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navy-chiefIndia’s Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba is on a five-day visit to Vietnam with an aim to step up defence and security cooperation with the South Asian nation which has emerged as a pivot of India’s Act East policy.

Given the fast changing geo-strategic dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region, marked by China’s increased assertiveness in the region, the Navy Chief’s visit is being watched closely in Beijing.

Given their geographic locations, both India and Vietnam rely heavily on the sea for security and economic activities. The naval forces of the two countries have been cooperating extensively in strengthening maritime security and operational aspects. India has been training Vietnamese sailors on Kilo-class submarines and has recently agreed to assist in the production of patrol boats. Admiral Lanba’s visit is expected to further bolster the ties between the Indian Navy and the Vietnam People’s Navy. A statement from the Indian Navy on the Naval Chief’s visit said: “The visit aims to consolidate cooperation between the Armed Forces of India and Vietnam and also to explore new avenues of defence cooperation.”

Growing Ties

vietnam-modi-visitPrime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark visit to Hanoi in September 2016 was transformational and placed the expanding India-Vietnam ties on a new footing. During his visit, the Indian leader pledged $500 million in Lines of Credit for a host of development and defence-related projects in the Southeast Asian nation.

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1972, the ties between India and Vietnam have grown into a multifaceted partnership, but with a strong defence component. The two countries elevated their relationship to a strategic partnership in July 2007 during the then Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dun’s visit to New Delhi, which was upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Hanoi in September 2016.

During his visit, Admiral Lanba will be engaging in talks with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Defence Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich, Chief of General Staff and Vice Minister of National Defence Van Giang and the Commander-in-Chief of the Vietnam Navy, Rear Admiral Pham Hoai Nam. Admiral Lanba is also expected to visit the National Defence Academy of Vietnam to deliver a talk on the ‘Importance of Maritime Power.’

 

 

malaysia-india-pm

 

malaysia-india-pmUshering in a new phase in their reinvigorated partnership as key players in the emerging Asian order, India and Malaysia have signed seven agreements across the spectrum, and vowed to fight terror and radicalization of youth. In a message to China, the two countries decided to work proactively to promote freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the site of territorial disputes between China and some Southeast Asian countries.

The agreements, some of which relate to recognition of each other’s educational degrees and palm oil production research, and the unmistakable focus on security cooperation, which followed talks between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visiting Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in New Delhi on April 1, marked a qualitatively new high in relations between the two countries.

The most important among pacts inked in the presence of the two PMs was the proposed development of a urea and ammonia manufacturing plant in Malaysia and off-take of existing surplus urea from Malaysia to India. The project is expected to cost US$2 billion, with a capacity to produce 2.5 million tonnes per year and meant for catering to India’s market.

Malaysian firm MIGHT Technology Nurturing also inked a deal with the Andhra Pradesh Economic Development Board (APEBD) on implementation of the fourth generation Technology Park in the southern Indian state’s new capital Amravati, a project that is expected to attract private investments of US$100 million as well as spinning off the involvement of 75 small medium enterprises and generating an estimated 5,500 jobs. Both countries also signed a bilateral air services agreement which would enhance air connectivity.

Uniting against terrorism, IS

Security and strategic partnership were in sharp focus as Mr Najib, who is on a six-day visit to India, and Mr Modi spoke to the media after their talks. The Malaysian leader said this partnership “will be very important for us to fight global terrorism, militancy, extremism, that includes fight against Islamic State.” Mr Modi reciprocated by commending Mr Razak’s “leadership in countering radicalization and terrorism,” which he described “as an inspiration for the entire region.” “I deeply appreciate our continuous cooperation with Malaysian government in our joint anti-terrorism efforts,” he said.

“Malaysia and India will cooperate to fight the IS [Islamic State] and deal with radicalisation. We will also share our experience of de-radicalisation with India,” said Mr Najib. “We plan to hold a major conference on de-radicalisation jointly in near future and we will provide our experience and with our partners to make sure Malaysia and other parts of the world will never be a place in which militancy and extremism will take root.”

Batting for freedom of navigation

In a significant outcome, the Malaysian leader backed India’s “greater role” in maritime security of Asia-Pacific region. For his part, Mr Modi said, “Prime Minister Najib and I are also conscious of our role and responsibility in promoting economic prosperity, freedom of navigation, and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, especially its Oceans.” These remarks acquire an added resonance in view of China’s assertive moves in the disputed resource-rich South China Sea.

A joint statement issued after talks between the two PMs asked all countries to respect the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 in resolving maritime disputes, a clear hint at China.   “They urged all parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoid unilateral actions that raise tensions,” the statement said. Less than a year ago, China had dismissed an order passed by the Hague-based international tribunal rejecting Beijing’s claim over South China Sea.

Business Connect

malaysia-india-sushmaWhile India has always been looking forward to cement political, economic and strategic ties with Malaysia, a key ASEAN country, as part of promoting its “Act East” policy, relations between the two countries have shown a marked upswing in recent years, in contrast to 22 years between 1981 and 2003 when Mahathir Mohammed was the prime minister of Malaysia. For Indian entrepreneurs, Malaysia can become a key base to do business with other ASEAN countries. Indian investments in Malaysia stand at $2.5 billion.

Separately, a joint statement issued by the India-Malaysia CEOs Forum emphasised the need for visa-free travel for Indians and Malaysians as travel and tourism in both countries contribute to their economic growth. “Additionally, Malaysia should support and champion the introduction of the ASEAN common visa for travellers from outside the region, including India,” the statement said.

Above all, the Malaysian leader’s visit has imparted a new momentum to strategic partnership between the two countries. “We are leaders in the new emerging order in Asia and the world. Let us continue to work together to build a future based on stability, prosperity and understanding as the centre of the globe moves inexorably to East,” said Mr Razak in an article ahead of his visit to India.

 

 

asia

asiaOn January 11, 2017, China elucidated its position on Asia Pacific security through its first white paper on its positions and policies on Asia-Pacific security cooperation. One of the key operative dictums included in the white paper, which was immediately flagged by news agencies, was an advice or warning to small and medium countries in the region that they “need not and should not take sides among big countries”. However, during the press conference at the release of the white paper, Chinese Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin clarified that the document was about security cooperation and not security issues. He also said: “The current security structure in the region is not satisfactory, which has led to mistrust among the nations.”

Through this white paper, China has proposed a concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security in the Asia Pacific Region.The white paper considers the Asia Pacific region to be stable, although it also recognises multiple destabilising and uncertain factors that exist in the region. The areas of concern include the nuclear issue in the Korean Peninsula, the slow reconciliation process in Afghanistan, terrorism and maritime disputes. The white paper appears to indirectly indicate that the US military deployment is a regional security challenge along with the increasing military preparedness of Japan. There is also recognition of terrorism, transnational crime and natural disaster as non-traditional security threats in the region.

A Concept of Regional Peace with Chinese Characteristics

The white paper presents China’s concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable development which was proposed by President Xi Jinping at the Fourth Summit of CICA in May 2014. Common security has been defined as respecting and ensuring security for all rather than the security of one country or some countries. Alliances targeted at a third country are not conducive for common security. Comprehensive security has been defined to include traditional and non-traditional dimensions which need to be promoted through a holistic, multipronged, approach aimed at coordinated enhancement of regional security governance by taking into account the historical background and reality. Cooperative security entails the promotion of security through dialogue and promotion. Finally, there needs to be focus on both development and security for sustainable security.

In order to enhance peaceful development in the region, the document outlines China’s commitment to fostering security through dialogue and cooperation and describes its six fold policy framework thus:

  • cooperation on economic development;
  • seeking common grounds for cooperation with countries in the region while recognising differences;
  • adherence to multilateralism along with willingness to shoulder regional and global security responsibilities;
  • promotion of rule setting and improvement of the institutional safeguards for peace and stability;
  • intensify military exchanges and cooperation; and
  • proper resolution of differences and disputes.

