ON August 9, PM Modi led the Indian delegation to the UN Security Council for presiding over a discussion on global maritime security. World leaders participating in the discussion included Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, Chairperson of the 55-member African Union. The US and France were represented at the level of Foreign Minister by Antony Blinken and Jean-Yves Le Drian. Sensing a diplomatic setback, China chose to be represented at a relatively junior level by its deputy permanent representative to the UN, ambassador Geng Shuang. Pakistan’s proposal that its peripatetic foreign minister should speak in the session was rejected.
The participation of the foreign ministers of the US and France indicated the global interest in China’s border disputes and the maritime issues raised by India.
Thanking the delegates for their participation, PM Modi emphasised the importance of international sea routes as the ‘joint heritage’ of humanity and the lifeline for international trade. He also referred to challenges posed by maritime disputes between countries. He said the oceans were crucial to global challenges like climate change, international trade, piracy and maritime boundary disputes. He stressed the need for mutual understanding in dealing with global maritime security issues by the removal of barriers to legitimate maritime trade. He urged that ‘the settlement of maritime disputes must be peaceful, and on the basis of international law only’. The adoption of his speech and thereby of its proposals by the UN Security Council sets some well-defined parameters to deal with differences on maritime boundaries. China has imposed a new paradigm by regularly resorting to the use of force on maritime boundary disputes with its neighbours across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
India has settled its maritime disputes with virtually all its neighbours, with only its maritime boundary with Pakistan yet to be demarcated. China has maritime disputes with Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan. The presence of the foreign ministers of the US and France was indicative of the global interest in China’s border disputes. It particularly indicated the interest of western powers in the global maritime issues raised by India’s Prime Minister.
China has not hesitated to use force to seize territories across the land and maritime boundaries of all its neighbours. Its extraordinary claims on its land borders with India have led to a full-fledged conflict, followed by continuing tensions, like the world witnessed in Ladakh last year. China is yet to withdraw from positions in Depsang and Gogra-Hot Springs. Its conflict with Vietnam escalated in 1979, when Chinese troops invaded Vietnam. The attack ended in a fiasco. It was accompanied by claims on Vietnam’s maritime frontiers. China has, however, effectively used its maritime power to intrude into Vietnam’s waters, and continues to do so. Strangely, however, New Delhi backed off from a proposal to supply Vietnam with BrahMos missiles manufactured in India. India is sometimes described as a country that professes to be a reliable friend, but sometimes fails to deliver. Vietnam is, however, a country which enjoys goodwill and support in India, Russia, and even the US.
In his address to the UN Security Council, Modi alluded to the fact that India had actually handed over an island in the Bay of Bengal to Bangladesh after the ruling of an international tribunal. China, however, made a mockery of international law by rejecting a ruling against it by the tribunal in 2016, rejecting Beijing’s claims on several islands that it had occupied on its maritime boundaries with the Philippines. China has also forcibly denied the Philippines any access to islands it had seized.
In a detailed study carried out by two Vietnamese scholars, Nguyen Hong Thao and Nguyen Thi La Huong, about the tribunal verdict, the scholars noted: ‘After a period of opting for caution and downplaying the victory that his country won in the South China Sea arbitration, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte asserted in the UN General Assembly in 2020, that: “The (tribunal) award is now part of international law, beyond compromise, and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.” If President Duterte took four years to take up the issue of Chinese occupation of his country’s territory internationally, it is also surprising that other ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Brunei seem reluctant to use the tribunal ruling to challenge China internationally. Moreover, ASEAN countries, as a group, have not united to challenge China’s territorial claims. Indonesia did, however, act firmly to challenge Chinese expansionism by militarily asserting its rights on its maritime boundaries.
What use is ASEAN as a regional organisation if it cannot support its own members facing territorial claims by an irredentist and expansionist China? It would be useful, if Quad, whose members have formal dialogue partnerships with ASEAN, raises these issues at high-level ASEAN meetings, both bilaterally and jointly. India enjoys cordial relations with ASEAN, which will have to decide, as a regional grouping, if a surrender of territorial integrity by any one of its members to China is a desirable development. Such surrender does whet China’s appetite for undertaking similar actions elsewhere. While India need not publicly allude to such exchanges with ASEAN, it should, as a member of Quad, be prepared to have these issues taken up by Quad members at meetings with their ASEAN dialogue partners.
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