The battle for mastery in the Indo-Pacific continues. The latest battleground is the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) virtual meeting on August 9th, which marked one of the highest levels of participation. The UN Security Council meeting convened under the agenda “Maintenance of International Peace & Security”, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was attended by several heads of state and government of UNSC member states, and foreign ministers, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as high-level briefers from the UN System and key regional organizations.
Despite China’s opposition, an unprecedented India-led UN Security Council session underscored the importance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The resolution denounced China's operations in the South China Sea, which violated the UNCLOS, which defines the legal framework for maritime activities, including combating illegal activities at sea. The meeting is significant because India emerged as a stabiliser in the tussle over the resolution that sparked the heated debate between the US and Chinese representatives over the issue of maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, where a great power contest for mastery of the region remains intense.
The arrival of an authoritarian and assertive China has heightened concerns about Indo-Pacific security and stability. Particularly concerning is China's continued defiance of international laws governing free navigation and maritime trade in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Over the last decade, China has worked to build military infrastructure and consolidate its position in the South and East China Seas, as evidenced by the construction of artificial islands and the bullying of countries by its fishing militia. This became more pronounced during the COVID-19 outbreak, as evidenced by China's aggressive behaviour toward the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam, revealing its geopolitical intent to dominate the Indo-Pacific waters.
Despite the fact that the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled in 2016 that China's operations in the South China Sea are illegal, Beijing has continued unabated, escalating tensions. The award issued by the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea, which was constituted at the request of the Philippines, on July 12, 2016, was not accepted by China. According to China, the award is void ab initio and has no legal force. However, under international pressure, China agreed to establish UNCLOS precedence at the UNSC meeting.
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The South China Sea has emerged as one of the major flashpoints in China's fractious and intense relationship with the United States. Dissatisfied with the resolution, the Chinese delegation took advantage of the opportunity to criticize the Quad nations, accusing Japan of dumping Fukushima-contaminated water into the Pacific and requesting that the ASEAN countries develop a code of conduct. China's illegal territorial claims in the resource-rich waters were rejected by US representative Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who also criticized China's conduct in the South China Sea and its authoritative and assertive posture. During the debate, the strategic rivalry between the United States and China resurfaced. The UN Security Council virtual meeting is the second high-level diplomatic meeting where the US and China have exchanged sharp rebukes under the Biden administration, following the diplomatic row in Alaska. After successfully containing the outbreak at home, China saw an opportunity to challenge the US's dominance in the Indo-Pacific but has encountered firm resistance from the US. The strategic rivalry between the hegemon and the challenger has since heated up.
What has been hailed as India's first UNSC-chaired meeting, which called for collaborative efforts to develop a framework for addressing maritime challenges, India successfully used a consensus-building strategy, consulting all UNSC members to find the most acceptable phrasing of the resolution. All delegates applauded PM Modi’s five-point principles, which called for the UNSC to draft a plan for international maritime security. With its growing military power, India has emerged as a major player amid the intense US-China geopolitics and growing significance of the Indo-Pacific. India has also emerged as critical in the US and other developed nations' efforts to repair the global supply chain, which the world has allowed China to dominate by default.
India's Indo-Pacific strategy has evolved. From the Look East strategy to the Act East strategy to the Indo-Pacific strategy, India has established itself as one of the leading Indo-Pacific powers. PM Modi's visions for Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), and India's growing strategic partnerships with the Quad members—the United States, Japan, and Australia—as well as like-minded China-wary Indo-Pacific nations such as Vietnam and South Korea under the ACT East strategy—are regarded as important Indo-Pacific strategies in ensuring the free nation's effort for an open and secure Indo-Pacific.
India's handling of the UNCLOS resolution at the UN Security Council strengthens New Delhi's diplomatic prowess. China has used its veto power against India's interests and has been the main impediment to India's permanent membership in the UN Security Council, as Beijing is opposed to New Delhi's inclusion in the UN's highest decision-making body. During the recent India-China violent clash at the Galwan Valley on the Indo-Tibet border, India received substantial diplomatic support from major world powers, including four P5 members – the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia. The relationship between the two Asian giants has deteriorated, and their competitive relationship has further escalated amid the unfolding Indo-Pacific strategic geometry, as India's security ties with the US, Japan, Australia, and Vietnam continue to strengthen.
Historically, the United Nations Security Council has been a battleground for great power rivalry. The growing economic and strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region, which is regarded as critical to global prosperity in the twenty-first century, has sparked a great power competition, and the top global body will be a new battleground for mastery of the waters between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The author, Dr Ashok Sharma, is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University in the Department of the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre of Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs; a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy; and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Canberra.
(Edited by : Aditi Gautam)
First Published: IST