India should capitalize on China’s Hague discomfiture

China’s rejection of the verdict by an international tribunal in The Hague is not surprising. Beijing had made it clear earlier that its claim in the South China Sea was historical and indubitable; as a consequence, it did not recognize any arbitration over the subject. The tribunal, however, found the construction of artificial islands unacceptable; it also rejected China’s claim to sovereignty over the waters. The verdict and its aftermath—including Beijing’s announcement that it would defy the international law—provide a readymade opportunity to enter into a strategic understanding, if not alliance, with East Asian nations.

The Philippines had moved the court in 2013, though five other countries in the region—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam—also have claims over the disputed waters. “It’s an overwhelming victory. We won on every significant point,” said the Philippines’ chief counsel in the case, Paul S. Reichler.

Everybody in the neighborhood is annoyed by the bullying attitude of China, for it has not just breached international law but also, as the tribunal said, caused “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, endangered Philippine ships, and interfered with Philippine fishing and oil exploration.

The Philippines had challenged the legality of China’s claim to waters within a “nine-dash line” that Chinese cartographers had arbitrarily drawn on official Chinese maps, enclosing 90 per cent of the South China Sea. What makes China’s rejection of the verdict untenable is the fact that it, along with the Philippines, is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. According to the Convention, a country has sovereignty over waters extending 12 nautical miles from its coast, and control over economic activities in waters on its continental shelf and up to 200 nautical miles from its coast, including fishing, mining, oil exploration, and the construction of artificial islands.

It is not the first time a nation has disregarded a ruling pertaining to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; 30 years ago, the United States had done the same. But there is difference: while China is a signatory to the Convention, the US is not.

China’s intransigence emanates from its imperial ambitions and mindset, in conformity of which jingoistic fables and notions have been peddled all over the country. Students are taught about the power and glory of their great nation. Acceptance of The Hague verdict would severely dent the image of the government and the communist party.

At the same time, China cannot completely ignore world opinion. This is not to say that it has any regard for morality or propriety; today, owing to its imperial aspirations, China’s international behavior is most egregious in the world. It supports rogue, terrorist nations like Pakistan and North Korea; it promotes nuclear and missile proliferation. Yet, Beijing has to do something to appear a little conciliatory. A former Chinese official has already favored moderation; he also wants that the situation in the South China Sea “must cool down.”

India should take advantage of the situation. So far, its response has been good. “Sea lanes of communication passing through the South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development. As a State Party to the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans,” the External Affairs Ministry said in a statement.

The statement also highlighted the fact that India respected an adverse UNCLOS ruling to resolve a maritime boundary issue with Bangladesh two years ago. “India supports freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS. India believes that states should resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability.”

For peace and stability in the region (whose serendipitous effect would be a jolt to China’s bid to encircle India with hostile forces), Prime Minister Narendra Modi should author a new foreign policy doctrine. To begin with, India should discard non-alignment. Second, it should become a stronger strategic partner, if not an ally, of the US. We already carry out joint military exercises; the partnership should be stronger. And, third, India should work more closely with East Asian countries.

India should not lose this opportunity to pin down China.