In its security vision, the document considers old security concepts — based on Cold War mentality, zero sum game and focus on force — as outdated. It seeks exploration of a new path for Asian security through an innovative security vision, improvement in regional systems and strengthening of solidarity and cooperation with transparency and inclusiveness. While describing its relations with other major Asia Pacific countries through the details of ongoing bilateral exchanges and initiatives, China aims for a non-confrontational new model of major country relations with the US; strategic partnership of co-ordination with Russia; closer partnership with India; and strive for closer relations with Japan. China has also identified regional hot spots, which includes the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, anti-Ballistic missile deployment in South Korea, Afghanistan, terrorism and maritime security, and has stated its policy position on each of these issues. The white paper also reviews China’s participation in major multilateral mechanisms and regional non-traditional security cooperation.

While the core focus of the white paper is on the promotion of peace and stability in the region, China has expressed its unease about the existing regional security order. China’s advice to medium and small countries to maintain their neutrality is preceded by the expectation that major countries would “treat the strategic intention of others in objective and rational manner, reject the cold war mentality, respect others’ legitimate interest and concern.”It also advises against beefing up “a military alliance targeted at a third party.”China has stated its opposition to nuclear and missile tests by North Korea and affirmed its commitment towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. However, it has also stated its firm opposition to the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea, the stated rationale being “we cannot just have the security of one or some countries while leaving the rest insecure, still less should we seek “absolute security” of oneself at the expense of the security of others” [emphasis as in original].Notwithstanding the purported reason for the THAAD deployment being a threat from North Korea, China realises that the anti- ballistic missile system in South Korea can potentially counter Chinese ballistic missiles as well.

Enduring Challenge of Maritime Security

Maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region is a core focus of the white paper and has also been listed among the regional hotspots of security concern. The documents highlights the growing non-traditional security threats (piracy, smuggling, drug trafficking, natural disaster and ecological concern) to maritime security but also recognises that “misunderstandings and lack of mutual trust among some countries about traditional security issues also pose risks to maritime security.” Regarding its maritime boundary issue, China maintains that it “has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha (Spartly) Islands and their adjacent waters” and also asserts that “the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands are an integral part of China’s territory.”At the same time, China hopes that these issues will be resolved through dialogue with ASEAN, relevant state parties and Japan, respectively.

A key concern of China is provocation of regional disputes by “certain countries for their selfish interest”, which it “resolutely opposes” and whose action compels China’s retaliatory response. This seems to be an indirect reference to the Freedom of Navigation Patrols by the US. China’s preference for maritime dispute resolution through bilateral dialogue is unambiguous. In a clear caution against external mediation efforts, the white paper asserts that “no effort to internationalize and judicialize the South China Sea issue will be of any avail for its resolution; it will only make it harder to resolve the issue, and endanger regional peace and stability.”On the maritime dispute with Japan, China has “urged Japan to abide by agreements on bilateral relations, properly manage and control disputes and conflicts and avoid creating obstacle to the improvement of bilateral relations.”

For the settlement of disputes over territories and maritime rights, China asks the parties concerned to “respect historical facts” and seek a solution through negotiations under procedures of “universally recognised international law” and UNCLOS. China recommends the promotion of rule setting and improvement of the institutional safeguards as an important aspect for peace and stability in the region. In the Chinese view these “rules should not be dictated by any particular country”, rather “regional and international rules should be discussed, formulated and observed by all concerned.” China considers that at present certain rules and their interpretations are being imposed in the regional context unilaterally by some countries. While there exists no further elaboration, it could be inferred that these concern existing interpretations about the concept of Freedom of Navigation and jurisdictional interpretation of UNCLOS, which has been contested by the United States.

Terrorism and Afghanistan

The white paper recognises terrorism as a severe security and stability challenge in the region. This challenge includes the spread of violent and extremist ideologies, cyber terrorism, infiltration into the region of international terrorist organizations, and the inflow of foreign terrorist fighters. China’s cooperation with neighbouring countries in dealing with the threat from the “Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement” (ETIM) has been highlighted.Recalling counter terrorism collaboration with various countries in the region, China contends that there should not be any “double standard in fighting terrorism which should not be associated with any particular country, ethnicity or religion.”On Afghanistan, China believes that only an “Afghan led and Afghan owned” inclusive reconciliation process can provide ultimate solution to the issue.However, China’s participation in a meeting on the Afghan issue with Pakistan and Russia, which had excluded Afghanistan, contradicts this policy statement about its faith in an “Afghan led and Afghan owned” solution. This may provide some indication about the Chinese tactical adjustment on Afghanistan and terrorism, notwithstanding the stated policy position in the white paper.

Engagement with Regional Multilateral Forums

The white paper highlights China’s involvement in regional multilateral mechanisms and lists its involvement in, and contribution to, all regional forums including ASEAN, ASEAN Plus Three, China-Japan-ROK Cooperation, East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting PLUS (ADMM Plus), Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Six Party talks, and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measure in Asia (CICA). The white paper highlights China’s commitment towards pushing forward the development of a regional security mechanism through active security dialogue and cooperation. The white paper mentions the ‘Xiangshan Forum’ as one of the dialogue forums for enhancing the regional security mechanism. The Shangri La dialogue at Singapore, which has always seen high level participation from China, does not find any mention in the white paper. This could be due to implicit displeasure with Singapore.

Relations with India

The white paper is largely positive about India, which has been recognised among the four major powers in the Asia Pacific. China considers that its strategic partnership with India has further deepened since the signing of the China-India strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity in 2015. The white paper recounts high level bilateral visits and the frequent interactions between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi. Coordination and collaboration between India and China on various issues, including in the WTO and on Climate Change, has helped to safeguard the common interest of both countries as well as of other developing countries. Relations between the Indian and Chinese militaries has been considered as healthy and stable.

Evolving Views on Regional Security

China’s military strategy was published in 2015 as a white paper, which contained its assessment of its national security situation.The regional security environment described in the current document on Asia Pacific security cooperation needs to be compared with the Chinese military strategy published in 2015 in order to assess continuity and changes. Though the broad description of China’s external security environment remains the same in both documents, there are, however, some crucial differences.

China’s military strategy had clearly identified the US rebalance in the Asia Pacific as a concern along with Japan’s increasing military capability. The current white paper maintains this narrative, but omits direct adversarial references to both countries.

China’s military strategy had highlighted that in addition to maritime territorial disputes, “certain disputes over land territory are still smoldering.” The white paper on Asia Pacific Security Cooperation has listed China’s maritime territorial issues but has no references to any land boundary disputes. Curiously there is no mention of Taiwan which was one of the key focus area in its military strategy.

On the hotspots of security concern, China’s military strategy was generic and had listed issues such as ethnic, religious, border and territorial disputes. In comparison, the current white is more precise in its description of hotspots – the nuclear issue on Korean Peninsula, Anti- Ballistic Missile issue, Afghanistan, terrorism and maritime security. China has also elucidated its position on each of them with clarity as highlighted earlier.

Maritime security issues have been one of the focal areas of the current white paper. The word ‘maritime’ occurs 39 times, while the word ‘terror’ finds 33 mentions. In contrast, China’s military strategy had referred to the word ‘maritime’ just 15 times including in the description of its coping maritime strategies.

Reading Chinese Tea Leaves

China, through its white paper, has attempted to clarify its position on regional security challenges. One of the clearest messages is that the THAAD anti-ballistic missile should not be deployed on the Korean Peninsula. China also conveys its dissatisfaction with the existing rules-setting mechanism in the region as well as global rules and norms. On the freedom of navigation issue, the Chinese view stands in sharp contrast to that of the US, and the statement that rules in the region are being dictated by one country reflects that sentiment. However, there appears to be a duality in the Chinese approach on this issue. On peace and stability, China wants negotiations about rule setting on regional stability to be based on “the spirit of the rule of law” and in accordance with “widely recognised rules of fairness and justice”. At the same time, China calls for a dialogue based on “respect of historical facts” and “universally recognized international law and modern maritime law” including UNCLOS for dispute resolution on maritime jurisdiction. The Chinese appeal for setting aside pending disputes for the time being and focusing on cooperation is, in essence, a reiteration of the policy followed since Deng Xiaoping.Through its call for the “rejection of Cold War mentality” and the warning issued to small and medium powers about not taking sides, China aims to shape the regional order in its favour.

