The most significant take-away from the just concluded (June 3) Singapore Shangri-la Dialogue (SLD 2018) is the firm and consistent manner in which the US, India and other participating nations upheld the principle of international law and respect for national sovereignty, while reiterating the imperative of resolving territorial disputes peacefully without recourse to intimidation and the use of military muscle.
The collective signal was directed at China and the manner in which it has created artificial installations (wrongly described as islands) in the South China Sea, after rejecting an international tribunal that upheld the claims of other ASEAN states.
Beijing has recently deployed military assets in the contested areas and claimed territorial jurisdiction over water – which is a defiant and innovative departure from existing maritime law and protocols in relation to EEZ protocols.
The speech by US Defense Secretary General Jim Mattis was a lucid and firm message to the region about larger US maritime and security orientation and certain substantive policy announcements were made.
First, the US has renamed its Pacific Command in Hawaii as the Indo-Pacific Command, thereby harmonizing the strategic management of the Indian Ocean extending from the east coast of Africa to the entire Pacific Ocean, which is now the most happening global maritime swathe.
Earlier this oceanic expanse was divided between the US Pacific and Central commands along the India-Pakistan border, thereby creating a command and control dissonance, which will be resolved when the new areas of responsibility are redrawn.
Singapore deliberations have enabled a push-back in relation to Chinese assertiveness but the regional maritime picture continues to be muddyC Uday Bhaskar
Mattis asserted that “Standing shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners, America seeks to build an Indo-Pacific where sovereignty and territorial integrity are safeguarded - the promise of freedom fulfilled and prosperity prevails for all.”
This reiteration of certain basic principles of international relations was also highlighted a day earlier by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in relation to the Indo-Pacific at SLD 2018 when he noted: “We should all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.”
While India and other nations were more circumspect about not naming China, the US Defense Secretary drew the line and cautioned Beijing: “We are aware China will face an array of challenges and opportunities in coming years. We are prepared to support China’s choices, if they promote long-term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region. Yet China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness of our strategy.”
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Describing the positioning of PLA bomber aircraft and other ordnance on the disputed islands in the SCS as being intimidating and coercive, he added that if cooperation with China was not possible due to choices made by Beijing, the bilateral game would change to one of “competing vigorously”.
This competition of US and Chinese national “will” is likely to be most severely tested in relation to Taiwan and the unification sought by Beijing – a core interest whose political significance for President Xi Jinping is paramount.
The uncertainty about where the Trump administration stands in relation to this sensitive issue was clarified unambiguously by Secretary Mattis when he noted that the US remained committed to the Taiwan Relations Act and further added: “We oppose all unilateral efforts to alter the status quo, and will continue to insist any resolution of differences accord with the will of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”
The latent threat by Beijing to use military intimidation and politico-diplomatic coercive tactics to isolate Taiwan and force a unification on one hand ; and concurrently use the same stratagem to assert territoriality in the SCS have so far gone unchallenged by the major powers. The Singapore deliberations have enabled a certain push-back in relation to Chinese assertiveness but the regional maritime picture continues to be muddy.
Currently China has the proverbial nine points of the law on its side, since it is in de-facto possession of the contested SCS islands and has fortified them. Other ASEAN states and Taiwan have also occupied some islands but they have not claimed territoriality in the manner that China has and the possibility of a peaceful withdrawal by Beijing pending negotiations among all claimant states is very remote.
A shooting war between the principal stakeholders is the last and most undesirable option. An impasse prevails and how to bell the Chinese cat and who will be the first to raise the ante remains far from clear.
It is instructive to note that to convey its disapproval of China’s actions in the SCS, the US has withdrawn its invite to Beijing to participate in the biennial RIMPAC 2018. This is a major US-led regional naval exercise held every even year off Hawaii that draws together Pacific and Indian Ocean littoral nations and China had participated in 2014 and 2016.
Beijing will be cognizant of the fact that RIMPAC 2018 that commences in end June will have 26 participating nations of which seven will be ASEAN nations and the other 19 range from France, UK, Germany, India, Brazil, Canada, Mexico to Israel, Sri Lanka and Tonga.
If some warships in this flotilla chose to exercise freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean and contested waters in the adjoining seas, it will constitute a very strong signal about the determination of the collective to uphold international law and customary practice at sea.
Beijing will then have to take a very objective and calibrated decision about its response and the manner in which the Indo-Pacific maritime domain will be regulated. Consensual cooperation and an equitable modus-vivendi must be pursued to prevent further roiling the waters.
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.