If Adam Smith were alive today, he would surely dub the South China Sea a big placid lake. After all, a huge volume of the world’s merchandise is shipped through these waters. A large number of countries in South-East Asia abut it and are dependent on it for trade and sustenance. The area has all the appearance of a prosperous region bereft of conflict.
Alas, Smith is long gone and, notwithstanding the trade, the South China Sea is in danger of turning into a big Chinese lake. The last two-odd weeks have seen a war of words between the US and China over Chinese claims to this vital international waterway. The latest round of sparring began in Hanoi in July when US secretary of state told the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) that a peaceful resolution of disputes in the region is in US national interest. China has claimed sovereignty over a large number of islands there and in fact the entire South China Sea. In a submission to the United Nations (UN) in May 2009, it claimed that it had “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil…” It attached a map along with its claim to the UN that shows the entire South China Sea as part of its territory.
These developments should be taken note of in India.
Why? To begin with, China has now elevated its claims over the South China Sea at par with its “core interest” areas of Tibet and Taiwan. Anyone who observes Chinese behaviour should know that this means a hard-held position over territory and not another bilateral dispute up for resolution.
The second reason for Indian interest should be more direct. In the 1950s, when India and China were embroiled in territorial claims over Aksai Chin (a part of Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir under Chinese control) and Arunachal Pradesh, it accused India of “cartographic aggression” by unilaterally drawing boundaries without settling the dispute with China. It is now exhibiting the same behaviour with its neighbours in South-East Asia. Many commentators made much of “Indian duplicity” then. They should now examine what China is doing.
While this is a development of concern, it is also an opportunity. India should try and “balance” China by lending its support to countries such as Vietnam and others in Asean which are at the receiving end of Chinese courtesy. Such opportunities do not knock twice.
The South China Sea: a new global area of tension? Tell us at email@example.com