The imbroglio in South China Sea is a sign of the changed equation in Asia, where China, not Japan, is rising, and how
“When China becomes China, it becomes expansionist,” declared Jawaharlal Nehru to French novelist and art historian Andre Malraux. Decades after his death, Nehru’s words echo in the South China Sea: As a rising China flexes its muscles, building and buffering reefs and rocks in its self-proclaimed maritime oceanic backyard—South China Sea—claiming the area covered by an ambiguous U-shaped ‘nine-dash line’ invoking what it calls ‘historic rights’.
But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. China’s very own South China Sea also happens to be Vietnam’s Eastern Sea and the Philippines’s West Philippines Sea. Besides, two other Southeast Asian states, Malaysia and Brunei, lay claim to it. There is also Taiwan lurking in the shadows.
At the insistence of one aggrieved party, the Philippines, the matter went for compulsory arbitration under a UN-backed tribunal at the Hague, which, in July 2016, took unusual exception to China’s claim of historic rights. In its ruling, the tribunal demolished China’s claims, while at the same time stopped short of calling China’s nine-dash line illegal. But the message was more than clear.
As the tribunal differentiated between high-tide elevations (which lie above the water at high tide) and low-tide elevations, and categorically defined islands as those capable of sustaining and fostering a community, it honed the message that China had indeed occupied several low-tide elevations. The tribunal suggested that Mischief Reef (in the Spratly Islands, 135 nautical miles from Palawan, which, incidentally, is considered one of the most beautiful islands in the Philippines and in the world), which is a bone of contention between the Philippines and China, belonged to the Philippines.
China, which has opposed internationalisation of the issue and arbitration by any such multilateral forum, boycotted the hearing. For now, the ruling festers a lull in the storm, but there is no doubt about what is brewing. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s deft praise of India, which abided by international adjudication vis-a-vis the maritime border dispute with Bangladesh in 2014, was a larger back-handed message, north of Delhi.
There is no doubt that as with other disputes in the sea, the maritime area of South China Sea is rich in hydrocarbons and oil, with some scholars calling it the ‘first line of defence’ for the littoral states of Southeast Asia. This sea is regarded as a vital trade artery “strategically located between the important sea routes of the northern and southern as well as eastern and western bound traffic,” through which $5 trillion worth of annual trade flows—80% of China’s and Japan’s oil passes through the seas.
In the past few years, China’s claims, ‘historic’ as they may be, have ruffled feathers in East Asia and beyond—from claimant Malaysia to reticent non-claimant Singapore; from a pacifist observer Japan to far-away US. At the heart of the dispute is China’s claims (the so-called nine-dash line articulated first in 2009) over two archipelago or island chains—the Paracel and Spratly—which boast plenty of reefs, sandbanks and atolls.
China’s claim of historic rights has been thorny. The nine-dash line produced by China goes back to 1914 (though the claim is traced to the 15th century) and, in concrete terms, to an official map drawn up by the Kuomintang government (Chiang Kai-shek headed nationalist government in 1947).
While denial of the sheer gravitas of Imperial China’s embrace of surrounding territory and its tributary relationships would be nothing short of ignorance, China’s claims of being a naval power in same the league as Spain and Portugal in the 15th century is less than weighty.
It was during the Ming Dynasty (1403-1433) that China’s Christopher Columbus—by the name of Admiral Zheng He, a eunuch and a Muslim (1371-1433)—from Southern China set sail on seven voyages, which sealed China’s fame as a maritime power. Incidentally, the voyages also brought Zheng He to the Indian shores of Calicut. It was Zheng He, after all, who carried back a giraffe to China, much to the emperor’s delight.
