The concerns created by China’s strident ‘9 dot claim line’ over the Parcels and Sprately islands as its ‘sovereign sea’ on historical grounds to gain EEZ vis a vis ASEAN’s joint objections has abated somewhat. Philippines’ objections to China’s actions in Scarborough Shoal (Huayang Reef) and Viet Nam’s over Sansha, that activated after 1975, do resonate. In October 2011, China and Vietnam reached a less publicized agreement on ‘principles to guide the settlement of maritime disputes’. Interestingly, UNCLOS 1982 specifically provides for settlement of maritime boundaries through mutual agreement, and China can table its claims to UNCLOS which have some meat. China’s intentions are to mutually discuss the claims with individual nations not collectively with ASEAN, or under USA’s gun at its head, which is what USA’s pivot in the East is about. The China-Viet Nam document does not focus on the South China Sea, but reiterates that both sides agree not to use force or the threat of force to settle their territorial disputes, and a hot line for communications stands established. India has done the same with China on its border dispute.
India’s ONGC has prospered in its investments in Viet Nam especially in block 105 with oil and gas production, but ONGC withdrew its stake in Vietnam Petro in the 2000 meter deep block 128 as unfertile and uneconomical and bore large losses. China has put the controversial block for international bidding. The reasons for ONGC’s withdrawal is strategically intriguing, because the withdrawal was done despite PM Dr Manmohan Singh’s firm statement during his interaction with the media at the East Asia summit in Manila in October 2011. Dr Singh firmly stated that India had every right to exploit its commercial contracts in Viet Nam and China had no right to object. President Hu Jin Tao did not miss the Indian statement. In his address he warned nations to desist from exploring in disputed areas of South China sea.
Former CNS Arun Prakash and a member of the NSAB and Naresh Chandra committee in ‘the know of things’, wrote a lead article that India did not have the naval military capability to support the PM’s claim if China intervened militarily. The Armed Forces are not permitted to comment on national security or nuclear affairs, and while in service Admiral Sureesh Mehta too had stated China’s navy was getting formidable. Both admirals stands seem vindicated. The South China Sea matter is a China-ASEAN matter. Neither has ASEAN or Viet Nam publically objected to the Chinese notice to lease vacated block 128.
It needs noting ASEAN members in 2002 had agreed on draft guidelines for implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) but issued it in July 2011. In 2002, China’s moves were not so strident and its economy and naval strength to operate in the area was limited. A decade later, China has a dozen hospital ships, 19 large warships, an auxiliary marine force and an aircraft carrier Shang Li (Variag) for deployment. The rider in the 2011 DOC reads the ‘Parties to the DOC will continue to promote dialogue and consultations in accordance with the spirit of the DOC’, and adds, ‘Progress of the implementation of the agreed activities and projects under the DOC shall be reported annually to the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting’.
In end July 2012 the ten members of ASEAN met in Phnom Phem in Cambodia but were unable to issue a joint communiqué on the South China Sea. Differences arose with Cambodia’s unwillingness to embarrass Beijing, despite skirmishes between the Chinese PLA(Navy) and Philippines Navy and the stationing of the Xisha maritime garrison troops with structures on un inhabited islands. The Chinese navy’s Hainan based Nanhai Fleet is responsible for maritime defence in the South China Sea, as Deng had planned and ordered in the 1980s, seeing the future.
That the ASEAN leaders were unable to issue any statement, shows that China has dented ASEAn’s resolve to take up the matter jointly. It is now left to USA, to make statements asking for unhindered navigation in the South China Sea as per UNCLOS. Rightly, India does so too. Thus far China has never acted to stop innocent passage of any ship, but has objected to USN survey ships snooping and military exercises in the area, and may soon ask warships to indicate when transiting the area which would be its semi legitimate right. India too, in its Piracy bill under discussion in Parliament proposed to extend some of its rights to India’s territorial limits to 200 miles EEZ. Indian Navy regularly exercises deep in to the South China sea with Singapore Navy in SIMBEX and is looking at basing at the Nha Trang base in Viet Nam. PLA(N) is seeking havens in the Indian Ocean region.
China’s actions overall have raised the bar of a renewed ‘China threat’ in the East and Philippines has rejuvenated its defence ties with US to return to Subic Bay, which will need bases for its ‘Pivot in the East’ as Pentagon sketches plans to base 60% of US naval forces in the East. US already uses facilities in Australia for marines, the deep water Changi naval base in Singapore for aircraft carriers plus, and looks to Cam Ranh bay in Viet Nam to string China with forces in the area. China on its part, has stated it is willing to enter into discussions with ASEAN states individually as a gambit to cut out any US (sic Hillary Clinton) involvement in the South China Sea issues. The storm over disputes in the South China Sea seems to have cooled for the present, but darker clouds still hover over the dispute as a flash point. India with a non aligned stance stands interested but on the fence, as it should for the present, and not get drawn in to become strident in South China sea, till freedom of the seas is not denied.