dr.) Sarabjeet Parmar, Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation opined that the South China Sea is host to multiple case studies revolving round power dynamics, rules-based order, sovereignty of islands, and the interpretation, respect, and adherence to international law. The tribunal ruling on the Philippines-China case can be viewed as a landmark judgement, which unfortunately cannot be enforced as UNCLOS works on the principle of global acceptability. He underlined and analyzed critical aspects that are germane to sovereignty, international laws and related aspects vis-à-vis the South China Sea.
Ms. Sana Hashmi, ex- consultant MEA said that over the years, China has strived to enhance its naval capabilities in the region, and a major objective behind this naval expansion is to reinforce its sovereignty claims on the South China Sea. The Chinese claims, based on arguably dubious historical precedents, are challenged by a number of countries in the region. So far, some of the claimants involved have maintained strong uncompromising positions. It has internal political dynamics involved in its international posturing. Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh from IDSA said major powers reacted to the South China Sea developments differently. As pointed out by a Chatham House study, while the leadership of Australia, India and Japan, respectively, do not have common views on China, they agree that China must be managed. Neither India, nor indeed Japan or Australia would like to see the relationship with China as a zero sum game. The U.S. takes no position on competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, and has not signed UNCLOS. But the US does encourage all countries to uphold international law, including the
Law of the Sea as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, and to respect unimpeded lawful commerce, freedom of navigation and overflight, and peaceful dispute resolution.
Dr Xuan Vinh Vo from Vietnam opined that ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in 2012 failed to release the communique due to the disagreement over the South China Sea dispute. After the release of a separate statement on the current developments in the South China Sea in the wake of China’s illegal deployment of oil rig in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf in 2014, ASEAN’s cooperative spirit has continued to decrease. Although expressing the grouping’s position, phrases such as ‘some leaders’, and ‘some ministers’ have appeared in chairman’s statements and joint communiques in recently instead of ‘leaders’ or ‘ministers’ as it used to be. The process of COC negotiation process has heavily effected by Chinese approach, especially close economic relations between China and some ASEAN member states. It is difficult for ASEAN and China to reach a legally binding COC in 2021 as scheduled.
Presiding over the last session of the Conference Dr. Jyoti M Pathania, Senior Fellow of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) an Indian Army think tank, said that there is a need to look for possible solutions of this problem and the international community will have to undertake the task of bringing order in the region. General Shashi Asthana from United Service Institution (USI) said that while much has been said about Quad in strategic circles but SCS is the possible theater where the utility of this grouping can be explored. However, it has its limitations. It can be put to tests through group sail and joint exercises. Undertaking surveillance activities and enforcing order through military means should be an option. There are chances of flare up but then the Quad members will have to activate their international standing to force China to comply with international maritime order.
Rudroneel Ghosh, Assistant Editor, Times of India said the South China Sea (SCS) has been in media limelight in recent years due to China’s aggressive activities in the region. Beijing has been building artificial islands and militarizing some of them to bolster its claims over the entire SCS area. This, despite the fact that its so-called Nine-Dash Line cartographical claim was rejected in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in a case brought by the Philippines. He cautioned that there is also a tendency to view the SCS issue exclusively through the prism of China and a matter between China and Southeast Asian nations. And this can be counterproductive to sustaining international media attention on the SCS, which is necessary to evolve a consensus-based architecture in line with international law.
Dr Sripathi Narayanan said the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and Indo-Pacific region symbolises the shift in the global centre of gravity from the Euro-centric Atlantic order to the Asian landmass. The prevailing contestation is not only confined to hegemony and power politics but also scripting the discourse on the global order. While the MSR, as a subset of the BRI is a political articulation stemming out of infrastructure projects, the Indo-Pacific is a reverse, wherein the political posturing is yet to fructify in any visible form.
In his concluding remarks Dr. Pankaj Jha said China’s assertive postures and threatening tactics that it has adopted with India’s oil exploration initiatives and also Indian naval ships have been intimidated through radio messages in the past. Given the fact that South China Sea, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits are areas of secondary maritime interest from India but Chinese actions to demarcate the non-contentious area also as disputed zones would add to India’s problems. The Chinese dominance in South China Sea would trickle down in Indian Ocean also and therefore India will have to make tactical and strategic choices to constrain Chinese actions in the region. He said that there is a need for dialogue partners dialogue on the subject while keeping ASEAN in the loop. There is a need for elevating East Asia Summit for more proactive role in the region.
The rapporteurs to the conference presented the findings and the summary report of the presentations
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Shailesh Kumar is an independent journalist with over 17 years of experience in crime, political and defence reporting for leading media brands including Star News, India TV and NewsX. He is the founder editor of defence and security news portal, National Defence.