Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese survey vessel that encroached deep into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) before withdrawing has clearly impinged on the country’s territorial integrity and economic security. Asean, whose one member has been subjected to aggression, must tell China to refrain from such activities. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 vessel first entered Vietnam’s EEZ early July where it began a weeks-long seismic survey, triggering a tense standoff between military and coast guard vessels from Vietnam and China. Typically extending up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline, the EEZ allows a country sovereign rights to exploit any natural resources within that area.
Last month, a Chinese giant crane vessel had been tracked to 90 km from the Vietnamese coastline fuelling the risk of further maritime confrontation between the two countries. The Lan Jing, believed to be one of the largest crane ships in the world, left the coastal city of Zhanjiang in southern China’s Guangdong province earlier last month. It arrived offshore of Quang Ngai, a province in Vietnam’s south central coast, according to Marine Traffic, a website which tracks vessel movements.
The presence of the ship so close to the Vietnamese coastline is an indication of Beijing upping the ante to stretch Hanoi’s maritime capacity to its limit, by hampering Vietnam’s oil and gas exploration which is being carried out in partnership with Russian petroleum company Rosneft. The arrival of the Lan Jing not only had a “political signalling utility” – according to an observer on the issue but also an “operational one” – forcing Vietnam to stretch its limited maritime forces capacity not only in Vanguard Bank but also over Lan Jing. This complicates the situation for Hanoi which already faces a yawning asymmetry with China in terms of maritime forces capacity.
Even though Vietnam and China have for years been embroiled in a dispute over the potentially energy-rich stretch of waters and a busy shipping lane in the South China Sea, the latter’s encroachments into Vietnam’s EEZ has intensified in recent years and particularly in the last few months, perhaps to fulfil Emperor Xi Jinping’s dream of Chinese hegemony of the region and to coincide with the celebration of 70 years of the founding of the Communist Republic. China’s unilaterally declared “nine-dash line” marks a vast, U-shaped, expanse of the South China Sea that it claims, including large swathes of Vietnam’s continental shelf where it has awarded oil concessions to Russia and India.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration Tribunal in 2016 had nullified Chinese claims on practically the whole of South China Sea and its so-called historical rights and nine-dash line, pointing out that Beijing had no entitlement to an exclusive zone within 200 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands. The judgment also indicted Beijing for destroying marine ecology and environment by establishing artificial islands and militarising them for bolstering its claims. The PCA ruling is undoubtedly a victory of a 21st century rules-based order over China’s 19th-century plans for its own sphere of influence. China’s expansive claim on the South China Sea comes at the expense of the legitimate claim of some other countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia to name a few. Its land-grabbing techniques by stealth, artificial island-building and subsequent militarisation to scare others away have reached a dangerous proportion turning South China Sea into a flashpoint that can go out of control any moment.
The burden of restraining China and evolving a mechanism to manage conflict in South China Sea falls on Asean. In June, when the Asean foreign ministers met, the chairman’s statement noted concern and weariness about Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea, took note of the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region. In the ongoing Asean Summit in Bangkok, it is imperative that the organisation shows greater unity and insists on Chinese restraint.
While India takes a cautious approach on the South China Sea issue, we cannot be indifferent to the increasing tension in the region caused by China’s bellicosity. India must accord South China Sea a higher priority and greater seriousness in foreign policy taking into account geo-economic realities. The South China Sea is a vital waterway through which $5 trillion of trade passes every year. The Straits of Malacca – the choke point which connects the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea – handles five times the volume of oil than the Suez Canal. India’s strategic ties with countries in the region, especially with Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines have become stronger under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy.
More importantly, the Indo-Pacific is virtually India’s new neighbour. India has as much stake in peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea, as any other regional power – Asean, China, Japan or the US. Asean also likes India to take a more active role in the emerging political, economic and security architecture of Indo-Pacific and it fits in with New Delhi’s own image as an emerging global power. It is therefore expected that PM Modi will touch on the South China Sea in his speeches at the summit and will reiterate India’s position on the freedom of navigation, a rule-based maritime order and settlement of disputes through peaceful means.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.