By Bimal Prasad Mohapatra
South China Sea (SCS), also nicknamed 9DashLine by many, is resource rich in so far as mineral and scope of fishing are concerned, and one of the world’s busiest sea (one-third global shipping) as it gives connectivity to second and third largest economies (China and Japan), also provides commercial life line to several fastest growing economies of ASEAN regions, considered the engine of world’s economic growth in 21st century. However, over the years, the sea has been literally encroached -first of the kind in world history- by none other than the world’s new super power communist ruled People’s Republic of China (PRC).
She has built artificial isles and fortified several atolls in the sea as if the entire SCS is part of her sovereign territory picking up mentions from history books, and does not allow the sea’s several littoral nations’ commercial utilization as provisioned in United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And, now, it is found Chinese Navy (PLAN) is sabre-rattling the small littoral nations’ when they venture into the sea for economic activities including fishing.
Now, communist China is world’s largest economy in purchasing power parity (PPP), surpassing so far considered the largest economy, the democratic US. And in the meanwhile, China has built the world largest Navy and third largest (conventional) military power (PLA). Her annual defense spent reached $261 billion, second to the US with $732 billion, which is much ahead of world’s third largest military spender i.e. India with $71 billion with which China uses to have border disputes on regular intervals. During last nine months, the two large neighbours’ armies have been in eyeball to eyeball armed positioning on the inhospitable Himalayas after it was found PLA’s encroachment upon the buffer zone on the disputed border post-winter 2019-20. In last June 14-15 intervening night, both the armies had a PLA initiated bloody skirmish with causalities in both sides, the first of the kind since 1987.
Ferreting out some facts from history books such as Treaty of Westphalia 1648, 18th Century’s Manchu dynasty, and the 9DashLine first appeared on Chinese Map in 1947 during the Kuomintang government ruled by Chiang Kai-shek, the PRC now claims exclusive right over the said water in SCS, even throwing to air the verdict of The Hague based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which was approached by Philippines in 2013 and the verdict delivered in 2016 rejected the legality of China’s 9DashLine around the disputed Spratlys Islands in SCS. The verdict implied that the PRC dishonored the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and noted that China has provoked by undertaking land reclamation and construction. Besides, PCA accused China for environment and precious ecosystem damage in the sea. But, the new super power rejected the verdict branding the same as “a political farce under the pretext of law”.
In the region, majority of countries are small in population, geographical size and economy compare to China though they are densely populated, have fertile lands and mineral rich, and economically fastest growing. And apart from the above facts, majority of them are democratic countries. Democratic and Communist ruled countries aren’t same bed-fellows with Cold War era bitter experience is still fresh. During the sway of Chinese origin pandemic Covid19 which follows by China’s coercive diplomacy, the developed democratic nations have started realizing their foolishness in outsourcing their manufacturing requirements from large autocratic nation which helps latter’s economy to grow to such a position that beneficiary has become threat to benefactors. Now, they have started relocating their outsourcings which will benefits littoral nations of SCS, a new irritant for China.
Since communist Mao Zedong established PRC in 1949, China had border disputes with almost all neighbours. But, they were not that alarming as they are found now. The change is attributed to China’s economic growth which finances to its military prowess. Between the mid-20th century and now in the 21st century, democracy has been found more attractive means of governance than the autocracy in all over world. This is what, as per this author, has scared communist-ruled China. They can’t forget 1989 Tiananmen Square agitation and present pro-democratic agitation in Hong Kong. And PRC leadership knows presence of democratic countries around China pose maximum threats to their hegemony. Keeping this in mind, China’s present Paramount Leader, who, in the meanwhile got his candidate specific constitutional amendment to rule PRC for life, has got a plan to complete the modernization of PLA by 2035 to meet the CCP’s initial thresholds of a ‘great modern socialist country’. And, in the second stage from 2035 to 2049, the plan is to transform PLA into a ‘world class’ military to fight and win the war anywhere in the world.
The present situation in SCS, South Asia and South-East Asian regions have got some resemblances with post-WWII Europe, when communist ruled Soviet Union (USSR) had posed expansionist threat to democratic Western Europe. In view of the threat, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 under the leadership of the US and comprising several European countries with objectives to provide collective security against USSR.
Now, the region has got Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal strategic forum between the US, Japan, Australia and India, which hold semi-regular summits, information exchanges and military drills between member countries. Out of the four Quad members, two countries (India and Japan) have been facing Chinese aggressions, and all the fours have significant economic interest in SCS. Quad members comprise the world’s largest democracies, economies and military powers, and therefore, are in better position in compare to SCS’s littoral countries to check Chinese aggression. What is needed is the Quad be broad-based, even more than what was NATO during Cold War, and be institutionalized as there is no alternative. If not and China succeeds in her present endeavor in disregarding CLOS, this column’s author strongly assumes that China won’t hesitate to claim the entire Pacific, if not other oceans, by 2050. China is in better position both economically and militarily than erstwhile USSR. Now, the world leadership is advised to think on the line that communist leadership is just testing the water of a small pot i.e. South China Sea.
(Author is Assistant Professor of Management Studies at Bhubaneswar based Trident Group of Institutions. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)