SCS dispute

South China sea dispute: India remains non-committal

USA-MARINES/ASIA US amphibious vehicles take part in manoeuvers in the South China Sea off the Philippines | Reuters

The language was complicated and packed with legalese. In an age when “welcome”, “support”, “condemn” and “reject” are the kind of responses that grab eyeballs, India’s approach to the International Court of Arbitration’s rejection of China’s claims in the South China Sea is non-committal.

“India has noted the award of the Arbitral Tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) in the matter concerning the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China”—this was the official response from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

It went on to add that: “India supports freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS... As a State Party to the UNCLOS, India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS.”

Observers are lauding India's careful response to the development, which, while making the country’s stance clear on its support of the judgment, remains non-partisan.

“Mark the words, the statement says India has noted, not welcomed. It is a prudent tone. You don’t want to poke China in the face at this stage,’’ points out C. Uday Bhaskar, director, Society for Policy Studies.

“India has done well to create some space for future negotiations.’’

The verdict came soon after India’s maiden bid to the Nuclear Security Group was thwarted, by what New Delhi calls the efforts of “one country’’, without naming China. In fact, even when MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup was asked to elaborate on this rather cautious statement, all he said was: “It is about the use of global commons. It is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of law...”

Alka Acharya, director of the Institute for Chinese Studies in New Delhi, has lauded India’s position, too. “It is a grand statement, a masterpiece of the balancing act,’’ she said.

Acharya noted that while India has made noise along with the US on freedom of navigation, there is a point beyond which one shouldn’t push.

“We shouldn’t be seen as allying with the US but should project ourselves as an impartial party which prefers a balanced way of sorting out the issue.’’

The “issue’’ at hand is a long drawn conflict between the Asian giant on the one hand and several South China Sea island countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines on the other.

China’s has been gradually claiming several reefs and atolls on the sea. In the past years, it has dredged around these islands and destroyed marine ecology in the process of setting up Chinese bases and outposts in the region. China protested when Philippines went to The Hague complaining that its sovereignty was being jeopardised by the Chinese actions. China felt that the UNCLOS did not have jurisdiction over matters of sovereignty. Its protests were overruled, and the tribunal passed its verdict, with China in absentia. Sticking to its previous stance, China has rejected the award of the tribunal.

China claims a historical right over large swathes of waters in the South China Sea beyond what the International Maritime Boundary delimits. It sticks to its nine dash line, which encompasses a much larger body of the water as its own, including the disputed islands. According to a white paper released by the Chinese government, the country had historically sailed out and claimed these lands, a claim that colonisation thwarted. The paper adds that ever since China’s independence, it has been reclaiming its lost lands, which historically belongs to China.

The tribunal’s verdict is supposed to be honoured by member nations and there is no enforcing mechanism at the tribunal’s disposal. Recently, India and Bangladesh had sought arbitration over the maritime boundary and the judgment was in favour of Bangladesh. India has honoured the verdict. In the South China Sea case, however, China was against the validity of the case being decided under UNCLOS in the first place. China says this is a bilateral matter, to be resolved without third party intervention.

Even as China rejects the verdict and it adds that China will continue to abide by international law and basic rules governing international relations... through negotiations and consultations … to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea. These statements are being variously interpreted. On the one hand there is a build-up of hysteria over China’s rising economic and global aspirations, a hysteria which has been fanned by statements of Chinese leaders. Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin referred to the possibility that the SCS could turn into a ‘cradle of war’, causing many to conclude that China might take unilateral action to sort out the dispute.

“We’ll have to wait to see what position China takes in the matter,’’ says Bhaskar.

“It will, however, continue to push the envelope till a point when someone, most likely the US, pushes it back. For the present, it’s a wait and watch period.’’

The optimists prefer to look at China’s commitment (through its statement) to work through negotiations and settle matters bilaterally.

“You must note that the other South China Sea nations have responded with moderation to the ruling, which shows they are amenable to reason. Of course, the verdict is a huge moral victory for them, and whether or not China accepts it, the verdict does these countries a leverage at the bargaining table,’’ says Acharya.

Indeed, the Chinese statement says that pending final settlement China is also ready to make every effort with the state directly concerned to enter into provisional arrangements ..including joint development in relevant maritime areas. Philippino foreign minister Perfecto Yassay at the Asia and European Meet in Mongolia called for restraint and sobriety even as he called the judgment the crowning glory of international law.

Nonetheless, the verdict has caused tension in the region, a tension which the arbitration should ideally have resolved. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) hasn’t issued a statement yet, with no consensus among member nations. Countries like Laos and Myanmar aren’t keen to jeopardise economic ties with China, for instance.

The South China Sea is an important trade route in the eastern hemisphere, though India has no direct connect with it. China’s position on the judgment however, has again caused concerns that China might get aggressive in claiming disputed border territory in Arunachal Pradesh. Experts, however, say that too much should not be read into one verdict, which was only about maritime boundaries and not territorial ones.

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