Chinese activities along the Sino-Indian border eerily mimic what has been happening in the South China Sea for nearly a decade. It is thus illustrative to look at the latter to predict what may happen in the former, as events happen against a backdrop of plummeting international trust in Chinese intentions.
Illustrating the strained relation, a recent couple of weeks saw the US Navy exercising two aircraft carrier strike groups in the South China Sea, much to Beijing’s chagrin. However, such an occasion is rare and must of necessity be temporary. By 18 July, the Nimitz Strike Group had passed on through the Malacca Strait, heading towards the Indian Ocean.
The UK has also intimated that its carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail in the South China Sea next year, exercising with American and Japanese warships. Again, such a presence is at best brief, although it does express consternation in London about Chinese activities there.
Before looking at similarities between the South China Sea and the Indian border, we may quickly sum up the situation in the territorially disputed maritime area.
Lynn Kuok is the Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Speaking in a webinar hosted by the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) on 25 June, Kuok said Chinese activities in the South China Sea have arguably intensified since COVID-19 struck. She asserted, “This is something that should concern us all. First, because it’s not merely a dispute over rocks and reefs as some like to say, but it’s something that affects the balance of power in the region. And the second reason it should concern us is that the rules-based order is being undermined, and this doesn’t just affect the South China Sea and the US, China, but it affects global order and the ability to ensure stability, not just regionally but internationally. So we should all care about what happens in the South China Sea.”
In 2013 the Philippines brought a case against China, and a decision was delivered overwhelmingly in Manila’s favor on 12 July 2016. Kuok noted that the tribunal was never designed to rule on ownership of maritime features, but rather to clarify resource rights. The Nine-Dash Line only made its first official presence when China submitted it to the United Nations in 2009. She said that Chinese actions and comments tend to represent a claim to everything within the dashed line.
China’s broader aims there are “to mainly achieve strategic depth and reach to defend against adversaries, as well as to protect access to the critical Malacca Strait”. Non-traditional advantages are deterring regional countries from putting up a strong resistance to Chinese activities, and greatly undermined US credibility in the region. Kuok said the prevailing view in the region is that, “while the United States was asleep at the wheel, China presented the world with a fait accompli”.
An op-ed in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, which now leans heavily in support of the Communist Party of China (CCP), recently asserted, “The narrative of China as an existential threat and system breaker is false.”
However, that defense is patently untrue at worst, or disingenuous at best. China has deliberately spurned international law by belittling the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 verdict on the South China Sea, even though it is binding upon China under international law. It has also trampled upon the Sino-British Joint Declaration over Hong Kong, a document lodged with the UN. In retaliation for the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer in Canada, the CCP arbitrarily detained two Canadians. It has bullied fishermen in the South China Sea, as well as infringed upon others’ rights by surveying in their exclusive economic zones.
China has used “tourism terrorism” to coerce nations with which it has disagreements. It has conducted espionage and cyber-theft to steal commercial and government information. It has used the United Work Front Department to influence public opinion and politicians overseas. These are but a few of the ways that China has attempted to “break the system” and impose its point of view or will on others.
So what lessons could India learn from Chinese actions in the South China Sea?
We learn, first of all, that China is more willing to rub neighbors up the wrong way, and nowadays to even make enemies. Beijing has been more willing to do this since COVID-19 rocketed around the globe, as its reputation was already in tatters.
Secondly, moving on, Kuok said: “What we’ve also seen is China’s objections to assertions of maritime rights and freedoms by the United States and its allies in the South China Sea. And China’s Ministry of National Defense recently, rather bafflingly in my view, issued a blanket objection to the presence of foreign powers in the South China Sea. So we see China seeking to exclude countries like the United States and other countries as well from international waters in the South China Sea. Such objections are completely inconsistent with maritime rights and freedoms enshrined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”
As alluded to earlier, this tells us that China cannot be trusted to keep its word or to fulfil responsibilities under international treaties. Its legal obligations and actions are frequently at odds. That means – even if Delhi and Beijing conclude agreements regarding border disengagement or future resolutions – a strong sense of doubt must remain. China is willing to renege on international commitments when it suits, so one’s guard can never be let down.