China has maintained its strategic ambiguity regarding its jurisdictional rights in the South China Sea. There is no reference to the ‘Nine Dash Line’ in the white paper. However, it has claimed “indisputable sovereignty over Nansha (Spartly) islands and their adjacent waters.” The Chinese advice against efforts to resolve the South China Sea issue through judicial or international arbitration seems to be a response to the arbitration decision of The Hague Tribunal and is aimed at dissuading other interested parties from seeking further judicial interventions.

From the Indian perspective, the white paper seems slightly positive by recognising India as one among four major powers in the region, omitting a reference to the land boundary dispute, and through the assessment about progressive strengthening of stable bilateral relations. Notwithstanding statements about convergence on trade and climate change, a drastic change in the contours of India-China relations seems unlikely considering China’s positions on Indian membership of NSG and on declaring Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.

Conclusion

The white paper has been released at a time when the US government is under transition and there is still uncertainty about President elect Trump’s policy approach towards global security issues in general, and the security environment in the Asia Pacific in particular. However, the emerging contours of the incoming administration indicate a hawkish political approach towards China. The seizure of the US Navy Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) was termed as a theft by Trump. In his confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Nominee, indicated that if China continues with its effort to change the status quo in the South China Sea through artificial reclamation, its access to these islands could be interfered with.

It appears that through the release of this white paper at this time of uncertainty, China has affirmed its regional ambitions and aims to shape the regional security agenda in the Asia Pacific Region on its stated terms.

Courtesy:IDSA

vietnam-envoy

vietnam-envoyIt’s a milestone year in India-Vietnam relations as the two strategic partners celebrate the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. This period has seen a marked acceleration of India-Vietnam relations across the spectrum, including in areas of trade and defence and development. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam in September 2015 saw the elevation of bilateral ties to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The ongoing churn in South China Sea has imparted an added traction to enhancing strategic cooperation between India and Vietnam.

In this wide-ranging interview with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief, India Writes Network, Vietnam’s ambassador to India Ton Sinh Thanh outlines a vibrant picture of the trajectory of this crucial relationship and underlines the need for a more active role by India in Southeast Asia and the extended region.  The envoy also underscored that the burgeoning India-Vietnam relations is not targeted at China or any third country and stressed on peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute through dialogue.

Q) This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Vietnam? How do you look at the special quality of India-Vietnam relations? What are the plans for celebrating this important milestone in the history of India-Vietnam relations?

A) Vietnam and India had thousands years of cultural, religious and commercial interactions. The people of the two countries showed sympathy and support for each other during their struggle for independence. The establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Vietnam in 1972 was the culmination of the Indian support to Vietnam during our resistance against the US aggression. The friendship and cooperation between our two countries have always been strong since then. These relations are freed from any problem and are firmly founded on mutual trust and convergence of strategic interests. In 2007 the two countries upgraded the relationship to Strategic partnership and in 2016 again upgraded it to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. This is highest level of relations that Vietnam has with other countries.

Q) 2017 also marks the 25th anniversary of India-ASEAN relations. How does Vietnam look at Indias role in ASEAN and what are Hanois expectations in this regard?

A) Vietnam is currently the coordinator for ASEAN-India relations. We expect India to play an active role as a strong strategic partner of ASEAN. This role is not only very much in line with India’s Act East Policy, but is also welcomed by all ASEAN members. Vietnam shall work closely with India to carry many activities to celebrate 25th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations this year.

vietnam-modiQ) How do you look at the transformation of Indias Look East policy into Act East under the Narendra Modi government?

A) This is a really good and timely transformation. It brings a lot of confidence to ASEAN members and inspires them to be more active in promoting a stronger partnership with India.

Q) Prime Minister Modi had a successful visit to Vietnam in September 2016. What are key areas of India-Vietnam relationship which will see concrete progress and headway in days to come?

A) During the visit by Prime Minister Modi to Vietnam in September 2016, the two sides reached many agreements, especially the upgrade of our relationship to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. We will see a lot of progress in many areas in the days to come. There will more frequent exchange of high level visits to strengthen our political relations and mutual trusts. Defence and Security cooperation will be further enhanced; first of all, to realise the credit line of US$ 500 million declared by PM Modi for Vietnam. Besides some trade promotion activities in an effort to raise the two-way trade, we would expect a direct flight to be opened soon between the two countries. We will also see progress in science & technology, culture-education cooperation between the two countries this year.

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (L) waves next to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during Dung's ceremonial reception at the forecourt of India's presidential palace Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi October 28, 2014. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR4BTX1

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

Q) In the strategic arena, can you identify focus areas, especially in the area of military sales?

A) We should first of all focus on the economic area, which is an important strategic area as identified by the leaders of the two countries during the visit to Vietnam by PM Modi. This area has huge potential, which has not yet been exploited. We should also continue to focus on other pillars of the Strategic Partnership, namely political relations, defence and security cooperation as well as science-technology and culture-education cooperation.

India-Vietnam ties not targeted at any third country

Q) China suspects that the growing India-Vietnam relationship is targeted at Beijing? Is this apprehension justified?

A) Vietnam advocates an independent foreign policy and good relations with all nations in the world, including China. The growing India-Vietnam relationship is to serve the interests of both countries and for the sake of peace, stability and cooperation in the region. It is not targeted against any third party.

Q) On South China Sea, whats your message to China? How should this contentious issue be resolved? Do you envisage a role for India in this?

A) First of all, we would like to emphasise our earnest aspiration to have good relations with China, our biggest neighbour. We shall do our best to promote our relations with China.

Regarding the the East Sea (South China Sea) issue,  the only major remaining dispute between Vietnam and China, we want to stress that Vietnam has sufficient historical evidence and legal foundation to confirm its sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Islands. However, we are ready to settle the disputes of these islands by peaceful means, through bilateral and multilateral negotiations in compliance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and with respect to diplomatic and legal processes. Pending a solution to the disputes of these islands, all parties concerned should not have any activity to change the status-quo, fully and efficiently executing the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC)” and striving together with ASEAN to soon accomplish a “Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC)”. China and Vietnam should also strictly observe the Vietnam–China Agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues.

It is the stake of all nations inside and outside the region, including India which is acting East, to have peace, stability and freedom of navigation in South China Sea. We are looking forward to a more active role and engagement of India in Southeast Asia.

Q) Finally, whats your views on the unfolding Asian renaissance and the role of India-Vietnam relationship in facilitating regional stability and prosperity?

A) The re-emergence of Asia is very clear. It has now the biggest share of global production. Trade among Asian nations has crossed US$ 3000 billion, accounting for more than 53% of its total trade, showing a high degree of interdependence among Asian economies. India’s Look East – Act East Policy and especially the participation of India in East Asia Summit process have scaled up in a big way the rise of Asia as well as the regional cooperation.

Vietnam, after more than 30 years of transformation, has improved to a great extent its economic and political status. The comprehensive strategic partnership between our two countries would surely contribute to the rise of Asia and cooperation as well as stability and prosperity in the region.

 

msc

msc

China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS) was on display on December 15, 2016 when a PLA Navy (PLAN) vessel retrieved an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) of the US Navy (USN) in international waters about 50 nautical miles (NM) northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines. The UUV was being operated by USN Ship (USNS) Bowditch which was in the process of recovering the UUV. At the time of the incident, both the ships were within 500 yards distance of each other. Despite radio communication from the USNS Bowditch, the Chinese warship reportedly did not return the UUV and proceeded away with the UUV.The incident created furore in the US with commentators terming the Chinese act as ‘theft’.The US registered its diplomatic protest and demanded that the UUV be returned immediately. The Chinese media termed US surveillance as continued provocation.

The Chinese Ministry of National Defence (MND) in a statement gave the following explanation:

‘A Chinese naval lifeboat located an unidentified device in the waters of the South China Sea. In order to prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels, the Chinese naval lifeboat verified and examined the device in a professional and responsible manner. Upon examination, the device was identified as an underwater drone of the United States. The Chinese side had decided to hand over it to the US in an appropriate manner’.

