November 23, 2017
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PCA verdict could be the beginning of change
The recent verdict given by the Permanent Court of Arbitration has changed the geopolitics in the entire Asia-Pacific region as well as the whole of Asian continent. The verdict may be a legal one but it has enormous political and strategic implications for global geopolitical order. All through the history change often starts with small. In comparison to China’s might, the Philippines was too small to withstand any Chinese move in the arbitration issue which involves South China Sea. Yet, the verdict went in favor of Manila at a time when Beijing is looking for a greater global role. China has arrived on the stage of global power play for all practical purposes. Thus, the South China Sea dispute will soon turn into a conflict zone despite the PCA verdict. While China is ready to expand its naval power and relocate its maritime interests to other region it needs a gateway. Chinese experts often argue that if China cannot control South China Sea then it will not be able to influence course of events neither in the Pacific nor in Indian Ocean. That is why it is important for Beijing to begin with South China Sea. Indeed, by 2030 almost 55 per cent global crude oil will have to pass through this sea lane of communication and 62 percent global trade will be traversed through this rough sea. For China, the South China Sea could prove to be its strategic life line and offer a lot of military advantage. Every country needs a strategic depth. The South China Sea which is located at the backyard of Chinese mainland has lot of potential for China to grow as a superpower. From here it can lay control to the Western Pacific, Yellow Sea and right down to Malacca Straits. China is keen to expand into sea. Historically, all great nations are sea faring powers. Often, land has its limitation but the sea is limitless. A true great power must be sea borne. The case of Britain and Germany in 19th century can be of great interest.

Similarly, the US and Soviet Union in the 20th century met the same fate. In both the cases, whether it is Germany or Soviet Union, they lacked massive sea power capabilities. Although they developed their strength in naval warfare at a later stage but the real master play of their strategy was land power. They lost at the end. But Britain and the US prospered due to their access to the sea and ocean faring power projections. That not only gave much space to expand rather ensured their economic sustenance for a longer duration. The Chinese being good student of history have learnt that they need to expand into sea. If a nation could build maritime capabilities then it can achieve its goal relatively in quick span of time. Thus, the South China Sea is crucial for China’s rise to a great power status. Therefore, it is unwilling to tolerate any outside interference. But using history or historical legacy to make a legal claim could prove to be a failed strategy. Even Germany attempted the same on the eve of Second World War regarding Austria. After the PCA verdict China maintained its public rhetoric but it has gone for soul searching. Although the new generation CPC officials understand the fallout of PCA verdict, the Chinese military carries an old mindset. They see the world only either black or white, for them, in between is void. But for diplomacy, between the lines can send out many signals.

The South China Sea dispute has both potentialities to reunite the region and offer scope for faster development in terms of trade and commerce. At the same time, it can ignite national passion for ownership which may lead to greater instability. Indeed, Asian continent has three big economies in the region, China, Japan and India. Two of the three economies will be badly affected if the situation spirals out of proportion. Thus, managing disputes could be a real challenge for the leaders of other nations and China. Since Beijing aspires for a global role it needs to take more initiatives than others. This will all depend how quickly China learns modern diplomacy and handles domestic situation. China may be an old power but it is new to modern global power matrix. But rising tension in South China will badly damage China’s economy. Its political standing will go down severely. On the other hand, this will give scope to US to strengthen its lost ground. Ultimately this will ensue a power rivalry between the US and China. Mostly, China’s strategy lies on dividing the ASEAN and make gain out of it. No doubt it has worked with perfection. If a dividing ASEAN – whose half of the members are involved in the SCS dispute – finds alternate source of power balancing equation with all seriousness then SCS dispute will result in a direct rivalry between the US and China. The best example is the PCA verdict when the Philippines decided to go to the arbitration instead of knocking at the doors of ASEAN indefinitely. The DoC has already lost its relevance. Therefore, China should work closely with the ASEAN for a Code of Conduct which will reduce the tension and pave the way for better cooperation between ASEAN and China.