For China, the SCS is peaceful and the nations, including the Philippines, are living there in complete harmony. The reason behind such bizarre thinking of the Beijing monarch is that all the smaller neighbours in the SCS are resigning themselves to a new normal, heavily pushed by the former’s muscle power and money in all these years
China's violent forays into the South China Sea (SCS) are turning out to be threats to the neighbouring nations. China's constant provocation towards the Philippines has forced the latter to embrace the US security umbrella. Nearly a swarm of 220-armed Chinese fishing vessels entered the Whitsun Reef in the SCS. This particular zone falls rightly within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf of the sovereign territory of the Philippines.
It is not about withdrawing China’s “maritime militia” from the EEZ’s of the Philippines in the SCS for now. The moot point is why the Xi regime is militarising the international navigational lines? China must respect the freedom of navigation across the SCS by the neighbouring nations and the rest of the world.
However, Filipino President Rodrigue Duterte has refused to be drawn into the big power competition in the SCS. He urged the global leaders to refrain from pursuing their interests at the expense of smaller countries. Duterte said that the world appeared to be hurtling back to the era of heightened big power competition that adds another layer of complexity to long-standing security issues in the region. Further he highlighted that his country is not blind to the geopolitics of diversification and decoupling. However, the Philippines does not see the need to take sides in the ongoing geo-economic competition among big powers.
It is worth noting the background of the SCS conflict at this moment. This will offer a window of opportunity to understand the original cause behind the clash between China and Philippines and other claimants in the region. The maritime dispute with Philippines has its roots lying in China’s controversial nine-dash line claim. Indeed, its official appearance was noticed for the first time in a map Beijing submitted to the UN in the year 2009. This map appears to encapsulate major part of the contested SCS. But the SCS concerns competing maritime and territorial claims. At the centre of the conflict, four groups of geographical features are contested, which are the Pratas Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands. The most controversial one is the Spratly Islands claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
In March 2013, the Philippines brought a case against China over its grand claims and activities in the SCS. The case was heard by the arbitral tribunal under the United Nations Conventions for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The final verdict that came in July 2016 was a major victory for the Philippines against China in regard to resource rights. The Hague-based tribunal overwhelmingly backed the Philippines and ruled that the rocky outcrops claimed by China, some of which are exposed only at low tides, can’t be used as the basis of territorial claims. It said some of the waters were within the EEZ of the Philippines because those areas are not overlapped any possible entitlement of China. The tribunal found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in those waters by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration and by constructing artificial islands. But then President Xi claimed that China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the seas would not be affected by the ruling. He insisted China was still committed to resolving disputes with its neighbours. Thus China outrightly rejected the ruling given by the international tribunal.
Currently, the Philippines and China have called for Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) to ease tension in the SCS. Both the countries have met for the sixth round of talks on the latest incursions of Chinese vessels into Philippines’ territory. During the virtual meet, they cited the importance of dialogue in “easing tensions and understanding each country’s position and intentions in the area” and “addressing differences in an atmosphere of openness and cordiality to pave the way for practical cooperation and initiatives”. But how the bilateral dialogues will push back China from the Philippines’ territory is a big question. Will Beijing abide by the guidelines of such talks? Do they matter to the rogues in the power corridors of China? First of all, the opacity in Chinese public policy making is an old game since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949. Nevertheless, starting from Chairman Mao Zedong till the coming of current President Xi, China has always suffered from its old dream of making an empire in modern Asia.
The way China is behaving in the SCS is weakening the international law in the sea. It’s a blatant violation of the UNCLOS. It is also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty or Law of the Sea Convention. Simply it is an international treaty that clearly establishes a regulatory framework and guidelines for using the seas and oceans. Its aim is to ensure the use and conserve marine resources and also to preserve and protect all living organisms in the sea. Further, the UNCLOS highlights the rules of the high seas for the purpose of international navigation and establishes the rights and responsibilities of nations in the protection of the marine environment. On November 16, 1982, the UNCLOS was signed at the Montego Bay, Jamaica, as a result of the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea. However, the law came into force only in 1994. But way back in 1973, such proposals for international sea laws surfaced at the UN. And today, more than 160 nations across the world recognise these global sea laws, and China violating the same is no less than an outrageous act.
In March, the US warned China against what the Philippines and Taiwan see increasingly aggressive moves towards them from Beijing. Washington clearly reminded Beijing of the former’s obligations to its partners in the Pacific. The State Department clearly said: “An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircrafts in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty.”
Further the report of the State Department highlighted that America is aware of the concerns of the Philippines regarding continued massing of the PRC maritime militia near the Whitsun Reef. More than 200 Chinese boats were first spotted near the Whitsun Reef in March, nearly 320 kilometres west of Palawan Island in the contested SCS. However, these islands wherein Chinese vessels entered belonged to the SEZs of Philippines. Despite repeated appeals from Manila, Beijing refused to withdraw its vessels from the area.
This month, the US is gearing up for war with China in the Indo-Pacific. President Joe Biden has authorised more weapons to army bases in Australia. The continued Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and around the world has forced the top Biden policy makers to prepare for the worst. And this is pushing the US-Australian military alliances coming ever closer in recent times.
Finally, what one can conclude today is that international pressure on China has not at all been consistent in all these years. As a result, the periods of neglect towards China’s aggression corresponded with more and more Chinese incursions in the recent times. For now, and in the coming days, Beijing is fast losing its reputation because of its massive plan to occupy the entire SCS. Certainly, Xi regime appears willing to sacrifice its reputation, but only at the cost of strategic and military gains. The recent incursion of Chinese military into Indian territory at Eastern Ladakh is a fit example. China is not wary of such salami-slicing tactics so as to expand its border claims. What China is playing in the SCS over the years is an old game by the big bosses of the Communist Party of the country over the years. The main problem with Xi and his team is that they all calculate that they can influence outcomes in the global power calculus through coercion and the economic realm by inducements. For China, the SCS is peaceful and the nations, including the Philippines, are living there in complete harmony. The reason behind such bizarre thinking of the Beijing monarch is that all the smaller neighbours in the SCS are resigning themselves to a new normal, heavily pushed by the former’s muscle power and money in all these years.
China must not treat the Philippines as a small and weak nation. All are equal sovereign nations in the eyes of international law. They all have the equal right to defend their sovereign territories the way China does. The Xi regime must respect international law and should not create any hurdle in international sea communication lines in the SCS. China can’t act like a “grand vizier” ruling over smaller nations (Philippines) like slaves.
(Dr Makhan Saikia has taught political science and international relations for over a decade in institutions of national and international repute after specialisation in globalisation and governance from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is the chief editor of the Journal of Global Studies, an international research journal)