Thus, while the number of Chinese troops in several locations such as the Galwan Valley has diminished, the same is not true of Lake Pangong, the scene of China’s greatest forward movements and construction of reinforced positions, or at Patrol Point 15 near Hot Springs. Indian troops have not been able to move beyond Fingers 2 and 3 on Pangong Tso. “Confidence-building measures” are being stretched beyond credulity.
Thirdly, regarding the South China Sea Code of Conduct, the IISS academic said, “Few are actually expecting a meaningful code of conduct to be concluded. Negotiations nevertheless continue, for they allow China to say, ‘Look, Asian countries are managing their security problems well and they do not need interference from outside powers. And in the meantime China continues to militarize features in the South China Sea … Ultimately, I’m pessimistic about what a code of conduct can achieve even because if, and this is a big if, even if we could resolve things like economic claims under a code of conduct, we will not see resolution to the territorial dispute nor will we see resolution to the broader geostrategic challenge between the United States and China.”
This has similar implications for India. Bilateral border talks have been ongoing for years. But really, how much progress has been achieved? China refuses to accept Indian maps demarcating its understanding of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), whereas China remains defiantly inscrutable over what its claims are. Indeed, there is no advantage in Beijing seeking to demarcate the border. As long as its claims are vague, it can continue to claim and seize areas, something more difficult to do if it carefully defines the frontier. This reflects China’s refusal to explain what its Nine-Dash Line claim in the South China Sea actually represents. Ambiguity and obfuscation are to its advantage.
Fourthly, Chinese militarization in the South China Sea is “consequential,” according to Kuok, as it gives China major advantages in all situations outside of a major conflict. “China has a very strong hand there with a robust maritime presence” for surveillance and reconnaissance, for example.
And so it is that China is currently seeking to gain every tactical advantage it can along the LAC. The more critically cited territory it can possess, the better will be its military situation in anything short of and including a war, and the greater pressure it can exert on its nemesis’ military.
Fifthly, Kuok noted that China has been more aggressively militarily in the South China Sea. “It did respect rules of engagement for four years, but recently it has shown itself to be less observant of them…” She was referring to a Sino-US memorandum of understanding reached in 2014 regarding rules of engagement for air and sea encounters between respective military platforms. However, China no longer seems to be holding to those protocols, as illustrated by a near at-sea collision in September 2018, when a Chinese warship came within 45 yards of the destroyer USS Decatur.
She observed, “A power that does not adhere to rules in one area is very unlikely to adhere to rules in another area. That’s why we should be concerned about observance of international rules and law regardless of the region and regardless of where we find ourselves.”
Of course, there is a lesson there for India too. Past agreements and meetings such as that between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chairman Xi Jinping in Wuhan in 2019 can be easily overturned or walked back by China. One cannot live reliant on past promises, for Chinese risk calculations are rapidly evolving.
Tensions between China and the USA are at unprecedented levels of acrimony since diplomatic relations were established in 1979. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Yang Jiechi in Hawaii in June, but that seems to have had little effect on the two states’ unraveling relations.
Many believe the two countries are on a dangerous collision course. War is not something either side wants, but the possibility of miscalculation is growing incrementally. Nonetheless, now is not a time to be fainthearted. Thus, Pompeo issued a carefully concocted statement, entitled ‘US position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea,’ on 13 July. Many might argue it has taken far too long for such a black-and-white position to appear formally.
Pompeo’s statement says near the beginning: “We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.” Pompeo warned that shared interests have come under “unprecedented threat” from China, which “uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion and replace international law with ‘might makes right’.”
Finally, the lesson here for India is that weakness or forbearance will be exploited by China. Former President Barack Obama naively accepted Xi’s September 2015 promise that he would not militarize the South China Sea, even as he was building island bastions there. This is precisely the time for Delhi to show fiery resolve in the face of Chinese belligerence.
Henry Kissinger said about two years ago, “From a historical point of view, China and the US are almost destined for conflicts.” Similarly, Doctor Euan Graham, IISS Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, tweeted, “The risk that China walks itself into armed conflict is real. Our collective ability to prevent that is considerable, but Beijing’s internal logic is out of our hands.”
One cannot control what China will or will not do, but to cave in is absolutely the worst avenue possible for China’s competitors like the USA or India.