From a little earlier than August 2014, China has been rapidly piling up huge volume of sand and its ships have been dredging new harbors to convert reef into islets in the Parcels Island chain in the disputed South China Sea. This is to support its airstrips, port-facilities radar stations and other military installations and a lot of the construction work on Parcels Island, that China claims as a sovereign territory, has been completed.
While this move that has greatly bolstered China’s influence in the Spartly islands- another major archipelagos with more than 30,000 islands and reefs in the South China Sea, it has strained the entire geopolitical situation of the region as never before.
What causes tensions is the defense installations in this area which indirectly gives China a greater foothold in the Spartly Islands region over the other claimants of it – Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam. While Taiwan and China claim almost the whole 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, including the Paracel chain, parts of Woody Island is also claimed by Vietnam and Philippines claiming much of the ocean as well. This is followed by smaller claims by Brunei and Malaysia.
Spartly Islands are a very crucial trade route as well with close to £3.17tn ($5 trillion) ship-borne trade passing through it annually and it is also believed to have significant oil and gas reserves. Any militarization in the close by region is bound to complicate and de-stabilize the geopolitical scenarios in the entire region and thus, no conclusive decisions to move towards checking China’s militarization could be achieved so far.
According to an official statement form the Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, China had positioned an unspecified number of anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles with a range of about 200 km, identified (due to first on Fox news US) as HQ-9 air defence system on the Woody Island – the largest of the Paracel Islands (also known as Xisha in Chinese) in the disputed South China Sea. “The military will pay close attention to subsequent developments,” the ministry added further.
However, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi said, “The activity is consistent with the self-defense and self-preservation China is entitled to under international law”. Without naming any particular country, Liu Zhenmin, Chinese vice foreign minister, said, “The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighboring countries”.
According to CNAS, Woody Island has been under Chinese direct or indirect control since 1974.
Repercussions of the Chinese act: Towards a complete dangerous militarization of the region? And India’s Solution-
The tensions in the region are not limited to the countries above but are spreading far to Japan as well. Who said that it was deeply concerned by the missile launcher reports and as a counter measure to check Chinese military influence in the region? Tokyo recently announced plans to deploy thousands of troops and build missile batteries on tiny islands in the East China Sea.
Alarmed by the Chinese expanding militarization in the region, Vietnam and other US-allies urged US president Barak Obama for a greater role of US in resolving the matter in the recently concluded two day 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in California, hosted by Obama in which China refused to participate. Obama will be visiting Vietnam in May this year, probably as a response to that.
US role in the region, as asserted by White house time and again, has been largely of trade and investment which has actually doubled since 2008 but it has also been active in keeping an eye on the situation from military aspect. In fact, on January 30 this year, a US Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Paracel Island chain, which includes Woody Island. The activity, Pentagon said, was designed to protect the freedom of navigation in international waters as per international maritime laws while China blatantly accused the former of pursuing maritime hegemony in the name of freedom of navigation.
With China never agreeing to welcome countries as ‘outside interlopers in regional waters’, it has received criticism from world over. Australia has previously criticized China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense zone in the East China Sea and US, strongly urging China to not act in a way that could escalate tensions. The ASEAN summit is just another way to say it.
The Context of India
Well, China’s expansionist mindset is not new to India as well. It has long pressed its claims, through both diplomacy and military regimes, on certain parts of Arunachal and North East Indian territories. In the past, several military standoffs between Chinese and Indian soldiers had taken place at the borders and various earlier reports also suggested that Chinese military were handed over maps that showed Arunachal as the disputed region and not belonging to India.
(For similar reasons, a naval standoff between China and Vietnam happened in 2014 when China moved a massive oil rig into disputed waters).
Thanks to the current Indian government continuous process of strategic dialogue that those long-standing land border issues have been deescalated down to a very minimum level now.
The Business Aspect
The South China Sea boasts of approximately 11 billion barrels of oil reserves as per the US Energy Information Administration. The Chinese National Offshore Oil Company has put the estimate at about 125 billion barrels as of 2012. In comparison, India’s total proven reserves stand at 5.7 billion barrels as of 2015 according to the US Energy Information Administration. With increasing demands of self-sufficiency in the energy sector increasing its pressure on countries around the world, this area is of interest to all countries in the region being oil importing countries.
Another economic factor of this is the trade routes operating in this region. At an estimate, over half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and about a third of the world’s total maritime traffic. It also controls access to Chinese and other South Asian countries investments in Africa. It is a very important location in a world which is increasingly conscious about its energy requirements and the trade dependent world economy. The importance of this area is set to go even higher with a developing South East Asia expected to at least double its energy requirements by 2030.
As far as India’s influence in the South China Sea is concerned, India is planning to conduct a joint naval patrol with US that could include the disputed South China Sea as well. This would be the first Joint patrol of India with any other nation, a move that is most likely to fury Beijing.
It is interesting to note that neither India nor the United States has any territorial claims to be made in the South China Sea and, the only reason why these two countries are involved, is because they both support freedom of navigation and overflight focusing more on trade. India’s policy on the South China sea has been to favor ‘international arbitration’ but, only since last year, India has gradually stepped up its naval presence as well far beyond the Indian Ocean, deploying a ship to the South China Sea.
It is important for India to take help from a stronger partner, when it comes to keeping a check on Chinese expansion, in a region where it could be easily be dominated.
However, it cannot be said with surety if either of the two solutions – Arbitration that India has put forth, or the joint patrols and seeking consensus through international Summits to check China’s influence – would certainly work. But with India supporting US and US-allies to resolve disputes and escalations and arguing that the sea must be open to anyone as per the UN International Maritime Laws, would certainly be the first definitive step in making sure that the region doesn’t become a ground for any military escalations owing to an Individual’s regional preference.