South China Sea geopolitics and the shadow of Covid-19

  • The piece has been authored by Yogendra Kumar, former ambassador & author of Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century
An area covering approximately 3.5 million square km, the South China Sea’s strategic importance has increased enormously as the global geopolitical and geo-economic centre of gravity has shifted towards Asia in the last decades; enframed by the ASEAN states, China and Taiwan, it hosts shipping routes, fish stock, hydrocarbon reserves, and rich biodiversity.(AP file photo. Representative image)
An area covering approximately 3.5 million square km, the South China Sea’s strategic importance has increased enormously as the global geopolitical and geo-economic centre of gravity has shifted towards Asia in the last decades; enframed by the ASEAN states, China and Taiwan, it hosts shipping routes, fish stock, hydrocarbon reserves, and rich biodiversity.(AP file photo. Representative image)
Published on Nov 21, 2021 02:31 PM IST
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ByInstitute of Chinese Studies

The current strategic discourse is one of speculation as to whether the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating existing geopolitical trends or generating trends for a new world order. As this global crisis is still unfolding, it is still early for a definitive answer. Its effect has been for the national leaders to become more inward looking and hunker down in a survival mode. Individual countries, feeling confident of overcoming this challenge, see a strategic advantage to exploit vis-a-vis the other struggling countries whilst remaining apprehensive that the tables might be turned against them during the pandemic’s next spike. Political churn caused by it implies that the shape of emerging decision-structures will determine the nature of the response the global community will make to the wide spectrum of challenges facing it. The international environment is characterised by deepening suspicion amongst major powers with limited prospect, as compared to the previous pandemics, for global cooperation.

An area covering approximately 3.5 million square km, the South China Sea’s strategic importance has increased enormously as the global geopolitical and geo-economic centre of gravity has shifted towards Asia in the last decades; enframed by the ASEAN states, China and Taiwan, it hosts shipping routes, fish stock, hydrocarbon reserves, and rich biodiversity. The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs and sandbars many of which are naturally underwater at high tide while some are permanently submerged. The features comprise three archipelagoes, namely, the Spratly Islands, Paracel islands, and Pratas islands and Macclesfield’s Bank and Scarborough Shoal.

Although there are competing claims made by several littoral states, China – and Taiwan (as its predecessor state) – also claimed, with deliberate ambiguity, both “historic waters” and “historic titles” in regard to the South China Sea islands and other features. Expressed through “9 dash lines” (by China) and “11 dash lines” (by Taiwan), and covering nearly 90% of the surface of the South China Sea, these dashes were first shown on an internal Chinese map in 1947 and, later, in 1949 after the establishment of the People’s Republic. The regional geopolitical drivers are the Chinese attempts to break through the US-strategy of “first island chain” as well as reclamation and militarisation of Chinese-controlled land features to alter the regional balance of power, and the ASEAN aim of being in the “driving seat” of a regional security architecture. The wider global ramifications of these geopolitical uncertainties concern growing stress on the existing power equilibrium, difficulty in achieving cooperation in South China Sea, freedom of navigation/over-flight for global trade, sustainable exploitation of its resources, conservation of biodiversity, and the maritime system defence functions at the national and multinational levels.

The 2016 UNCLOS tribunal findings made China defensive and, lately, offensive; in its wake, it declared that the Spratly’s reclamation activities were over even though it continues beefing up its military infrastructure on the land features in the Spratlys and Paracels. China’s continuous changing of the “facts on the ground” is tilting the balance of power through greater loiter time for its naval and aviation platforms for force projection and its strengthened maritime domain awareness capacity across the region.

There has been resistance to the Chinese approach from littoral countries as manifest in the frequency of stand-offs between them. US “pivot” to Asia entails its greater engagement, including military and security, with other stakeholder countries. US’s growing presence, reinforcing this trend, has also resulted in not infrequent “unsafe” encounters with China and conduct of “freedom of navigation” (FONOPs) sailings to challenge excessive Chinese maritime claims it considers as non-UNCLOS compliant. There is thus growing regional tension and geopolitical uncertainty. US has criticised China for taking advantage of other countries’ pandemic-related domestic distractions. These uncertainties are also testing the ‘ASEAN way’ of handling regional problems due to the organisation’s internal fissures brought about by Chinese influence. The Chinese regional diplomacy has leveraged its infrastructure projects in conjunction with the flexing of its military muscle.

It needs mentioning that there are examples of successful collaboration for exploitation of resources despite maritime disputes amongst the South East Asian claimants.

India has growing strategic interest due to its strong economic and political relations with Southeast Asian countries coupled with concerns about the safety of the sea lanes. PM Modi made a significant speech at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue outlining a vision for free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region which was universally welcomed, including by China. It was further fleshed out as India-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative. Besides participating in the ASEAN-led organisations, it is also an active partner in the Quadrilateral Dialogue (US, India, Japan and Australia) in pursuit of its larger Indo-Pacific vision. As part of its multilateral diplomacy, India carried out a six-day long ‘sailing’ in the South China Sea in 2019 with the US, Japan and the Philippines. India remains sensitive to the concerns of ASEAN and the littoral countries regarding regional strategic stability. Prospects of regional disequilibrium negatively impacts on institutional capacity, at national and international levels, to tackle even more serious global challenges. The inadequate regional and global response to the pandemic needs to be taken as a cautionary tale for our common future.

 

The study has been accessed by clicking here.

(The piece has been authored by Yogendra Kumar, former ambassador & author of Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century)

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Saturday, November 27, 2021