By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th Nov 15
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has issued a careful, but pointed, message to China over its growing belligerence in maritime disputes in the Eastern Pacific.
Addressing the 3rd ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Parrikar called for “freedom of navigation in international waters, the right of passage and over-flight, unimpeded commerce and access to resources in accordance with recognized principles of international law including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea…”
Parrikar’s statement will be read in the context of the “US-India joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region” that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama signed in January. In this, they agreed to cooperate in “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”
The biennial ADMM+ in Malaysia was marked by deep disagreements between China, on the one hand, and several neighbours --- especially Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines --- which have simmering disputes with China over islands and waters in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea.
So contentious was the meeting that no joint statement was issued. Admitting this, Malaysia’s defence minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, highlighted growing fears that confrontation might inadvertently spiral into war.
“To dwell on the joint declaration is not going to solve the real problem. Our concerns are more real ... unintended accidents at the high sea, which can spiral into something worse and that we must avoid”, said Hishamuddin.
Parrikar, like many of his counterparts, urged the early conclusion of a “Code of Conduct on the South China Sea”, to manage confrontation and prevent escalation.
While China has signed the “2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea”, Beijing continues to stonewall a more specific “Code of Conduct”. China prefers to negotiate bilaterally with small regional countries rather than having them ranged against it in a block.
Meanwhile, armed Chinese maritime agencies have engaged in risky confrontations with regional navies, and bolstered its maritime claims by creating artificial islands through large-scale land reclamation.
Illustrating the potential for conflict, the US Navy last week conducted a “freedom of navigation operation”, sailing a destroyer through waters that China claimed, being within 12 nautical miles of a recently reclaimed island. Two People’s Liberation Army (Navy) warships shadowed the US navy destroyer during its passage.
The ADMM+, which was inaugurated in 2010 in Vietnam, brings together the defence ministers of India, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States with those of the 10 ASEAN countries.
The grouping has identified six relatively non-controversial areas for cooperation --- counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, military medicine, peacekeeping and humanitarian mine action.