The UUV was returned to the USN destroyer USS Mustin by China on December 20, 2016. The MND on December 21, 2016 stated that ‘China has handed over the US underwater drone it captured ‘in its waters’ to the United States ’.The map of the area published by The Washington Post shows the area of incident outside China’s proclaimed nine-dash line.No geographical details of the area of the incident were provided by the Chinese authorities. Based on information available in the public domain, the location of the incident seems to be within Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In essence, China has no valid jurisdiction to interfere with the oceanographic survey being conducted by the USN ship in the international waters or within EEZ of another country.

Figure- Location of UUV Seizure

The incident has prompted broad speculation about Chinese intent, including whether China was signalling even more expansive claims over the SCS, since the area of incident was even beyond the controversial nine-dash line. The incident has also revived questions about Chinese strategic ambiguity regarding the nature of its jurisdiction over waters enclosed within the nine-dash line, which has since been nullified by The Hague Arbitration Tribunal judgement.

Nine Dash Line: China’s Strategic Ambiguity

The Chinese government, through two note verbale submitted in the UN in May 2009, asserted its ‘indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof’. Nine line segments (dashes) — encircling waters, islands, and other features of the SCS — were displayed on the map submitted along with the note verbale. As a reiteration of its jurisdictional claim, China submitted another note verbale in 2011 which asserted that ‘China’s sovereignty and related rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea are supported by abundant historical and legal evidence’.

As per the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal states enjoy varying degree of jurisdictional rights and privileges in different waters, viz, territorial sea, contiguous zone, internal waters, archipelagic waters, international straits, historical waters. China has not clarified about the legal basis or nature of its jurisdiction within nine dash lines through any legislation, proclamation or any other official statement. China has also not published geographic coordinates specifying the location of the dashes.

The above claims of jurisdictional control through the nine-dash line does not form part of China’s submissions of records as per UNCLOS. The claim, about its sovereign jurisdiction through historical rights, was submitted as an objection to the continental shelf claims of Vietnam. China had submitted baseline coordinates in compliance with UNCLOS Article 16(2) with respect to mainland and Xisha (Paracel) Islands in SCS with claims of UNCLOS zones viz territorial waters and EEZ in July 1996 and September 2004 respectively which has no reference to nine-dash line.However, its legislative declaration about Maritime Zones has provided a caveat that this legislation does not prejudice its historical rights with no explanation about nature or geography of said historical rights.

At the core of Chinese claims in SCS is a Chinese government map circulated in 1947 drawing an eleven-dash line to indicate the geographical scope of its authority over the SCS. In 1953, two dashes were removed from the eleven-dash line, leaving nine segments that was published as a new map which is cited as Chinese jurisdictional claims.While asserting its indisputable sovereignty over the Islands and the adjacent water enclosed therein, China has maintained strategic ambiguity over geographical limits and scope of sovereign jurisdiction over areas enclosed within the nine-dash lines. China’s policy of strategic ambiguity, as it has been euphemistically called, serves its purposes well.

Chinese scholars have defined the nine-dash line as a line to preserve both its title to territory and its historic rights. Analysts note that China seems to have three purported reasons for its nine-dash claims. ‘First, it represents China’s title rights over island groups that it encloses and signifies sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction — in accordance with UNCLOS — over the waters and seabed and subsoil adjacent to those islands and insular features. Second, it preserves Chinese historic rights over the oceanic resources in the waters and on the continental shelf surrounded by the line. Third, it is likely to allow for such residual functionality as to serve as potential maritime delimitation lines’.

The view about the possible rationale of the nine-dash line as a potential negotiation reference was also expressed by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February 2012, when it was stated that no single nation claims sovereignty over the entire SCS and that the dispute was only about the ‘islands and adjacent waters’.This had raised hopes in the region that China may moderate its jurisdictional claim to align with legal provisions as per UNCLOS. However, on the contrary, the SCS has seen progressive Chinese assertiveness regarding its jurisdictional claims with reclamation of land, construction of military facilities and enforcement of its rights through use of maritime militia.

Just prior to the decision of UNCLOS arbitration proceedings initiated by the Philippines, the Chinese interlocutor at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2016 had argued that China’s ambiguity over nine-dash line was a good thing for all the parties involved.The decision of The Hague Arbitration Tribunal in July 2016 has disallowed Chinese historic claims.The arbitration proceedings were boycotted by China and the decision has not been accepted by it. China, in addition, has also persuaded the Philippines to set aside the arbitration award.

Previous Incidents with USN over Surveillance in EEZ

USN ships have been regularly conducting Freedom of Navigation Patrols (FONOPS) in order to exercise their rights of freedom of navigation. China has always protested these surveillance sorties in accordance with their proclaimed interpretation of jurisdictional rights and coastal state rights over military surveillance within EEZ. Prior to this incident, there have been at least six incidents of interaction between Chinese and American vessels in the international waters of the SCS.In March 2009, USN ships Impeccable and Victorious were harassed by Chinese oceanographic vessels in international waters off Hainan Island. In June 2009, a Chinese submarine fouled the towed array sonar of US warship John McCain. US warship Cowpens nearly collided with one of the escorts of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning in December 2013.

However, all these incidents happened within the EEZ claimed by China.There exists differing interpretation about jurisdictional rights of coastal state within EEZ. Some countries including the US consider the EEZ like the high seas when it comes to foreign militaries conducting surveillance and do not consider requirement of specific permission from the coastal state. China has long taken the position that it has the right to restrict foreign military activities and surveillance within its EEZ. China argues that the coastal state permission must be obtained for a foreign military to conduct surveillance activities within the EEZ. China had justified its action against USN assets in accordance with its restrictive interpretation of UNCLOS provisions.

Creeping Jurisdictional Assertions through Ambiguity

The Chinese official stance towards the extant incident of seizure of USN UUV has been extraordinarily ambiguous. As pointed out earlier, the MND statement of December 18 expressed routine dismay at continued military surveillance by the US with the retrieval being explained as removal of navigational hazards along with the casual assertion about the incident occurring in the Chinese waters with no further details or possessive implications.The Chinese Foreign Ministry also used generic remarks over continued US military surveillance and maintained the safety-of-navigation explanation. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson told reporters that ‘the Chinese side is firmly opposed to the frequent appearance of US military aircraft and vessels in waters facing China for close-in reconnaissance and military surveys. We require the US side to stop such activities [emphasis added]’.Some commentators asserted Chinese maritime rights or claims over the area in which the UUV was seized.This assertion was confirmed by the Chinese MND in its statement on December 20, 2016 which noted that the UUV was captured in its waters.

As the USN UUV was seized 50 NM northwest of Subic Bay, the USN vessel was outside THE Philippines territorial water but within its EEZ. The area is also clearly outside the Chinese claim of nine dash-line. The core question then is on what basis China is claiming that the UUV was captured in Chinese waters? It could only be possible if China considers that the disputed Scarborough Shoal has EEZ of 200 NM which will place Chinese EEZ within 50 nautical miles from the coast of Philippines. The UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal has ruled that the Scarborough Shoal is a rock that entitles its sovereign jurisdiction to only a 12 NM territorial sea and is not entitled for 200 NM EEZ.

The extant assertion of Chinese MND that the UUV capture happened in Chinese waters brings the focus back on strategic ambiguity of China about its maritime claims. Rather than using ambiguity for accommodation or negotiation, China has been strengthening its jurisdictional claims which can be seen through its reclamation efforts to convert erstwhile low tide elevations — viz, Mischief reef, SubiReef and Ferry Cross Reef, into man-made habitable islands. These reclamation efforts in addition to bolstering its military capability in the SCS also strengthen its case for claiming UNCLOS entitled EEZ up to 200 NM since the reclaimed features could be shown as capable of sustaining human habitation. It is pertinent to mention that all other previous incidents/dispute over fishing rights, resources, reclamation of reefs and rocks, and incidents against surveillance had remained within the ambiguous nine-dash line.The phrase ‘waters facing China’ and the assertion of jurisdictional claim over waters beyond the nine-dash line has been used by the Chinese officials for the first time.

Some commentators have argued that since the capture of the UUV had no legal basis, it could be an act of political signalling. In addition, since the UUV was returned without much delay, the act of seizure may have lacked institutional approval at the highest level.However, these explanations fail to take into account latent assertion of jurisdictional claim in the official statements post incident.

