The article discusses how China’s military buildup and reclamations in the South China Sea is leading to the emergence of new coalitions and partnerships and whether the Five Eyes (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) will work together to rein in China. It also hints at how the US sanctions on Chinese entities involved in South China Sea Reclamations can impact the BRI beneficiaries.
The international community has reacted unsympathetically to China’s reclamation of reefs and shoals in the South China Sea and the subsequent military buildup on these features has caused security concerns. The reactions range from “naming and shaming” (Obama Administration), and the Trump Administration “rejecting any PRC maritime claim” including expressions such as “bullying to control them”. The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini too expressed concerns over “increasing tension” in the South China Sea and noted that the “militarisation is definitely not conducive to a peaceful environment.”
Furthermore, China’s expansive territorial claims, particularly historic rights over most of the South China Sea (nine dash line), has attracted indictment by the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in the South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China).
Emergence of New Coalitions and Partnerships
The Chinese stubbornness and its disdain for the Award under the 1982 UNCLOS has engendered coalitions and partnerships among like-minded States to counter China’s illegal occupation, militarisation and weaponisation of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea. These countries have conducted naval maneuvers in and around the South China Sea to guarantee freedom of navigation and upholding international law to ensure safe and secure movement of international shipping. Other than the navies of the Quadrilateral Dialogue (QSD) or the Quad grouping i.e., Australia, India, Japan and the US, new grouping has mushroomed whose mandate is to ensure undeterred access in the seas and the oceans for freedom of navigation as provided for in the 1982 UNCLOS.
Australia, India and Indonesia have decided to set up a 2+2 dialogue involving meetings between respective foreign and defence ministers. Apparently, an official from one of the countries has stated that “This is a fast moving trilateral with the defence and foreign ministers expected to meet over the next couple of months. All three countries have a shared interest in an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.”
A similar trilateral involves Australia, India and France who have chosen to join hands and held their first virtual meeting in September 2020. An Indian Foreign Office readout said, “The outcome oriented meeting was held with the objective of building on the strong bilateral relations that the three countries share with each other and synergising their respective strengths to ensure a peaceful, secure, prosperous and rules-based Indo-Pacific Region.”
In the past, most of the naval activity in the South China Sea was dominated by the Asian and Pacific powers. The engagement of European navies in the South China Sea directly challenging China’s expansive claims as also in support of the freedom of navigation at sea is causing concern for Beijing.
Chinese reclamation-militarisation in the South China Sea that has not gone unnoticed by the Five Eyes (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) signals intelligence sharing network, set up in the wake of the Second World War. According to the director of the Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University, “It’s no surprise if the Five Eyes work together to ‘fight China’.” Similarly, Georgina Downer, principal of geopolitical and strategic advisory firm Tenjin Consulting notes that “The swiftness of the change in policy in the UK over 5G and agreement among Five Eyes nations to establish a D10 of democratic and like-minded countries to cooperate on 5G technology is another good example of how China’s aggressive diplomacy has quickly aligned Five Eyes nations’ strategic thinking about Chinese investments in critical infrastructure.”
Environment and Ecology
Perhaps the most serious citation of China was by the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in the South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China). The Tribunal not only rejected China’s historic rights over most of the South China Sea, it observed that China had violated international law by causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, endangering Philippine ships and interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration.
Sanctions on Chinese Entities involved in South China Sea Reclamations
The US has sanctioned 24 Chinese entities including the state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETGC) and visa restrictions on individuals and businesses “responsible for, or complicit in, either the large-scale reclamation, construction, or militarisation of disputed outposts in the South China Sea, or [the People’s Republic of China’s] use of coercion against Southeast Asian claimants to inhibit their access to offshore resources.” Furthermore, these entities have been accused of violating “freedom of the seas … consistent with international law”. CCCC and its affiliates are now in the US Entity List that would result in “restrictions not only to equipment and commodities, but also software and technology, and any applications for export, re-export or transfer to the targeted CCCC units”.
According to a senior State Department official, the US has “various aims, including, of course, to impose costs on bad actors and to encourage all sorts of parties and institutions and governments around the world to assess the risk and reconsider business deals with the sort of predatory Chinese state-owned enterprises we have identified here.”  It is useful to mention that CCCC and CETGC are intimately connected with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Perhaps what should worry a large number of countries across the globe is that the US envelope of sanctions against China is expanding and in a recent case, the Tianjin-based Union Development Group (UDG) has come under scrutiny. The company has been “blocked from financial transactions and the provision of goods and services within the United States human rights abuses and seizure of land in Cambodia”. The company is involved in developing a 3.4-kilometre runway at Dara Sakor on 36,000 hectares of land acquired by China on a 99-year lease. Apparently, the UDG had registered itself as a “Cambodian-owned company, headed by a Cambodian national, but within three years of receiving the land, UDG switched back to being a Chinese-owned and operated company on paper.”
Finally, if US sanctions on Iran and above cited Cambodian case are any indicator, then placing other Chinese companies on the US Entity List will surely have an impact on the BRI beneficiaries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and elsewhere in Africa, Latin America, Europe, etc.
Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Featured Image source: India Today
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Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.