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Showdown in the South China Sea

Date: Wednesday, 28-September-2011
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Gulf News
By Manik Mehta, Special to Gulf News
Published: 00:00 September 28, 2011

While addressing the Asia Society in New York on September 20, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III emphasised that maritime security would be his country's defence priority, particularly in the disputed areas in the South China Sea, which Manila now calls the West Philippine Sea. Aquino wants a credible deterrent against China to protect the Philippines' sovereign rights.

The compelling need for a deterrent arises from China's belligerent posturing which is causing nervousness within Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Four member states — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — stake claims to the oil and gas-rich Spratly islands.

China's so-called "historical claims" to the islands, prompting recent Chinese incursions into the Reed Bank within the Philippines 200-mile exclusive economic zone, are worrying Manila. However, Aquino was categorical about asserting the Philippines' sovereign rights. To deter China from any misadventures, the Asean group should take a strong stand. China can ill afford to ignore a large group unified in opposition to its hegemonic designs. Apart from the four Asean member states, China and Taiwan also claim the islands. It is a perfect flashpoint scenario that could exacerbate if the US and India were drawn into the dispute.

The alarmed Asean claimants could take the dispute and Chinese incursions to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. They could also further join forces to stop Chinese incursions.

Indonesia and Vietnam should increase cooperation beyond carrying out joint patrols on their maritime border. Though not involved in the Spratly island dispute, Indonesia claims the Natuna islands, which China also claims.

China's behaviour in the region is unpredictable. Consider this: after agreeing with Asean at the July meeting in Bali to the "new guidelines" for implementation of the Declaration of Conduct for peaceful resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily blasted the Philippines for violating China's "territorial sovereignty" by building a military shelter on one of the Spratly islands, and warned it would have to pay the "appropriate price" for the "serious strategic misjudgments".

China sharply criticised the joint oil and gas exploration project between India and Vietnam in the South China Sea, calling it "illegal and invalid without China's consent". India dismissed the criticism, arguing it was acting in consonance with Vietnam's rights over two oil blocks under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Though this project is of a commercial nature, India's increased cooperation with Vietnam is also a response to Chinese projects in South Asia, which aim at tightening the "strategic noose" around India. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her July visit to Delhi, urged India to assume "full responsibilities" in regions beyond its borders, including Southeast Asia.

US-India ties

A recent joint study report called "The US and India — a Shared Partnership", commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the Aspen Institute India, says that an "ever-more powerful and influential India in the international arena is deeply in America's national interest".

The independent report, chaired by Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, and Naresh Chandra, a former Indian ambassador to the US, recommends greater Indo-US naval cooperation, apparently, against the backdrop of China's rise. Asean countries would welcome this move.

China needles India on a number of issues. China is building a massive infrastructure in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where experts say China may be stationing some troops. India is also concerned at China's activities in neighbouring countries Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

India, on the other hand, has increased its defence cooperation with Vietnam. Indian warships regularly visit Vietnam. This cooperation will be bolstered when Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visits India in October.

China needs to curb its expansionist instincts to prevent an escalation of tension in the South China Sea that can cause devastation not only in the region but also to itself, whose economic development goals could be jeopardised. Globalisation has underscored the element of interdependence amongst states. China's international image, already badly mauled because of Tibet, Taiwan, the Uighur uprising, human rights violations, etc could worsen.

Just as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) checked the expansionist designs of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe, a large number of Asian states from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea through the Asean group to India could be tempted to form an alliance to deter China's hegemony. China should not provide a justification for the creation of such an alliance.

Instead, China's leadership should work out a modus vivendi, respecting the rights of the other claimants on Spratly.

Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs.

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