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EXPLAINED: How China's Maritime Disputes Were In Focus As India Led Discussion At UNSC Meet

Narendra Modi became the first Indian PM to chair a UNSC meeting as he took up the issue of maritime security

Narendra Modi became the first Indian PM to chair a UNSC meeting as he took up the issue of maritime security

China's island disputes and Belt and Road project both drew tacit mentions from PM Narendra Modi as India took up the issue of maritime security at a UNSC meet

As the first Indian Prime Minister to chair a UN Security Council (UNSC) meet, Narendra Modi took up the subject of maritime security, highlighting challenges ranging from climate change to piracy and terrorism and calling for cooperation among countries to address these issues. A key stress of his speech was on the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes “on the basis of international law only". That put the focus on China, which is locked in multiple disputes in the South China Sea over maritime boundaries. While the country did push back on the bid to underline the disputes its involved in, here’s a look at why the meeting was a message to Beijing.

What Did PM Modi Tell The UNSC?

India outlined five basic principles for building “a framework of mutual understanding and cooperation for the protection and use of our shared maritime heritage" as the PM stressed at the meeting attended by, among others, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that “no country can build such a framework alone".

He called for the removal of barriers to legitimate trade using the seas and underlined the need for countries to collectively “face natural disasters and maritime threats created by non-state actors". He also pitched for the preservation of the marine environment and maritime resources and called for a boost to “responsible maritime connectivity". India, elected to the non-permanent membership of UNSC in 2021, is holding its presidency for the month of August.

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A key element of the proposed framework, the PM said, was addressing maritime disputes, peacefully and per set rules, as that was “very important for mutual trust and confidence". “With this understanding and maturity, India has settled its maritime boundary with its neighbouring country Bangladesh," Modi said.

What Is SAGAR?

Batting for an “open and inclusive ethos", the PM said at the meeting that it was a principle that had led India to define the “vision of SAGAR - Security and Growth for All in the Region".

“Through this vision, we want to create an inclusive structure of maritime security in our area. This vision is a safe, secure and stable maritime domain. It is also necessary for free maritime trade, that we fully respect the rights of each other’s sailors," Modi said.

According to the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), SAGAR was launched by India in 2015 with the aim of addressing regional needs “like providing humanitarian help to maritime neighbours and counter non-state actors like pirates in the Indian Ocean".

“The overall objective for India is to gain legitimacy as the sole regional power in the Indian Ocean with the capability of providing humanitarian relief and security to the entire region," ORF said.

In fact, the PM mentioned at the UNSC discussion that India has been “the first responder in maritime disasters related to cyclone, tsunami and pollution", adding that the “Indian Navy has been patrolling in the Indian Ocean since 2008 to prevent piracy [and] India’s role in the Indian Ocean has been as a net security provider".

How Did PM Modi Put Focus On China?

Apart from the call for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes, in talking about the need to “encourage responsible maritime connectivity", PM Modi is seen as having made an indirect reference to China and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which, it is alleged, serves to subject partner countries to a debt trap as Beijing extends funds for ambitious infrastructure projects.

“It is clear that infrastructure creation is necessary to increase maritime trade. But the fiscal sustainability and absorption capacity of the countries have to be kept in mind in the development of such infrastructure projects," Modi said.

But it was on the question of maritime disputes that China hit back strongly at the UNSC meet even as many of the participating countries specifically referred to incidents in the South China Sea.

US Secretary of State Blinken talked about “dangerous encounters between vessels and provocative actions to advance unlawful maritime claims", saying his country and “South China Sea claimants have protested such behaviour".

France and Vietnam — which is locked in a dispute with China over its setting up of island bases — also mentioned the South China Sea.

China is locked in a fight with the likes of Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, among others, over its alleged violation of territorial sovereignty in the East and South China Seas, “an area that is rich in hydrocarbons and natural gas and through which trillions of dollars of global trade flow". The main issue is Beijing’s construction of military bases as it looks to expand its influence over the region. Some of the key sticking points are the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in East China Sea, whose control is disputed between Japan and China. Then there are the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and China.

What Did China Say?

The Chinese Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Dai Bing, lashed out at the mention of the South China Sea at the meeting, saying that “the Security Council is not the right place to discuss the issue of the South China Sea. The US just mentioned the South China Sea issue and China firmly opposes this act".

He said that due to efforts by China and ASEAN countries, “the situation in the South China Sea remains stable" and charged the US with arbitrarily sending military vessels and aircrafts to the region. The US’ “hype in the Security Council is entirely politically motivated", he added. The Chinese official also made an indirect reference to the

Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising the US, India, Japan, and Australia, saying that a few countries were “pursuing an exclusive regional strategy in the Asia Pacific region in an attempt to create intensified maritime conflict".

Despite the trading of barbs, the first exclusive discussion on maritime security ended with the adoption of a UNSC Presidential Statement, which noted the “primacy"of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the chief framework governing activities at sea.

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first published:August 10, 2021, 15:05 IST