Does India back China on South China Sea? Beijing seems convinced

  • Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times, Beijing
  • Updated: Jul 13, 2016 19:34 IST
An aerial view shows the Pagasa (Hope) Island, which belongs to the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines in this July 20, 2011 file photo. (Reuters)

A state-run newspaper on Wednesday proudly displayed a world map showing countries that support China’s position on the South China Sea (SCS) disputes -- and in what some would describe as a flight of diplomatic fancy, it included India.

The countries purportedly backing Beijing, actually most of the world barring North and South America and Australia, were predictably coloured in red in the map on the front page of China Daily.

On Tuesday, China angrily rejected a ruling by a tribunal set up by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that said Beijing had no historic rights to islands in the South China Sea. The verdict came in response to arbitration initiated by the Philippines.

World map on front page of state-run China Daily shows India, with the incorrect depiction of its boundary, among countries backing China’s stance on disputes in the South China Sea. (Screengrab)

The text above the map in China Daily said: “More than 70 countries have publicly voiced support for China’s position that South China Sea disputes should be resolved through negotiations and not arbitration. In contrast, just several countries, mainly the United States and its close allies, have publicly supported the Philippines and called for observing the ruling as legally binding.”

The report raised eyebrows in New Delhi, as it came a little more than a fortnight after China blocked India’s application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group during the elite club’s plenary in Seoul last month.

Read | Beijing could declare air defence zone over South China Sea

Within hours of the tribunal’s ruling, India’s external affairs ministry issued a statement that, without naming China, called on all stakeholders to resolve disputes peacefully and to show respect for the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

“As a State Party to the UNCLOS, India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans,” the statement said. It added parties involved in disputes should “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability”.

“Sea lanes of communication passing through the South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development,” the statement said.

Read | South China Sea ruling will ‘intensify conflict,’ says Chinese envoy

In New Delhi, sources described the China Daily report as part of a “misinformation campaign by China”. A source said: “Our statement yesterday makes our position very clear.”

The wording of India’s statement didn’t convey explicit support for China on the disputes, especially after Beijing belligerently dismissed the tribunal’s ruling and described it as “illegal” and “null and void”.

Is India actually on China’s side on disputes that involve, besides China, countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan? China appears to be convinced.

When asked to comment on India’s response to the ruling, the usually cut-and-dry Lu Kang, senior spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, couched his answer in vague words.

“In those public statements made by relevant governments, if it is said that the dispute should be resolved by fully complying with the international law, I think it is the same with what Chinese government is upholding,” Lu told a news briefing on Wednesday.

In a later response to Hindustan Times over email, the foreign ministry indicated India and China’s positions are “consistent” on UNCLOS and “peaceful negotiations” to end disputes.

“For the China Daily map, please ask the newspaper,” the foreign ministry said.

Clearly, it was not for Lu or the ministry to smudge India in red, take India’s name and say Beijing was very pleased with New Delhi’s unflinching support.

In June, India and the US dropped a direct mention of the South China Sea disputes in a joint statement issued after a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama. This was done after both countries mentioned the disputes in two previous joint statements.

But the June statement did mention “freedom of navigation and overflight and exploitation of resources as per international law, including the UNCLOS, and settlement of territorial disputes by peaceful means”.

If dropping the mention of South China Sea from a joint statement means supporting China, then, well, Washington too is with Beijing on this one.

But how many countries are clearly supporting China against the tribunal’s ruling?

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, only a handful of countries,including Afghanistan, are backing China’s stance. Pakistan, which wasn’t on AMTI’s list, came out in China’s support on Tuesday.

“To date, we have identified 50 countries that appear to be included in China’s list of supporters. Of those, seven have publicly confirmed their support, three have denied Beijing’s claim of support, and 40 have remained publicly silent or have issued statements that are considerably vaguer than indicated by China,” an AMTI report said.

“In contrast, 10 countries plus the European Union have said that the arbitral award will be legally binding and have called on both China and the Philippines to respect it,” it added.

Read | India for peaceful means to resolve South China Sea row, Pak backs Beijing

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