In July 2016, the Arbitration Tribunal of the United Nations Conference on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) ruled in favour of the Philippines against China on their conflicting claims in the South China Sea. Beijing, which had boycotted the Tribunal’s proceedings, declared that it is not bound by its decision. The Philippines along with its arch ally, the U.S., welcomed the decision.
The Tribunal’s ruling brought into sharp focus the legal aspects of the South China Sea dispute but obviously there is more to this issue which is driven essentially by geo-strategic considerations of the regional players as well as the major powers, especially China and the U.S.
The sea lanes in the South China Sea provide naval passage for 80% of the world’s commercial shipping. The region is also an arena for strategic competition among the major naval forces including the U.S., China and Japan apart from those of the littoral states. The competing claims and strategic interests of these countries, therefore, pose a major threat of confrontation not only among the claimants but more seriously between China and the U.S. Accordingly, the South China Sea can become the focus or centre of a new Cold War between Washington and Beijing just as a divided Germany had been after the end of World War II between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Competing Claims in the South China Sea
The dispute between the littoral states of the South China Sea is over territory and sovereignty in this area. It involves China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, all of whom have overlapping claims over the ocean areas as well as Islands such as Spratly, Paracel, and the Scarborough Shoal apart from several atolls, reefs and sand-banks. China claims an area defined by its “nine-dash line” South and East from its Hainan province based on sovereignty dating back several centuries. Vietnam contests this claim arguing that it exercised sovereignty over this area since the 17th century. The Philippines make the assertion of territorial claim on the basis of geographic proximity to Spratly and the Scarborough Shoal. Malaysia and Brunei, on the other hand, argue that this area falls within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in line with UNCLOS. The most dangerous consequence of these competing and overlapping claims have been several clashes between China and Vietnam, especially over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Meanwhile, China, in a bid to establish its legal and political sovereignty over the area, has launched an ambitious programme of building up its physical presence on several islands and atolls, responding primarily to American naval forays in the region, ostensibly to ensure “freedom of navigation”.
Several attempts have been made to find negotiated solutions among the various claimants. China has consistently offered bilateral negotiations to the other parties, professing to take the bilateral route to a solution. However, the other countries, claiming to be at a disadvantage in negotiations with a powerful country like China, prefer negotiations collectively or multi-laterally through ASEAN. In this context, it is also important to note that the U.S. has not been an “innocent bystander” but has actually encouraged the claimants to seek a multilateral rather than a bilateral approach with China. In a not-too-subtle offer, the U.S. has also suggested its own role to help find solutions, knowing fully well that this is a red line for China.
The Geo-Strategic Context
It is not co-incidental that the dispute in the South China Sea that remained dormant for decades has become an arena of confrontation after the U.S. announced its “Pivot to Asia” policy in 2011. This American “rebalancing” towards Asia from Europe and the Middle East was part of a larger geo-strategic objective of containing China.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 signalled an end to the international order based on bi-polarity, leaving the U.S. as the pre-eminent global power. The Americans viewed this as their victory, both in ideological and political terms, as their capitalist system had overcome Soviet Communism while on the political level no other power could challenge American supremacy. Thereafter, the U.S. has been committed to ensuring that the unipolar world dominated by the Americans is never challenged. However, American reversals in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade at a time when China grew in power and influence, compelled the Obama Administration to pursue the containment of China in order to preserve U.S. global influence.
In pursuit of this objective the Pivot to Asia strategy has sought to strengthen American alliances with existing Asian partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Philippines, while forging new alliances with countries like India, Indonesia and even their erstwhile foe, Vietnam. Other U.S. initiatives such as the New Silk Road proposal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership for trade are arrangements designed to exclude China and complement the rebalancing to Asia policy.
As a result, today the U.S. has strengthened its military presence in the region through building up bases in Australia, Japan and South Korea while a revanchist Japanese government led by Shinzo Abe has been encouraged to revive the Sino-Japanese historical dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands. Most recently, the strategic partnership with India, involving U.S.-backed massive military buildup by India has resulted in the acquisition of U.S. military bases in the country, an unprecedented development for a “non-aligned” India to concede. These partnerships are aimed at further strengthening and augmenting the existing U.S. military presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans that would secure the encirclement of a raising China.
It is in this strategic context that the current potentially volatile disputes in the South China Sea must be viewed. It is not surprising, therefore, that the U.S. fully supports the territorial claims being made by China’s adversaries in the South China Sea. To drive the point home, the U.S. has also actually opposed China's efforts to stake their claim in the region, sent warships to ensure “freedom of navigation” and held naval exercises in the disputed waters by U.S., Japanese and Indian navies, the self proclaimed so called alliances of democracies in the region. The underlying signal to China is that it can be “contained” and encircled by the U.S. and its allies.
