China’s growing assertiveness in South China Sea has awakened the international community to join hands to protect the rules-based global maritime order. In March, China conducted more than a week of military drills in the South China Sea in an area between its southern province of Hainan and Vietnam. What was shocking was that part of the area where China conducted drills, with the signboard proclaiming “Entering prohibited,” is well within Vietnam’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, which is tantamount to infringements on Hanoi’s sovereignty.
Vietnam has reacted sharply, and asked China not to violate its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf with military drills. On March 7, 2022, in response to a reporter’s question about a maritime notice issued by the Hainan Provincial Customs Administration regarding China’s military manoeuvres in the East Sea, the Spokesperson of Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs Le Thi Thu Hang said: “Vietnam always closely follows developments in the East Sea area and exercises its sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the sea in accordance with international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. United Nations on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS 1982).”
The spokesperson emphasized that part of the maritime notification area of the Hainan Provincial Customs Department, China, belongs to Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, as defined under UNCLOS 1982.
“Vietnam asks China to respect and not violate Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, and not take actions to complicate the situation, thereby contributing to maintaining peace, security and stability. in the East Sea,” said the spokesperson. “The Vietnamese side has communicated with China on this issue.”
But it seems Vietnam’s protests were not heeded by Beijing. Just after the Hainan incident, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held 24×7 drills along the coasts of the East China and South China, fuelling tensions in the region. China’s day-and-night drills were designed to counter the US Navy’s increasing activities in the region. PLA Navy held around 100-night drills in 2021 compared with 30 in 2020, said analysts. These drills underline the danger of South China Sea turning into a theatre of conflict between the world’s first and second largest economies, thereby subverting global peace and stability.
It is against this backdrop US President Joe Biden will be hosting a special summit with the leaders of ASEAN countries, which is designed to send a pointed message to Beijing that attempts to subvert the rules-based order in the region will not be tolerated. By announcing the summit, President Biden underlined the importance the US attaches to the Indo-Pacific policy and Washington’s commitment to curbing China’s expansionist plans in the contested South China Sea. With Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong by his side, President Biden called for ensuring that all nations in the region, including China, uphold the principles that enable a free and open region.
With the overarching aim of curbing Beijing’s rules-bending behaviour, issues relating to freedom of navigation in South China Sea featured prominently in a spate of high-level diplomatic engagements in New Delhi. In the summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida on March 19, the two leaders decided to enhance coordination to promote freedom of navigation and promote peaceful resolution of disputes with full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in accordance with international law. Similarly, in recent discussions with countries such as UK, France, Germany, Indonesia and Singapore, the situation in South China Sea was discussed, and all the countries concerned robustly backed increased coordination to protect freedom of navigation in South China Sea.
“The Prime Ministers emphasized that India and Japan, as two leading powers in the Indo-Pacific region, had a shared interest in the safety and security of the maritime domain, freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce and peaceful resolution of disputes with full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in accordance with international law,” said the joint statement issued after talks between the leaders of India and Japan. In a pointed message to Beijing, the two leaders emphasized the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint.
Similarly, safeguarding freedom of navigation in South China Sea figured in discussions between the leaders of India and Australia at their virtual summit on March 21. Calling for an effective and substantive code of conduct, the two leaders “reiterated the importance of adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the South China Sea,” said the India-Australia joint statement.
Fast-tracking Code of Conduct
With a growing international consensus emerging on freedom of navigation as the cornerstone of the rules-based global maritime order, it’s imperative for the region to expedite the conclusion of a binding code of conduct in the face of Chinese tactics in South China Sea. The international community must insist on the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the early conclusion of a substantive and effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, especially UNCLOS, without prejudice to the rights and interests of all nations including those not party to these negotiations.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed negotiations over the code of conduct, but it’s time to pick the pace. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have been in negotiations to draft the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea (SCS), but key differences between the two sides on basic features of CoC continue to stall the process. The most important difference is over China’s insistence that the Code of Conduct should be restricted to Southeast Asian countries so that all countries outside the region are excluded from playing a role in it. The two sides are also divided over whether the code will be legally binding – ASEAN favours it but China opposes it. It’s time to resolve these differences expeditiously and put in place an effective Code of Conduct in South China Sea.
Looking ahead, the international community needs to be vigilant and proactive in ensuring that any attempt to violate freedom of navigation in South China Sea does not go unchallenged. This has become more critical in view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as some fear that if the US is occupied with the conflict in Europe, China may become more adventurous South and East China Sea. In this regard, the ASEAN has a special responsibility as such activities directly impact peace and stability in Southeast Asia. The Quad has already placed freedom of navigation on its agenda. The second Quad summit in Japan, likely in May-June, will see the leaders of India, US, Japan and Australia join hands to call out China’s actions which violate the rules-based order in South China Sea. In this regard, India, the world’s largest democracy and a rising power, is already becoming more vocal and is expected to espouse freedom of navigation at important plurilateral and multilateral forums. major global forums. India is going to highlight the importance of enhancing international coordination on safeguarding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea at the upcoming 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence m ministers of India and the US.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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