As China’s military and economic presence in Myanmar grew following the military crackdown in 1988, concerns arose in India about the possibility of Chinese military bases and surveillance facilities in Myanmar’s Cocos Island, bordering the Andaman Islands. A Chinese military analyst responded to these concerns by arrogantly asserting: “The Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean”!

India had never asserted that it had territorial claims in the Indian Ocean. One of its most remarkable diplomatic achievements has been that it has settled its maritime boundaries with all its eastern neighbours. This was done not only with bilateral agreements with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh, but also tripartite agreements to determine tri-junctions, with Myanmar and Thailand, Indonesia and Thailand, and Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

The Chinese approach

Unlike India, which settled maritime boundary issues in accordance with international Law, China saw vast benefit, as early as 1947, in augmenting its access to oil and fishery resources by expanding its maritime frontiers, especially in the South China Sea. It claimed that its maritime frontiers historically lay on a “nine dashed line” across the South China Sea.

As China grew militarily stronger, it enforced its maritime boundary claims converting rocks into islands, while utilising its naval power coercively.

A typical case of Chinese bullying was its use of force to fulfil its claims on the Scarborough Shoal, located 500 miles away from its shores and barely 100 miles from the Philippines. Worse still, Beijing sought to exercise sovereignty over the entire South China Sea by issuing threats to passing naval vessels and seeking to enforce an ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ requiring foreign aircraft to identify themselves even when on international waters.

Blinded by arrogance at its growing military power, China has sought to challenge Japanese sovereignty in the East China Sea by air space violations and its navy adopting provocative postures.

This was and remains a real flashpoint, as the US-Japanese Security Treaty contains an American guarantee to protect Japanese sovereignty over the disputed Senkaku Islands. Chinese actions have forced the Americans to respond, with submarines and aircraft carriers challenging Chinese claims in both the South China and East China Seas. China resorted to 570 air space violations across the Senkaku Islands in 2015.

Multiple disputes

China today has maritime disputes with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. It was the Philippines that called China’s bluff and challenged its claims at the International Arbitration Tribunal, set up under the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Even as China argued why India could not be admitted into the NSG, the International Tribunal, whose verdict is binding, delivered China a resounding admonition.

The tribunal categorically held that that there was no legal basis for any Chinese “historic rights” within its unilaterally imposed “nine dashed line”.

It rejected China’s claims on several rocks and barren islets to expand its maritime frontiers, as they were not islands as defined in UNCLOS. This meant that China had no legal basis to claim sovereignty or fishing rights across the Spratly Islands, including the contentious Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef, where China had sought to construct an artificial island.

While rejecting the verdict, China adopted a belligerent posture, with its navy resorting to a show of force. Predictably, the US and Australia welcomed the verdict and called on China to comply, even though the US is not a signatory to UNCLOS and settles its maritime disputes bilaterally.

China has, however, clearly shown itself up to be a regional bully, with its pretensions of being a benign power, shattered.

It is clear that despite this victory on the rejection of China’s claims on its maritime boundaries, its affected neighbours have been restrained in their reactions. Nobody wishes to face the wrath of the wounded dragon. Even the Philippines pledged itself to a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

Moreover, even though five of the ten members of Asean face belligerent Chinese maritime boundary claims, others such as Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia have made it clear that they are too dependent on China to offend it on this issue. The call across the Asean states, even by the Philippines and Vietnam, was for “restraint” in responding to the judgment.

Between the lines

China, in turn, has come out with a White Paper, which indicates some flexibility in its approach. China did not reassert its “historic rights” over the whole area of the nine-dashed line. The language used in the Chinese text appears to suggest that the tribunal’s judgment that the Spratly Islands are “rocks incapable of sustaining human habitation” has not been directly contradicted by China. There are suggestions in the paper that China could move towards modifying some of its claims in negotiations with parties such as Vietnam.

Just a few days prior to the tribunal judgment, the Chinese government mouthpiece, Global Times , made a distinctly positive reference to Vietnam stating: “China and Vietnam will have more common ground to address their bilateral territorial disputes, which will transform the landscape in the region.”

Global Times suggested: “Hanoi’s strategic purpose is to defend what it holds and legalise oil drilling in the waters it occupies. It won’t provoke China if there is no major threat.” China earlier objected to oil drilling in these waters.

India should study these developments carefully. They signal the Chinese approach of splitting territorial claimants. Around 50 per cent of India’s global trade traverses the South China Sea. New Delhi has a vital interest in seeing that China does not have a legal basis to interrupt its freedom of navigation and over-flight rights in the South China Sea. Its statement after the tribunal verdict speaks of “self-restraint”, but also clearly reflects its concerns by urging all parties to respect the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the tribunal verdict.

China is using its national power to establish hegemony along its immediate sea-lanes, even as it steps up presence across the Indian Ocean. Managing this assertiveness will require imaginative diplomacy in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. This would involve steps to establish a viable and stable balance of power in the entire Indo-Pacific region, working with partners such as the US, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and others, while keeping open the channels of dialogue with Beijing.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan