Tuesday, June 15, 2021

South China Sea: A Potential New Flashpoint

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It has been alleged that China has crossed the red-line in South China Sea and violated international law by encroaching upon Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The allegation is that a Chinese survey ship reached close to 60 nautical miles, the closest point to Vietnam coast. Thus, creating a stand-off and threatening economic security of Vietnam, a country suffering from a huge asymmetry with China.

The Chinese vessel is further alleged to have continued to survey Vietnam’s EEZ under escort from at least four ships and was around 102 kms. South-east of Vietnam’s Phu Quy Island and 185 kms. from the beaches of the southern Vietnamese city of Phan Thiet, according to reports.

A country’s EEZ typically extends up to 200 nautical miles (370 kms or 230 miles) from its coastline, providing sovereign rights to exploit any natural resources within that area, according to international convention.  Countries having stakes in peace and stability in the South China Sea should urge China to withdraw its survey ship and other vessels with immediate effect.

The presence of the ship so close to the Vietnam’s coastline is an indication of Beijing upping the ante to stretch Hanoi’s maritime capacity. It could also hamper Vietnam’s oil and gas exploration which is being carried out in partnership with Russian petroleum company ‘Rosneft’. Even though, Vietnam and China have for years been embroiled in a dispute over the potentially energy-rich stretch of waters and a busy shipping lane in the South China Sea; Beijing’s encroachments into Vietnam’s EEZ has intensified in recent years and particularly in the last few months. This could perhaps be fulfil President Xi Jinping’s dream of Chinese hegemony in the region and to coincide with the celebration of 70 years of the founding of the Communist Republic. China’s unilaterally declared “nine-dash line” marks a vast, U-shaped, expanse of the South China Sea that Beijing claims, including large swathes of Vietnam’s continental shelf where Hanoi has awarded oil concessions to Russia and India.

Many attempts have been made in the past to restrain China’s behaviour by creating mechanisms and institutional arrangements and is continuing. However, the attempts have not been successful so far. The onus, could, therefore, be on the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for maintaining peace, stability, and evolving a mechanism to manage conflict in South China Sea.
In June 2019, when the ASEAN foreign ministers met, the Chairman’s statement expressed concerns about Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea. In its upcoming Summit to be held in Bangkok, it is imperative that the organization shows greater unity and insists on China to restrain from any activities in the South China Sea that might endanger peace and stability in the region. The host and Chair, Thailand should mention South China Sea in its declaration of ASEAN Summit 35 or the East Asia Summit 14.  ASEAN’s centrality could be ensured if only it can succeed in making China accept a legally binding and non-negotiable Code of Conduct (CoC).

India’s position on the South China Sea issue is based upon the UN Convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS). India believes increasing tensions in the South China Sea could cause disruption in international maritime trade. The South China Sea is a vital waterway through which US$ 5 trillion worth of trade passes annually. The Straits of Malacca, the choke-point which connects the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea, handles five times the volume of oil than the Suez Canal.

India’s strategic ties with countries in the region, especially with Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines have become stronger under Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Act East’ Policy. It is can therefore be expected  during the East Asia Summit, the apex leadership of East Asian Countries as well as ASEAN leaders will seriously deliberate upon the South China Sea issue. India would reiterate her position on the freedom of navigation, a rule-based maritime order and settlement of disputes through peaceful means.

Script: Prof. Baladas Ghoshal, Strategic Analyst on East Asia & Indian Ocean

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