The United Nations Permanent Arbitration Tribunal has made itself clear on the South China Sea row. After a complaint by the Philippines, it has specified that China has by no means any authority over the sea. Interestingly, unlike its way China can be seen taking a subdued demeanour but not even close to relenting to what the Tribunal's verdict.
Chinese leaders have stated that they would like to settle disputes in the South China Sea through negotiations and as per international law. Justifying its stance, China further pointed out that it was Philippines alone that approached the UN and China did not have a role to play. Going by the law of arbitration, both disputants have to approach the tribunal for the verdict.
But, why is India dragged here and why bother?
US, China war, India in a fix
India is no party to the issue, but there are four factors that may bother India. Firstly, the fact that standing against China's stance is the US, a close ally of India, has put India in a fix. Although it believes China has every right to claim the rights, it cannot be vocal about its opinion, given the recent strengthening of ties between the two countries. On the contrary, if it took a stand different from China, the trading route on the South China sea will be forever jeopardised.
Beijing is placed at a position of strength in the South China Sea, where it has control over the critical islands in the sea. China has placed its military control over the features, which will be perilous for freedom of navigation, making Beijing the main arbiter of the accepted range of legitimate operation in the sea.
Beijing may soon impose its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. However that seems to be distant possinility for now. More so, because it may have other areas of interest- including critical spaces in the Indian Ocean.This would help India in strategically determining China's behaviour after the PLA has established a foothold in critical Indian Ocean states. The PLA might play a role in assisting Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Maldives secure vital sea and air pockets in the Indian Ocean. This, however, has to be analysed and accepted by the Centre, after determining the aftermath of the move- politically and security-wise.
China and its maritime tactics
The Chinese maritime tactics have always earned the discern of International bodies as it uses excessive forces on disputed islands. Earlier this month, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, lamented China's use of paramilitary agencies in territorial disputes, complicating U.S. attempts to avoid violence in disputed areas. China's non-military vessels like coast guard and fisheries fleets have affected Naval operations in the region as such vessels are not governed by agreements like the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).
If that is the case in South China Sea, India may be bothered with a similar involvement in the Indian Ocean that may jeopardise the security situation in South Asia. While the US is demandinf reforms in the CUES, India may require a new set of rules of engagement to deal with increased Chinese non-military presence in the IOR.
Military presence on islands
China's attempt is to project itself as a dominant player in the Pacific. It placed a missile in the Woody Islands at a time when US President Barack obama was meeting with ASEAN leaders at California. Beijing's actions are primarily focussed on the image it creates of its presence in the South China Sea.
China-US relations add to the confusion
China and US are known to play the hot and cold response game with each other. For instance, just a few days ago, after the passage of the Curtis Wilbur for the second freedom of navigation operation (FONOPS), the US Chief of Naval Operations consulted with his Chinese counterpart about the unplanned encounter at sea. After coming to a satisfactory solution, China went ahead and placed missiles on the Woody island even though that was not part of the plan.
India now needs to strike a balance between the two countries. Its real dilemma is while it opposes the agression by China in the sea, it also does not agree to the policies US sets for international waters, demanding free passage even in terrotorial proximity of the subject nation. India understands the latter better as it has the Indian Nation and the users of the neighbouring territories.
Having said that Indian experts and media believe that India should take an anti-China stance, a pay back for China's showdown during the NSG bid. But India has to play it safe, considering that it has to maintain relations with the US as well as embrace the fact that it is the next leading power in the world after China.