But after Zheng He, China’s naval glory fades into the folds of oblivion, so scholars say. Scholar Shee Poon Kim opines that China became an ‘isolated continental state’ until the Opium War in the 19th century and that, for five centuries, from 1433 to 1987, China largely neglected South China Sea—until it occupied one of the seven reefs (in the Spratly) following the Sino-Vietnamese clashes in 1988 and Mischief Reef (in the Spratly, claimed by the Philippines) in 1995. Clashes such as between China and the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and between China and Vietnam over an oil rig in 2014 have since kept the fire stoked.
In the midst of claims and counter-claims, most claimants, including China, have been building or upgrading. China upgraded an island (Woody Island in English, Yongxing Island in Chinese) to municipal status and there has been militarisation—radar, satellite, helipads et al. Little wonder that the US, which had withdrawn from Subic Bay in the Philippines in 1992, jumped back into the scene literally with the ‘US Is Back!’ with the promise of being a ‘pivot’ to ‘rebalance’ the recalcitrant—no prizes for guessing whom.
Ironically, South China Sea dispute plays out alongside 50 years of Sino-ASEAN relations being celebrated all over in the region, including in Singapore, which in the aftermath of the award by the tribunal obliquely called for a respect for legal proceedings.
Sino-ASEAN relationship, China’s relationship with the 10-member ASEAN, is under strain. It emanates from the friction within ASEAN, where many suggest that China is playing divide and rule.
The fractures in ASEAN were evident at the 45th Annual Ministerial Meeting led by Cambodia in July 2012, where no joint communique was issued, despite the Philippines and Vietnam pressing for one. There are rumours of Cambodia’s ruling classes’ intimate personal and economic relations with China—guanxi sealed by marriage to money-spinning casinos. Thus, a weighty China seems to steer ASEAN, just so South China Sea is persona non grata, at least in the short run.
In the meantime, Japan watching from the sidelines has jumped in too, with Shinzo Abe refusing to let a ‘Lake Beijing’ happen in South China Sea. Japan is a non-claimant and this has rankled Beijing no end.
In April 2016, Japan began to cosy up to the Philippines, sending a submarine when US-Philippines were conducting the Balikatan exercises (shoulder-to-shoulder, in Tagalog). Besides priming Vietnam and the Philippines with ‘capacity building’, Japan is belatedly so waking up to the joys of India. Abe hopes to devise a ‘Japanese ring of fire’ with the US, Australia, India and Japan. But more damning are Abe’s plans to thwart Article 9 of the Japanese constitution which forbids Japan to militarise. So far, the security Bills passed in 2015 enable Japan to come to the aid of an ally—no matter who that is.
The Narendra Modi dispensation understands China enough to build bridges with neighbours—the sort of all-weather friendships with Vietnam and the Philippines.
Last but not the least, the victor—the Philippines—who went for arbitration, is playing it well, with President Rodrigo Duterte saying ‘let’s get together’ to China. Beijing is a consummate charmer (when it chooses to be) and is said to be playing ‘smiling diplomacy’ with the Philippines. In the near future, both will negotiate whether Filipino fishermen can go fishing at Scarborough Shoal where they are still debarred (it is off Luzon, the largest island province, where capital Manila is located). In 2012, the Philippines granted US Military access to the Philippines for repair. While it is well-known which direction the Philippines leans in, less known is that its trade with China is perhaps the lowest among ASEAN countries.
All in all, the imbroglio in South China Sea is a sign of the changed equation in Asia, where China, not Japan, is rising, and how. The lenses to understand are manifold: Japanese media chose to read the writing on the wall as Chinese expansionism. Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn views South China Sea as China’s Achilles’ Heel. American scholar Brantly Womack perceives South China Sea as a symbol of Southeast Asian uncertainties and insecurities vis-a-vis China.
This week, as G-20 leaders view the classical ornate bridges over the famed West Lake in China’s Hangzhou (long considered the Geneva of the East), bridging the gap on South China Sea seems elusive. What constitutes ‘historic rights’ is so broad an ambit and what remains within or out of the ‘nine-dash line’ so amorphous that it will take long to build that bridge over troubled waters.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. She is the author of Finding India in China