The Chinese approach, so far, clearly indicates its intent of progressive attempt to strengthen its ‘creeping’ jurisdiction which has been termed by some observers as ‘salami slicing strategy’ or ‘cabbage strategy’.The strategy is being pursued through small but persistent enhancement of territorial jurisdiction claims along with creation of new facts on ground. The incident of UUV capture and related claims about the incident’s occurrence in Chinese waters fits in to the established pattern of incremental actions of creeping jurisdiction to change the status quo in its favour through fait accompli.

Courtesy:IDSA

japan-modi-abe-selfie

japan-modi-abe-poseTOKYO: The Tokyo-Delhi connect is set to acquire a deeper strategic dimension with the hoped-for signing of a transformational nuclear deal and a host of initiatives to enhance maritime security cooperation during the November 10-12 visit of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan.

It’s probably the last foreign visit by Mr Modi in this diplomatic calendar year, but it looks set to be the most significant one, given the growing congruence of strategic and economic interests between Asia’s two leading democracies. The visit will be not only closely scanned in New Delhi and Tokyo, but most importantly in Beijing, which continues to nurture containment anxieties and has already red-flagged its concerns over a possible Delhi-Tokyo axis on the South China Sea.

What’s on agenda: The Big Deal

japan-modi-abe-newMr Modi will spend barely 48 hours in Tokyo, but much will be accomplished during his annual summit meeting with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on November 11. If the latest indications are anything to go by, the visit will see the transformative moment as Japan moves beyond years of strategic vacillation to sign the much-awaited nuclear deal that will pitchfork the India-Japan ties on another plane. The signing of the nuclear deal will transform all key areas of the relationship and bring multiple benefits to both sides, Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli, a long-standing Japan-watcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi told India Writes Network.

Given the powerful nuclear lobby and its pacific constitution that emanates from its experience as the only nation to be attacked by atomic weapons, the signing of the nuclear deal will be a major leap of faith for Japan’s political-diplomatic establishment and will lock the two countries into a tighter strategic embrace.

japan-nuclear1The deal will enable the export of Japanese nuclear technology and equipment to an India hungry for clean energy and will spur the implementation of the India-US civil nuclear deal. It will mean billions of dollars in business for Japanese nuclear giants like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd, which have been severely hit by the post-Fukushima scenario.

US-2: Make in India

Besides the nuclear pact, the other big-ticket deal that will be in spotlight is the closure of tortuous negotiations on the purchase of the US-2 amphibious aircraft by India. Reliable sources disclosed that the deal is ready for signing, with the pricing issue finally settled. If all goes well, the two sides could sign a memorandum of understanding on India procuring 12 amphibious rescue aircraft from Japanese manufacturer ShinMaywa Industries.

japan-us2The deal is estimated to be around $1.4 billion. The details of the deal are not clear as there is still uncertainty about whether India will get the civilian version of the aircraft and in what form. Japan’s Constitution currently bars the sale of defence weaponry to a foreign country.

If it goes through, this will be the first defence sale deal by Japan in its post-war history, and will signal strong political will by Japan to move beyond the comfort zone to forge a special military and strategic partnership with India. India is insisting that out of 12 aircraft, it wants two of them in fly-away condition and the rest are to be manufactured in India under the Make in India project. Given huge costs involved in co-manufacturing, the Japanese side is weighing its options.

Partnering India’s development journey

japan-modi-bullet-pactStrategic issues will be high on the agenda, but equally important will be the ongoing thrust on enhancing the quality and quantum of economic partnership. Mr Modi has rightly identified Japan as a top investor and partner in India’s ongoing growth story, and will be looking to raise the bar for trade and investment.

The two sides are expected to review progress in implementing projects under the $33 billion fund,  announced by Japan during PM Modi’s landmark visit to Tokyo in August, 2014. The second generation economic reforms undertaken by the Modi government, including easing of foreign investment in crucial sectors like defence, insurance, retail and real estate and the passing of the path-breaking GST legislation have given an added shine to the India narrative in Japan. Surveys done by Japan Bank of International Coop (JBIC) have rated India as the most attractive and promising investment destination for Japanese manufacturing companies.

Mr Modi is set to highlight India as an investment destination during his talks with Mr Abe and in his other speeches in Tokyo and Kobe, Osaka. Infrastructure, manufacturing, energy, real estate and e-commerce have been identified as core areas by India for Japanese investment. Japanese conglomerate SoftBank has already unveiled around $20 billion investment in the infrastructure sector in India, including roads, highways, railways, ports and airports. To fix trade imbalance, PM Modi is expected to pitch for Japanese investors to participate in   National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF) to transform the infrastructure landscape in India.

On fast-track: Bullet Train

japan-bulletBuilding on the ongoing success story of the Delhi Metro, one can expect tangible progress in discussions on Japanese funds and assistance for Phase IV of the Metro. With the signing of the agreement on Japan’s assistance in the building of the first bullet train in India on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route during Mr Abe’s visit to Delhi last year, India is quite keen to rope in Tokyo as its prime partner in building high-speed train network on other routes.

Sources said that there is a possibility of a pact on Japan’s involvement in another bullet train on a different route. Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA), for one, is upbeat about funding the second bullet train. Japan would like to win contracts for all other six high-speed corridors identified by India, but this could take time given huge costs involved.

The Chinese Puzzle: Sea of Troubles

Talking of India-Japan relations against the current backdrop of the conflicted regional landscape, China remains a looming shadow. Both India and Japan have denied any gang-up or containment vis-à-vis China, but several planned initiatives in the maritime sphere are set to fuel apprehensions in Beijing about the hidden agenda behind the deepening Tokyo-Delhi connect.

The July verdict by the Hague-based international tribunal and China’s rejection of the ruling has whetted anxiety in the region, with India and Japan coming out with near identical statements on the resolution of the dispute through diplomacy and respect for the UNCLOS (UN Convention on Laws of the State).

During Mr Abe’s visit to New Delhi, the India-Japan joint statement for the first time contained a pointed paragraph on South China Sea and freedom of navigation. This time around, they can push the envelope by explicitly mentioning the Hague verdict and enjoin on all parties to respect UNCLOS- a formulation that is going to be deeply resented by China. Although both India and Japan are not party to the dispute in South China Sea, China’s expansionist ambitions affect both countries as they have long-running territorial disputes with China. Hence, issues relating to South China Sea and maritime security will figure prominently in the Modi-Abe talks in Tokyo.

Another important theme of the summit talks in Tokyo will be in the form of exploratory discussions on Japan’s possible role in the Indian Ocean and proactive assistance by Japan in enhancing investments in infrastructure in India’s north-eastern states, some of which border China. This Japanese-assisted infrastructure building will spur the integration of the north-east states with ASEAN countries and could provide an alternative to the China-backed One Belt, One Road project, albeit on a much smaller scale.

One can also expect tangible discussions on collaboration in space and in the Ballistic Missile Defence system. Tokyo is keen on acquiring BMD capability and looks at New Delhi as an important partner, especially after India successfully conducted test firing of upgraded anti-ballistic missile system. These disparate but interlinked initiatives will take time to fructify, but they show the soaring ambition of the India-Japan military and strategic partnership, animated by shared threats and goals.

Japan-India Moment

japan-modi-abe-selfieIn many ways, the current geo-strategic and geo-economic situation have created a conjunction of India’s Japan Moment and Japan’s India moment. Mr Modi and Mr Abe, who have famously forged a personal chemistry, are ideal partners to propel this partnership to new heights.

The nuclear issue is the last albatross holding back the full potential of this mutually fecundating relationship, and if the nuclear deal is signed in Tokyo, expect a major upsurge in India-Japan relations across the spectrum and an added ballast to the narrative of an inclusive Asian Century.

(Manish Chand is Founder-Editor of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, an e-magazine-journal focused on international affairs. He is in Tokyo to report on and analyse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan).

scg

scgIs China about to reclaim the Scarborough Shoal? It is a question that has absorbed discussions in maritime circles recently. Speculation is growing that China might be planning to build a small permanent structure on Scarborough, located close to the Philippines’ coast, in which to base Chinese military personnel — a contingency that might result in a sharp escalation of regional tensions.