Given the strategic importance of the South China Sea lanes to China, it has, of course, reacted to these maneuvers by taking counter measures of its own. Apart from increasing its naval strength and presence in the South China Sea, China has been establishing its physical presence on several islands and atolls. It has also conducted its own naval exercises in the area with Russian naval ships – a cooperative effort that has been facilitated by growing Sino-Russian partnership resulting from Russian concerns about its security interests due to the growing confrontation with the U.S. and NATO countries in Europe, especially resulting from differences over Ukraine and American/NATO military deployments in East European countries such as Poland and Romania.
Another strategic Chinese response has been the pursuit of its “One Belt, One Road” project of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a crucial part. This grand project seeks to establish linkages for China to Western and Central Asia and from there to Europe. This overland connectivity will provide China with alternative trade routes to augment and even replace the sea lanes through the South China Sea and thereby enable Beijing to neutralize Washington’s efforts to encircle and contain China.
The Emerging Scenario
The ongoing global realignment of the international order triggered by the U.S. to prevent the emergence of any challenge to its unipolar primacy seems to have badly back-fired. In the process, the U.S. has alienated China with which it still has robust economic relations. Predictably, the Chinese have reacted sharply to protect their national interests. An added complication has been the deteriorating U.S./NATO relations with Russia which has generated greater strategic convergence between Moscow and Beijing. As a result, the global environment is characterized by an unstable multi-polar order in which the U.S and its allies in Europe and Asia are actually competing with the China-Russia axis along with their partners.
While the new super-power confrontation at present is not as polarized and sharply divided as in the U.S.-Soviet Union Cold War of the 20th century, the growing competition among the current major powers has greatly reduced the space for cooperation and compromise. Instead, a more deadly round of a new conventional and strategic arms race has ensued between the major stakeholders. In this dangerous environment, the world has clearly been drifting towards a new Cold War, this time not in Europe but in Asia and the focal point of this emerging confrontation is the South China Sea.
Implications for Pakistan
Even through Pakistan is not a party to the disputes in the South China Sea, there are both negative and positive implications of the emerging Cold War on us.
On the negative side, the American strategy to isolate and contain China is a point of divergence with Pakistan in view of our historic and close partnership with China. Even more serious for us is the growing strategic Indo-U.S. partnership against China which has enabled India to greatly enhance its conventional and strategic military capabilities. In order to build-up India as a counter-weight to China, the U.S. is fully supporting and facilitating Indian high-tech conventional weapons acquisitions as well as sensitive technologies for Ballistic Missile Defence systems and ICBMs apart from access to nuclear fuel under the 2008 NSG waiver, which will enable India to greatly increase its nuclear weapons inventory. As a corollary India is also being helped to pursue its dangerous “Cold Start” doctrine to fight a limited conventional war with Pakistan despite the existence of nuclear deterrence.
At the same time, the U.S. has been pursuing its discriminatory policy towards Pakistan’s nuclear programme calling on Islamabad to demonstrate “restraint” while no such demand is being made on India. Similarly, the U.S. is pushing for Indian membership of the NSG to ensure its “de-jure” membership of the nuclear club but opposing the same benefit for Pakistan.
The accumulative impact of these developments has been strategic instability in South Asia, a new round of Pakistan-India arms race and an end to any bilateral dialogue between the two countries.
But there are also few positive outcomes of this emerging scenario for Pakistan. Where Pakistan-U.S. relations have diminished, the space has been taken up by even greater cooperation with China which is a rising economic and military power. Beijing now views its relations with Islamabad as having an even greater strategic value for Chinese national interests. Hence, bilateral cooperation has been greatly increasing and with better preferential treatment. The edifice of this new high intensity cooperation is of course the CPEC which Pakistan currently views as a “game changer”.
The CPEC with over 40 billion USD funding can enable Pakistan to fully realize its potential as a bridge-head for cooperation and connectivity between Central and South Asia as well as East and West Asia.
The evolving international order has also opened up greater opportunities for Pakistan’s relations with Russia. Now that India is firmly in the American camp, Russian policy makers no longer feel bound by their Cold-War era strategic partnership with India and are now more open to promoting relations with Pakistan in all fields, including defence.
Meanwhile, even as the U.S. pursues its untenable policy of “de-hyphenation” of relations with Pakistan and India, the fact remains that Washington will continue to require Islamabad’s cooperation in its counter-terrorism efforts as well as to stabilize Afghanistan. Accordingly, there is a point beyond which the U.S. cannot afford to alienate Pakistan as was recently stated by U.S. Senator John McCain after visiting the region.
The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan and was Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva and to the Conference on Disarmament.
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