As India and China are working toward disengagement, tensions have dramatically escalated between the US and China in waters of the Indo-Pacific region.
In the past week, the US and China have been conducting military manoeuvres in the region and are using them to convey “strategic communication” to allies and adversaries. After the US State Department declared Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea “unlawful,” the US Navy released photos of the USS Ralph Johnson destroyer sailing near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea region, part of the Pacific Ocean, encompasses 3.5 million square kilometers (2.17 million miles) from the Karimata Strait near Indonesia to Malacca Straits (Malaysia) to the Strait of Taiwan.
In recent years, China has been assertive in consolidating jurisdictional claims, expanding the military reach and rejecting claims of other states through coercive diplomacy.
In a submission to the UN in May 2010, China claimed 2.09 million square kilometers (1.3 million square miles) and said 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 sea-bed and subsoil”.
Since then, China has been building military bases on artificial islands in the region that are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Refuting US allegations of building a “maritime empire” in the disputed water, China claimed its jurisdiction existed for more than 1,000 years.
Earlier in a major policy speech, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the world will not allow China to treat the strategically important South China Sea as its “maritime empire” and vowed to support worried southeast Asian countries against Beijing’s “campaign of bullying” to control the resource-rich region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian rejected Pompeo’s remarks that he said neglected history and facts. “As early as 1948 China had officially published the dotted line which is not questioned by any country in the region,” he said, adding that China’s rights have a legal and historical basis.
An international tribunal at The Hague in 2016, however, rejected China’s claims. The tribunal said China had no legal basis to claim “historic rights” to resources in the South China Sea and it violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the disputed waters.
Zhao said the ruling was based on flawed evidence and unwarranted application of the law. “The US hyped up the arbitration to further its agenda, China will never accept it,“ he said.
US policy shift
The US, which had virtually withdrawn from the region soon after President Donald Trump took office by exiting from the 11-nation strategic and commercial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement in January 2017, is once again cobbling up allies and reviving the policy of containing and responding to Chinese coercive claims.
According to Vijay Sakhuja, former director of India’s National Maritime Foundation, in the past few weeks, the US military in the western Pacific Ocean has undertaken Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise (EDRE). Last week, it parachuted 350 paratroopers from the US 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) onto Guam to test their ability to “execute real-world missions”.
The exercise was also conducted to demonstrate that they could be deployed anywhere in the US Indo-Pacific Command area at a moment’s notice.
The US has also tested surveillance and reconnaissance air patrols above the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait and over the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan. It deployed all submarines of the Pacific Fleet in the Western Pacific to conduct “contingency response operations”.
Sakhuja, who is also a consultant at the Vivekananda International Foundation — an Indian think-tank – said the scale of exercise can be gauged by the fact that the US deployed three carriers for dual-carrier operations in the Philippines Sea and B52 Stratofortress bomber to participate in maritime integration exercise with the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups.
“These showcase formidable capabilities of the US and above all are clear signals of its commitment to keep the Indo-Pacific free and open against any attempts by China to dominate the regional security matters, prevent intimidation of Taiwan by Beijing as also reassure countries who have disputes with China in the South China Sea,” said Sakhuja.
According to reports, the US is also reinforcing its military facilities in the western Pacific and Oceania by deploying 1,000 Marines on the Guam island territory in Micronesia. Washington is also revitalizing its military infrastructure on Wake Island, halfway between Hawaii and Japan and revamping the Tinian island base at the cost of $20 million.
The US had launched its B29 bombers from this base to drop atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II.
Reaching out to allies
The US is reaching out to the Philippines in hopes its 1988 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) remains buoyant. The Philippines is critical to the US to challenge the naval power of China. The US is also revitalizing military contacts with Australia, Vietnam and Singapore.
“There are clear indicators that the US has serious plan to build military infrastructure in the Pacific Ocean and it is fair to argue that it would explore Visiting Forces Agreements or similar such arrangements with many other countries particularly in Southeast Asia,” said Sakhuja.
Given China’s growing economic and strategic interests, strategic experts are suggesting that India, Japan, Australia and the US should increase the wide strategic anti-submarine warfare (ASW) surveillance in the region.
Sujan R. Chinoy, a former diplomat and director-general of India’s premier official think-tank, Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, asked New Delhi to give the US, Japan, Australia, France or the UK access to the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
“These islands are a strategic asset for India to assert its dominance on the major East-West maritime trade route that passes through the Malacca Strait,” he said.
He believes access to US assets to carry out operational turnaround at the A&N Islands is in accordance with the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, between India and the US.
Interests in freedom of navigation
India’s former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon believes the region has attained considerable significance for countries in the globalized world.
“For instance, when we [India] started economic reforms, the share of the external economy [merchandise trade] to the GDP was a mere 14%. It is now nearly 50%,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Menon said since the dependence on the external world is more, there is a real interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. He said while China also has a real interest as it is also a major trading nation, but it is in the interest of all to keep the sea lanes free and open.
A few years ago, India offered China dialogue on maritime security, he said, which would include all these issues such as our interests in the South China Sea and the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region. “They are also interested in freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. Their oil also comes through Hormuz and Malacca Straits,” he said.
Humphrey Hawksley the author of Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Indo-Pacific and the Challenge to American Power, said China’s claims on the South China Sea bear many similarities to US claims about their own Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Recalling history, he said in the 1820s, the US introduced the Monroe Doctrine for the Caribbean and Latin America to stop European colonial powers from interfering in its trade and waters, as it was becoming a rising power.
“So, China is doing pretty much what the U.S. did 200 years ago, say when it was a rising power against the declining powers. Now you have a sensitive U.S. Congress with a hard-headed president like Trump, a hard-headed president like Xi Jinping, and this is a very dangerous situation,” Hawksley said.