In the early January 2018, the Philippines expressed her displeasure over the construction of an apparent airbase on a man-made island in the South China Sea by China. The protest resonates with that of similar anguish expressed by other maritime neighbours of China in the recent past over Beijing’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and their subsequent militarization as part of the cabbage strategy.
It is against this backdrop, it is pertinent to know what is the cabbage strategy, how China is using it to expand its maritime boundaries in the South China Sea and how the growing China’s presence in the South China Sea will adversely impact India’s interests in the region.
China’s cabbage strategy
It is also called as ‘salami-slicing’ strategy. Under this strategy, a contested area is surrounded by multiple security layers to deny access to the rival nation and is claimed subsequently. As per the observers, China, for a long time, has been pursuing this strategy, over the land and in the oceans against her neighbouring countries like India, Japan, Bhutan, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia and Brunei as a tool to expand its frontiers.
Cabbage strategy in the South China Sea
China’s claim over islands in the South China Sea is of centuries old. However, the first official claim in the modern period dates back to 1947, wherein it demarcated its claims with a U-shaped line made up of eleven dashes on a map. In the early 1950s’, two dashes of the proposed line around the Gulf of Tonkin were removed to pacify the Communist Government in Noth Vietnam. Subsequently, the nine-dash line has emerged as the new flashpoint, which covers two groups of islands - Spratlys and Paracels – within its ambit.
Beginning from 1970s’, as part of the cabbage strategy, China ensured the islands in the nine-dash line are within its control. In 2013, the largely bilateral/regional issue has assumed an international dimension when the Philippines approached the Permanent Court of Arbitration to contest the territorial claims in the nine-dash line.
In July 2016, the Hague-based PCA ruled that there was no legal basis for China to claim rights over the South China Sea. It was pointed out that China’s claims over the resources in the region are incompatible with the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) provided in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The PCA has also concluded that China has violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and also caused severe harm to the coral reef environment by building artificial islands in the region.
However, the ruling was not accepted by China. India responded cautiously to the verdict stating that both the countries should resolve deputes through peaceful means and exercise self-restraint.
Relevance of the South China Sea for India
The region is vital to India’s growing energy needs. In 2006, the Indian oil firm ONGC Videsh was awarded a Production Sharing Contract (PSC) to explore the Oil Block – 128 by Vietnam. Since the block falls within the nine-dash line, China’s claim over the region will prove detrimental to India’s interests.
As per an estimate, over USD 5 trillion worth trade passes through the region in a year. India’s trade through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea has been steadily increasing over the past few years due to the growing trade ties with Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, the USA, Australia and South Korea. With the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Econonmic Partnership (RCEP) with the ASEAN+ nations, the trade volume is expected to go up. To sustain the 2-way trade with the nations in the region, it is essential that the international waters in the region are free of conflict.
Undoubtedly, oceans are the new frontiers of economic development. Blue Economy has found increasing traction among the countries in the Indo-Pacific Region, including India. To use the natural resources offered by the South China Sea in a fair, equitable and sustainable manner, it is essential that no country solely claims the resources of this region.
Apart from the above mentioned commerce and economic significances, the South China Sea is also vital from the strategic standpoint.
In continuation of the Look East Policy of the PV Narasimha Rao Government, the UPA II Government under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unveiled the Act East Policy. The Act East policy envisages accelerated across-the-board engagement between the two growth poles of a vibrant Asia, that is, India and ASEAN countries. To sustain the centuries-old historical, cultural and trade links with the ASEAN, the uninterrupted connectivity is essential. The increasing military presence of China in the South China Sea poses a threat to the successful implementation of the Act East Policy.
India’s recent steps to counter China in the region
In 2015, Japan was included as the third nation in the annual bilateral Malabar naval exercise between India and the USA. Inclusion of Japan on a permanent basis will help India in increasing its military presence in South China Sea and the East China Sea.
On the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Manila in November 2017, India, Japan, the USA and Japan held the first working-level meeting of the ‘Quadrilateral Group’. The group of four democratic nations is expected to contain China’s aggression in the region.
It is high time, China should respect the international laws and the rights of its maritime neighbours. The biggest challenge before the Indian policy makers is how to protect the county’s interests in the South China Sea without disturbing its cordial relations with China.