The genesis of this conjecture is a recent report in the South China Morning Post quoting “a source familiar with the matter” stating that Beijing was waiting for the completion of the G20 summit next month to start dredging the strategically-placed shoal, which is located close to key sea-lanes in the South China Sea. While China is refraining from any moves that might jeopardise discussions during the G20 summit (where the focus is likely to be on ‘regional peace’) Beijing is said to be working on a plan to begin reclamation work before the start of the US presidential election in November.

For Beijing, converting the shoal into an artificial island is a good way of emphasising its dominance over the Southeast Asian littorals. In the month since the UN arbitral tribunal gave its verdict rejecting Beijing’s historic rights within the nine-dash line, China’s military has assiduously built up its military presence in the South China Sea. An increased presence of warships and aircraft in the contested littorals has been complemented with efforts to fortify military structures on the islands. These include refurbished missile sites and reinforced hangers for military aircraft.

China’s moves have triggered regional alarm with the US increasing its own naval presence in the region. Vietnam has rushed to position surface-to-air missiles on islands it controls in the South China Sea, and Indonesia and Malaysia have vowed to redouble their efforts to apprehend Chinese fishing boats in their waters.

Why, however, are the US and its Southeast Asian allies treating Scarborough like a sacred ‘red-line’?

The answer is simple. Control over this well-located shoal confers on China a vital strategic edge, radically altering the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. Scarborough’s proximity to the coast of the Philippines makes it a significant factor in US naval plans, not least since Manila has a mutual defence treaty with Washington. What’s threatening, however, isn’t just the prospect of Chinese radars and missiles at Scarborough. Analysts say China may be aiming to set-up a naval support facility, enabling the establishment of a ‘strategic triangle’ in the South China Sea that would help enforce a Chinese Air Defence Identification Zone and expand China’s control over these vital waterways. Reports suggest China’s plan to militarise Scarborough is to create the ‘third vertex of a triangle of military bases’, which would render Chinese threats to the main Philippine island of Luzon more credible.

US Pacific Fleet intelligence also indicates that, in combination with China’s seven new islands in the Spratly group, a new naval facility at Scarborough will provide Beijing with the ability to effectively control access to the waters of the South China Sea. The PLA Navy, reports suggest, has been exercising to “prepare for a sudden, cruel and short modern war” in the South China Sea. That China’s new islands in the South China Sea, also the site of the PLA’s newly instituted Combat Air Patrols, are located in its southern part, has led some to conclude Beijing is planning on reclaiming Scarborough.

The Chinese tactic, apparently, is to swarm the South China Sea’s critical littorals and airspace with law-enforcement vessels, fishing boats, and military aircraft in an attempt to demonstrate defiance of the UN tribunal court’s verdict. Beijing believes an effective demonstration of military strength would both deter foreign warships from venturing too close to Chinese-controlled waters, as well as signal clearly that China will not be shackled by what it sees as the unlawful outcomes of a bogus arbitration procedure.

It is not surprising then that the number of Chinese maritime security vessels near Scarborough shoal has risen sharply over the past several weeks. Unlike previously, when China has had only two or three naval or coast guard vessels deployed near the shoal, the number of Chinese law enforcement and combat ships has now increased to more than a dozen. In addition, Beijing has been routinely positioning large flotilla of hundreds of fishing vessels around Scarborough Shoal in an action similar to that occurring in the East China Sea. Last week, China sent seven coast guard vessels and over 200 fishing vessels to the waters around Japan’s Senkaku Islands. The incursion drew howls of protest from Tokyo, but a nonchalant Beijing brushed the objections aside saying the boats were operating in Chinese waters.

The Chinese strategy, apparently, is to make a play for all of East Asia’s contested littorals thereby preventing opponents from combining ranks in the South China Sea. The idea is to keep rival forces off-balance in the South China Sea by undertaking distracting manoeuvres in contiguous theatres such as the East China Sea, even as the Chinese military raises the stakes in their primary theatre of interest. While Beijing is unwilling to get into a full-scale confrontation it hopes to convince adversaries that, if pushed hard in the South China Sea, the Chinese military is prepared to initiate hostilities anywhere.

In light of China’s brinkmanship the US has been forced to adopt a cautious approach. While American policymakers are yet to come to terms with their country’s reduced leverage in the Asia-Pacific, Washington is cognisant of the threat that China’s modernising military presents to peace in the region. Even so, the US has had to contend with mixed messaging from its Southeast Asian allies — particularly the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s overly conciliatory tone with Beijing has perplexed many regional watchers. Indeed, Duterte’s decision to send one of his predecessors, Fidel Ramos, to hold exploratory talks with the Chinese has caused dismay in Washington. The US believes Manila has been too eager to compromise, willing even to concede to Beijing advantages conferred to it by the Arbitral Tribunal.

This does not mean China hasn’t given a thought to the costs involved. Despite dominating the narrative in recent times, Beijing realises that an open show of force would be severely detrimental to its interests. Despite its control of major features and islands in the South China Sea, Beijing knows a combined counter-action by the US and its partners in the Asia-Pacific might result in an uncontrollable spiral of violence. In the circumstances, all China must do is to find a way in which its maritime agencies can quietly and efficiently mark its presence in the vital sea spaces while ensuring that Chinese geopolitical interests are not compromised. For many, the key to resolving the South China Sea impasse lies in initiating a dialogue between Washington and Beijing. President Xi has long called for a special relationship between China and the United States that would allow both countries to better manage the conflict. Notwithstanding China’s economic interests in Southeast Asia, however, many in Washington are convinced that China will build military facilities that allow its naval and law enforcement ships to bully and intimidate its neighbours. Should China succeed in reclaiming Scarborough Shoal it will be the most significant escalation so far in the tussle for the South China Sea.

Oddly then, reclaiming Scarborough might be Beijing’s undoing, because it might provide the spark needed to instigate China’s tactical containment in the South China Sea.

Courtesy:ORF

wang yi

wang yiDuring his visit to New Delhi last week, Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, held wide-ranging talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. The agenda for discussion is said to have included a number of sticky bilateral issues – China’s perceived opposition to India’s membership of the NSG, Beijing’s opposition to UN sanctions on Jaish-e-Mohammed Chief, Masood Azhar, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Missing from the list of issues, however, was the South China Sea (SCS) – a subject Beijing had apparently debarred from discussion in any context or form.

Oddly, a day after Wang returned to Beijing, the Chinese media hailed India for being “neutral on the South China Sea” – as if the Chinese foreign minister has secured an assurance from India that if the matter ever came up for discussion in an international forum, New Delhi has promised not to take sides. Meanwhile, Indian newspapers pointed out that, despite never mentioning the South China Sea in his official discussions, the Chinese foreign minister did bring up the issue informally with the media. In response to a question by a journalist, Wang had observed solemnly that India needed to decide “where it stood on the matter of the South China Sea” – a clear indication that support on the vexed territorial disputes in Southeast Asia may have been the real purpose of his visit.

Interestingly, in the run up to Wang’s departure for India, The Global Times, a tabloid widely seen as the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, warned New Delhi that its seemingly inimical posture on the South China Sea was potentially damaging for bilateral ties and could create obstacles for Indian businesses in China. “Instead of unnecessary entanglements with China over the South China Sea debate during Wang’s visit,” an editorial in the newspaper declared, “India must create a good atmosphere for economic cooperation, including the reduction of tariffs…amid the ongoing free trade talks.”

Clearly, China remains worried that India could join other countries in raising the controversial issue during the G-20 summit to be held in Hangzhou next month. With the United States certain to rake up the UN tribunal’s rejection of Chinese claims within the “nine-dash line”, Beijing is determined to muster support for its own position on the matter. Wang’s India visit was widely seen as part of a Chinese lobbying effort to ensure that New Delhi does not join Washington and its supporters in pushing Beijing on the defensive by bringing up the SCS.

Chinese leaders might claim that by avoiding a mention of the South China Sea during discussions with Wang, Beijing can safely conclude that New Delhi is in agreement with its stand on that matter. The Chinese political leadership must, however, know that while New Delhi respects China’s viewpoint, it chooses to take a principled position on the disputes in the SCS. For three reasons, Southeast Asia and its contested littorals matter to Indian interests.

