With the second anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea issue – which went against China – around the corner, hectic strategic moves are underway. Pankaj Jha , formerly deputy director at National Security Council Secretariat and currently senior faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, spoke with Rudroneel Ghosh about the issue:
We are on the eve of the second anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling. Has there been any change on the ground?
China has put more assets on the ground with regard to most of the islands. This includes radars, domes, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles. However, in the larger scheme of things China has, in a way, accepted that you can’t bar other fishermen from fishing in certain waters. So other countries in the region have been somewhat mollified. On the other hand, China is proclaiming it is its sovereign right to do whatever it wants in those particular islands.
This is important because even in the colonial past there was no clear demarcation of which country had sovereignty over the South China Sea islands. Now if you look at international law there are five methods by which a country can claim sovereignty – through occupation, prescription, secession, accession and annexation. This technically opens the door for different countries, including China, Vietnam and Philippines, to claim sovereign rights over the region. But given that there’s no clear accord regarding this, all the historical claims being put forward have been derived from respective narratives. China is trying to take advantage of this ambiguous situation and enforce a Beijing consensus in this area. It is further emboldened by the fact that the US is not really forthcoming in defending the rights and claims of other countries.
The US has undertaken freedom of navigation operations in the region.
Has the US made any concrete effort to dislodge the Chinese assets on those islands? However, the US also understands that if China fully controls South China Sea somewhere down the line its own positions in places like Guam and Japan will come under the surveillance of Chinese vantage towers. China’s like a 14-year-old teenager who has grown muscles and will assert its nationalism wherever it finds the opportunity.
It has opened its base in Djibouti and is looking for a base in Vanuatu. Guam and Hawaii fall in the same geometrical arc.
What about the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea?
The biggest thing that is palpable in the last two years is that earlier they talked about a legally binding code of conduct. Now the legal part has been dropped. Discussion on the code has been going on for 13 long years. But China hasn’t been accepting what is being offered to them. And the reason is there isn’t unity on this within Asean. Malaysia and Brunei are only concerned about a few islands and don’t want to commit all their assets towards this issue. The biggest aggrieved parties are the Philippines and Vietnam – which have most islands at stake. So there are three groups within Asean. Singapore and Myanmar, which don’t have much to say; Malaysia and Brunei which have limited concerns; Vietnam and the Philippines which have been raising this issue strongly since 2011. Everyone is playing his own game.
How can they get the best deal here in the face of an assertive China?
Asean centrality has become an issue only in the last three or four years. This is because there is a sense that the inherent divisions within Asean will become more apparent. Myanmar wants to come out of the clutches of China. Laos is completely in the Chinese camp. Cambodia is the spokesperson for China within Asean.
Vietnam plays a sophisticated role – it doesn’t want to ignore China but also knows too much China in waters around it will shrink its strategic and trade space. Vietnam is also the biggest contender for investment coming from Taiwan and Japan. Therefore, for Vietnam the biggest bets are Japan, India, Australia and the Quad. It was also looking at the US as a guarantor but Trump isn’t forthcoming right now.
How effective is the Quad grouping of India, US, Japan and Australia?
If you look at it from the perspective of the Indo-Pacific, there are certain differences between the Quad members. For India Indo-Pacific includes the whole Indian Ocean from Africa to the US. For Australia it stops at Bay of Bengal. Japan has no problem with India’s narrative. And the US says it is a geopolitical imagination.
The problem here is that this Indo-Pacific construct is still not supported by a multilateral institution. So no one is clear about the duties, responsibilities and benefits. There needs to be a clear blueprint for the Quad.