At the 15th East Asia Summit on the 14th November, Jaishankar India’s Foreign Minister conveyed in clear terms India’s concerns over the continued actions and incidents that erode trust in the South China Sea (SCS). Without naming China, the message was meant for that country. Over the last several years China has been bullying its neighbours in the South China Sea, East China Sea and along the Indo-Tibetan border.
Jaishankar paid special attention to the incidents causing tension in the SCS. India was concerned over the Chinese aggressive actions of intruding into the EEZs of other countries and harassing their fishermen. Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have moved to the UN for the implementation of the PCA Ruling which China has rejected. In the 36th ASEAN Summit, a joint statement of the Chairmen was issued on the Chinese aggressive activities, without the use of terms like “some concern” or “some leaders”. The finalisation of Code of Conduct (CoC) is getting inordinately delayed and any hope of its early implementation is only a pipe dream. China is creating obstacles and is trying to make changes in the CoC to suit its interests alone. China is showing scant regard for international law. Hence, Jaishankar emphasised that the Code of Conduct (CoC) negotiations should not be prejudicial to legitimate interests of third parties and should be fully consistent with UNCLOS.
Crucially, Jaishankar underlined the importance of adhering to international law, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Noting the growing interests of several nations on the Indo-Pacific, he observed that harmonising different perspectives on this issue was facilitated due to their commitment for international cooperation. On the Indo-Pacific region, he noted that there was an agreement for ASEAN centrality. He also appreciated the synergy between the ASEAN Outlook and India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative.
As the world is facing the worst kind of pandemic that has disturbed all the arrangements, he underlined the need for greater international cooperation in the post-COVID world to tackle the challenges cutting across national boundaries such as terrorism, climate change, pandemics etc. Jaishankar also briefed about India’s response to COVID-19 and highlighted India’s efforts for supporting the international community. He reiterated PM Modi’s commitment for making the COVID-19 vaccine accessible and affordable for all nations.
While the SCS issue was also mentioned by some leaders, there was no statement on the Chinese aggressive activities or CoC in clear terms. Only Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the chairman of ASEAN touched on the issues in the SCS. In his address at the opening ceremony of the 37th ASEAN Summit, he reaffirmed the bloc’s determination to maintain “peace, stability, and security” in the South China Sea. He stated ASEAN’s principled position and a strong commitment to turning the South China Sea, into a sea of peace, stability, security and safety for the free flow of goods, where differences and disputes are settled through peaceful means, where the law is fully respected and observed, and common values are upheld. PM Nguyen also underscored the importance of the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the legal framework within which all activities in oceans and seas must be carried out. He further stressed the need for early finalisation of the CoC that should be “effective, substantive and consistent with international law, particularly the 1982 UNCLOS.” There was no mention about the aggressive activities that were causing problems for other disputants. While the Philippines’ President Duterte spoke in favour of the implementation of the PCA Ruling, Indonesian President Joko Widodo only stressed the importance of ASEAN’s role in maintaining regional peace and stability.
Except the above statements that mentioned the issues in passing, there was no clear statement on the sovereignty issue in the SCS or the concern over the Chinese bullying actions. There was greater emphasis on the COVID-19 response and the long-awaited signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal. The ASEAN countries did not mention CoC or the Dragon’s bullying activities
There could be two reasons for this. First, experts view that perhaps the participants did not wish to raise the harsh issues while celebrating the signing of RCEP. Second, this could also be due to the Chinese machinations to keep the ASEAN divided. Just prior to the ASEAN Summit, China had organised China’s International Import Expo and China threw a bait to other nations that it would import goods worth $ 22 trillion in the next decade. It tried to showcase that China is the biggest market for their products. When all nations are trying to revive their economy, this ‘offer’ may have influenced the ASEAN countries to keep the difficult issues of the maritime dispute outside the declaration.
An in-depth analysis of statements and articles from China shows that the signing of the RCEP is seen as a victory over US. The disputants of SCS were blamed in the past for opposing the Chinese claims at the behest of the US. Nations joining the RCEP should be aware of the consequences of the Chinese game plan of using its debt trap diplomacy to ensure ASEAN divided. The RCEP may be good for the smaller nations only in the short term but in the long run this may harm their interests. China’s leverages over smaller nations in the region would increase and it would continue its aggressive activities without any cost. In a way, this provides the same benefits which it was trying to gain through BRI or luring the smaller nations in the region through projecting itself as the greatest market for their products.
The silence of the Hanoi Declaration and of ASEAN countries on the issues of sovereignty, bullying activities and CoC may have conveyed an impression to Beijing that now other disputants appear to be prepared to shelve the maritime issues for economic benefits and that it can now continue with its plan for asserting its claims with greater confidence and new levers to control other disputants. The twin objectives of China have been delaying the finalisation of CoC and keep ASEAN divided. Both of these appear to have been achieved. Pragmatism demands that the other disputants should seriously consider to dispel this impression of Beijing by issuing strong statements on the issue of sovereignty, finalisation of CoC and stoppage of its encroachment activities.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.