First, Indian trade and economic linkages in the Pacific are becoming stronger and deeper. Not only are ASEAN and the far-eastern Pacific key target areas of the “Act East” policy, Asia’s Eastern commons are increasingly a vital facilitator of India’s economic development. With growing dependence on the Malacca Strait for the flow of goods and services, economics is increasingly a factor in India’s Pacific policy. China must know that territorial conflicts in the SCS threaten the future trajectory of India’s economic development, creating an unacceptable hindrance for regional trade and commerce.

Secondly, India believes that the disputes in the Southeast Asian littorals are a litmus test for international maritime law. In the aftermath of the Hague Tribunal’s verdict on the South China Sea, New Delhi feels obligated to take a principled stand on the issue of freedom of navigation and commercial access as enshrined in the UNCLOS. Beijing must know that regardless of the guarantees it seeks from India about staying neutral on the SCS, New Delhi cannot be seen to be condoning the aggression of armed Chinese naval ships, aircraft and submarines in the region.

Regardless then of the concessions Beijing is willing to offer India on the NSG and bilateral issues, New Delhi has reason to continue viewing China’s maritime manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with suspicion. For all the geniality on display during Wang’s visit, Beijing still hasn’t explained its rapidly growing undersea presence in littoral South Asia. The flimsy pretext of anti-piracy operations to justify the deployment of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean makes many Indian maritime analysts believe that China is preparing for a larger strategic thrust in the Indian Ocean.

Lastly, Beijing must know that New Delhi recognizes the threat that Chinese aggression poses for the wider Asian commons – in particular the exacerbation of existing power asymmetries. In order to contribute to a fair and equitable regional maritime order, New Delhi will take a stand that restores strategic balance in maritime-Asia.

There are, of course, things that New Delhi isn’t in a position to officially communicate to Beijing. For instance, the correlation that Indian maritime analysts discern between aggressive Chinese patrolling in the SCS and its growing deployments in the Indian Ocean Region; or the suspicion in Indian strategic circles that China might use its SCS bases as a springboard for active projection of power in the Indian Ocean.

Beijing might be surprised to learn that many Indian analysts and policymakers view China’s aggressive response to the UN Arbitral Tribunal’s verdict as part of a broader strategy to project power in Asia’s critical littoral spaces. Indian experts, however, recognize that China operates from a position of strength in the SCS, wherein it has physical possession over some critical islands.

What New Delhi really worries about is China’s reclamation and militarisation of features in its possession – particularly the deployment of missiles, fighters and surveillance equipment in its Spratly group of islands, allowing the PLAN effective control over the entire range of maritime operations in the SCS. Indian experts also recognize the important role Beijing’s militia forces play in achieving its regional objectives. India knows well that the main threat to maritime security in Asia isn’t so much the PLA Navy, but China’s irregular forces. Chinese surveillance ships, coast guard vessels and fishing fleets are the real force behind Beijing’s dominance of the littoral spaces.

With the expansion of Chinese maritime activities in the IOR, New Delhi fears a rise in non-grey hull presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean. Already, China’s distant water fishing fleet is now the world’s largest, and is a heavily subsidised maritime commercial entity. While an increase in the presence of such ships doesn’t always pose a security threat, India remains wary of Chinese non-military maritime activity in the Eastern Indian Ocean.

That said, nothing lays bare Indian anxieties as much as the prospect of Chinese naval bases in the IOR. India’s China sceptics are convinced Beijing’s blueprint for maritime operations in the Indian Ocean involves the construction of multiple logistical facilities. China’s 10-year agreement with Djibouti in 2015 for the setting up of a naval replenishment facility in the northern Obock region is widely seen by Indian experts as proof of the PLA Navy’s strategic ambitions in the IOR.

This does not mean that New Delhi is going to team up with the United States in an effort to contain China. On the contrary, Indian policymakers clearly recognize that naval manoeuvres in the SCS emphasising “freedom of navigation” are a risky proposition. While India would like to see all parties act in accordance with the law, New Delhi will not take sides on the territorial disputes. Even so, the possibility that China might eclipse India in its own “backyard” will continue to drive a security response in New Delhi, even as it seeks to strengthen the Indian naval presence in its near and extended waters.

Of course, Indian leaders cannot articulate the full extent of their anxieties over Chinese maritime operations in Asia. Regardless of the concessions on offer to New Delhi, Beijing must know that India will not agree to a compromise deal with China on the South China Sea.

Courtesy:IDSA

vietnam-modi-2

vietnam-modi1Amid China’s hardening posture on the South China Sea ruling by an international tribunal, senior officials of India and Vietnam have held strategic talks in New Delhi to bolster their military and economic relations, which could pave the way for a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Hanoi early next month.

The 8th Foreign Office Consultations (FOC) and 5th Strategic Dialogue between India and Vietnam were held in New Delhi on August 2. The Indian side was led by Preeti Saran, Secretary (East) in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, and the Vietnamese side was led by Vice Foreign Minister Vũ Hồng Nam.

Bonding over South China Sea

The volatile situation around the South China Sea in the wake of The Hague tribunal’s ruling rejecting Beijing’s “historic claims” over the disputed water body and the so-called nine-dash line figured prominently in discussions.

vietnam-modi-2The discussions in New Delhi saw a striking convergence of perspectives between the two countries on the South China Sea issue. “Both sides also discussed recent developments in the maritime domain and the need for peaceful resolution of all disputes in accordance with accepted principles of international law as reflected notably in the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982,” said a statement by India’s external affairs ministry.

The Vietnamese side also reaffirmed its support for India’s candidature for a Permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council, a clear signal of Hanoi’s strategic intent to deepen relations with India which it sees as a balancing power in the region.

Modi’s visit to Vietnam

The recent talks in New Delhi have set the stage for a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Hanoi early September. There is no official statement yet, but reliable sources said that Mr Modi could visit Vietnam after attending the G20 summit in the Chinese city of Hanzhou on September 4-5.

The visit to Hanoi will take place at a time when the India-China relations are under strain following China’s stalling of India’s bid for the NSG membership and India denying extension of visas to three Chinese journalists working for state-run Xinhua news agency. Mr Modi’s visit to Hanoi, as and when it happens, will be closely watched in Beijing, which has resented growing proximity between New Delhi and Hanoi, and sees India as engaged in a containment game with the US, Japan, Australia and friendly ASEAN countries. India has many a time repudiated containment conspiracy theories drummed up routinely in the influential state-directed Chinese media outlets. But at the same time, it’s building a network of relationships in the region to act as checks against China’s potential military adventurism. In this calculus, Hanoi as emerged as a crucial lynchpin of the Modi government’s rechristened Act East policy.

South China Sea geopolitics

vietnam-protestsThe South China Sea, post Hague tribunal verdict, has become an arena of intense diplomatic manouevering in the region. China has rejected the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and has asserted that it will continue to protect its core sovereignty interests in the South China Sea and has resorted to military drills to send the message across.

India has urged China to show “utmost respect” for the tribunal’s ruling and has reiterated the need for upholding freedom of navigation and resolution of all maritime disputes in accordance with the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Vietnam, which also claims parts of the South China Sea and has been locked in a stand-off with China over the latter’s building of artificial islands in the contested water body, has greeted the tribunal’s verdict.

Vietnam’s Communist Party leaders are under mounting pressure to press for its claims over the Spratlys and the Paracels under the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Speculation is rife that Vietnam may follow the suit of the Philippines and take China to the international court.

India-Vietnam defence ties

Against this backdrop, India and Vietnam are looking to enhance consultations on regional issues and planning to upgrade their military and strategic ties. India has decided to set up a satellite tracking and imaging centre in southern Vietnam that will give Hanoi access to pictures from Indian earth observation satellites. Significantly, the satellite station would cover China and the South China Sea as well.

What’s worrying for China is increased defense collaboration between India and Vietnam. Many ambitious plans have been firmed up, which include the sale of military equipment, sharing of intelligence, joint naval exercises and training to counter insurgency and jungle warfare.

India’s Balancing Power

nsg-china-uzbekThe Modi government is ready to push the envelope further and is understood to have cleared the sale of BrahMos missiles to Vietnam, a more realistic possibility after the induction of India into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). India is also planning to upgrade and modernise defence platforms in Vietnam. India has provided a concessional line of credit for $100 million to Vietnam to procure offshore vessels and defence equipment.

This systematic and consistent effort by India to bolster defence capabilities of Vietnam underlines New Delhi’s growing investment in a crucial relationship with an emerging ASEAN country, which will enhance its profile as a net security provider and a balancer in the region. The visit by PM Modi to Vietnam is, therefore, going to be tracked closely by the powers-that-be in Beijing and will have ramifications for peace and stability in the extended East Asia region.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

southchinasea-new1

southchinasea-new1On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) gave an award in an arbitration instituted by the Philippines against China over latter’s claims on South China Sea. The arbitration panel, rejecting China’s objections, held that it has powers to make a final and binding award under the relevant provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UN CLOS) to settle the dispute concerning claims of historic rights and sources of maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.

The award is a significant contribution to the understanding of the legal basis of the use of different types of maritime zones by the UNCLOS signatory countries, including different types of offshore land features and consequent maritime entitlements to the resources of the surrounding waters. In this particular case, a peculiarity requiring legal clarification is the Chinese sovereign rights claim – based on its assertion of “historic rights” – to the South China Sea waters encompassed by the so-called “nine-dash lines” which are found in the Chinese maps of the region.

The tribunal looked at the issue of claims made to territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the coastal baselines), exclusive economic zones or EEZ (200 nautical miles from the coastal baselines) and continental shelf (not exceeding 350 nautical miles from the coastal baseline) based on the claimed characteristics of the various South China Sea land features; this issue became important because of extensive land reclamation work done by various claimant countries but, most notably, by China on several land features.

The tribunal did not take any position on the territorial claims made by the various claimant countries, i.e., Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines and China (and Taiwan); these competing claims have led to occupation of different land features by them which they do not recognize in respect of the others in this group. Nor did the tribunal take any position, on grounds of lack of jurisdiction, on the Philippines complaint about China over the military stand-off over a land feature called Second Thomas Shoal as these activities were of a military nature. It rejected the legal basis under UNCLOS for the Chinese “nine-dash lines” (NDL) and its claim of historical exercise of exclusive control over the encompassed waters or their resources. It also determined, based on archival record, that extensive land reclamations with artificial efforts to sustain a small group of people do not alter maritime entitlements; under the Convention, only land features remaining above water at high tide can generate 12 nautical miles territorial sea and islands, able to sustain human habitation, can generate EEZ or Continental Shelf.

Why South China Sea matters

southchinasea-manila1The South China Sea island groups have caused considerable military tension since the Second World War after the withdrawal of the Japanese forces from the region. Being traditional fishing grounds, the importance of these islands increased once it was understood that there were good prospects of oil and gas on the seabed although the estimates vary and technology for deep sea oil drilling is not fully developed. In 1974, Chinese troops ousted the Vietnamese from the Paracels islands during the final years of the Vietnam war; in 1988, the two sides clashed in the Spratlys with the loss of over 60 Vietnamese sailors. In 1995, China captured Mischief Reef from the Philippines. Clashes between fishermen from different claimant countries are not uncommon. In the Chinese case, however, its assertion of its claim line has led to serious naval stand-off with both Vietnam as well as the Philippines especially in the context of oil exploration activity.

In recent years, the tension has increased sharply in the South China Sea region. It has led to naval buildup amongst the littoral countries.

The rise of Chinese naval power, which was until a decade ago focused more on the East China Sea, has increased anxiety amongst the South China Sea littoral countries and most ASEAN member states have been happy with the return of the US in the region under its policy of ‘rebalance’ towards Asia; its naval, and military, presence has increased and it is developing military-to-military cooperation with several countries in the region, particularly Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia and Indonesia. Whilst the relations of China with the Philippines have worsened considerably, especially during the previous administration of President Aquino, the relations have also become tense with Vietnam and, even, with Indonesia and Malaysia, the latter two being generally quite friendly to it; in the case of Malaysia, China has not been asserting its NDL claims over areas from where the former has been extracting oil.

The South China Sea has been witnessing a vicious downward action-reaction spiral adding to considerable regional tension. China’s aggressive buildup of infrastructure, including airstrips for long-range aircraft, harbour facilities for receiving ships, air defence missile batteries, on several islands have raised temperatures. The US Pacific Fleet’s ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ (FONOPs) as well as overflights to contested areas where “international law permits” have elicited angry responses from China; Australia is carrying out its own overflights operations. However, there are as yet no reports of joint freedom of navigation operations along with those of the US Navy. There are almost daily instances of Chinese coast guard ships being involved in interfering with fishing activities by other countries within the NDL areas; other countries are doing the same to the Chinese fishermen.

There have been, not too distant in the past, instances of close confrontation between the naval ships of the US and China as well as between China and those of other countries. In the run-up to the declaration of the arbitration award, the US deployed warships in the Spratlys area closer to the Philippines and the Chinese navy conducted two naval exercises in the Paracels islands; there were communications between the US Secretary of State and the Chinese Foreign Minister urging each other not to raise further tension. At the Singapore dialogue, in June this year, US Defence Secretary issued an unprecedented warning to China against building an airstrip at Scarborough Shoal, a high tide land feature about 230 km from the Philippines coast, about which the tribunal declared as illegal the prevention of Filipino fishermen from fishing by China. The overall level of tension in the region does cause concerns about the safety of navigation and overflights, but the involvement of two big powers, namely, US and China and the active concerns of the other powers can potentially create regional instability with its cascading effects all around; it can be surmised that the timing of active missile tests by North Korea and, indeed, of the South Korean decision to install the US anti-ballistic missile system (THAD) might be linked with the atmosphere of growing regional insecurity.

Impact on China

asean-chinaDespite the vehement Chinese rejection of the arbitration award, its national leadership cannot be unmindful of the negative impact on its international image especially as it is projecting itself as a responsible international power; in fact, some Chinese analysts have cautioned the government that its current policy might undermine its maritime silk route (MSR) programme for greater influence in the region vis-a-vis US. At an ongoing summit in Ulan Bator, the Chinese Prime Minister met both his Japanese and Vietnamese counterparts and there have been similar conciliatory statements from Beijing and Manila about peaceful resolution of their disputes.

Whilst US, Japan and Australia have been more forthright in describing the award as final and legally binding on the parties to the dispute under UNCLOS, the ASEAN countries on the South China Sea littoral, namely, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have been more restrained in their response.

India’s position

India’s official response has been closer to that of the ASEAN claimant countries on the dispute in the Spratlys. It “noted” the arbitration award emphasising freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded commerce, based on “the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS”: it urged “all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS”. Curiously, Chinese diplomats have been citing the Moscow joint communiqué between the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China (18 April 2016) as supporting its position where it says, inter-alia, “all related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned”; they are ignoring the entire passage of the communiqué which calls upon “full respect of all provisions of UNCLOS”.

India’s concerns about safety of navigation routes and the stability and security of the entire neighbouring region are the basis for its Act East policy where maritime security cooperation with the ASEAN member states is an important dimension. It also has a growing relationship with the US, Japan and Australia in the maritime domain; it has also, recently, launched a maritime dialogue with China to discuss all issues of interest to both sites.

In the immediate aftermath of the arbitration award, all sides are trying to calm the situation which, however, remains combustible with, potentially, disastrous consequences. The attention is to analyse each and every word of the principal protagonists to parse the intentions behind them. Apart from the involvement of the Coast Guards in support of the respective fishing boats which is a daily occurrence, several key countries have been exploring – and, eventually exploiting – hydrocarbon reserves within the NDL area.

Militarisation of the existing infrastructure in the Spratlys and the Paracels, especially on the part of the Chinese, can completely alter the existing balance of power in the region. Although individual ASEAN member countries have differing positions on the dispute, all are keen for an early conclusion with China of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. The history of negotiations between the two sides on CBMs in the region does show that a united position produces results. The wide open question is as to whether the changed geopolitics – and extreme fluidity – this time would make things easier.

(Yogendra Kumar is a former Ambassador of India to the Philippines, whose book on India’s maritime challenges has just been published. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author)

 

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