Although Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is regarded by Beijing as being hostile to China’s “core” interests, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen has taken a stand very similar to that of the Chinese Communist Party in the South China Sea dispute. Both Taipei and Beijing reject the tribunal award on the South China Sea and even the legitimacy of the process followed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Beijing regards almost 90% of the waters of the South China Sea as its own, mainly on the basis of a “nine-dash line” in a map, which it claims is a historical record. Lately, China seems to have moved away from Deng Xiaoping’s post-1979 policy of avoidance of military force in dealings with its neighbour. Xi seems willing to use military means to enforce the claims made by his administration in the disputes that it has with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines in the China Seas. The assertive stance taken by Beijing has had a reaction in Japan, where voters have just given a two-thirds majority to hawk Shinzo Abe in the Upper House of the Japanese Parliament, in addition to their earlier gift of a similar majority in the Lower House. Meanwhile, the Philippines is boosting its military linkages with its historical partner, the United States, while Vietnam is building up its ability to respond to an encounter with the PLA Navy.

In the event of a conflict, the worst case scenario for China would be Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, Australia and the US joining hands to challenge the Chinese forces. Meanwhile, since 2014, both Delhi as well as Washington have been edging closer to the status of military allies, even though as yet India’s bureaucracy is loath to sign (even in an amended form) the three Foundation Agreements which would set the course of India-US relations at least for the next generation, just as the India-USSR Pact did immediately before Indira Gandhi’s war to assist the people of Bangladesh in their battle against the genocide being perpetrated on them by the Pakistan army.

As long as the USSR was a functioning entity, so was the diplomatic tilt of India towards Moscow, occasional coy glances at Washington during the period in office of Rajiv Gandhi notwithstanding. After the USSR collapsed, India lost its privileged status. Indeed, it lost heavily as a consequence of then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh’s generosity in adjusting the rupee-rouble rate to reflect an absurdly (at that point in time) high value of the rouble for purposes of debt repayment by India. As in such one-sided pacts as the Indus Waters Treaty or the Shimla Accord with Pakistan, the rupee-rouble pact went 100% the way of the other country, leaving India a big loser.

Had China waited for another two decades without seeking to use its military muscles on its neighbours and the rest of the world, it would automatically have become as dominant in the region as the US was from the Korean War till its defeat in Vietnam.

Had China waited for another two decades without seeking to use its military muscles on its neighbours and the rest of the world, it would automatically have become as dominant in the region as the US was from the Korean War till its defeat in Vietnam. However, the assertive stance now taken by China in the China Seas dispute ensured victory in Japan for Abe. In Taiwan as well, the policy now being pursued by Beijing is boosting the influence of Tokyo. The Chinese side has cut off the Beijing-Taipei hotline between the two leaders, as well as the two other formally recognised communications channels between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits. Tourist arrivals from across the straits have gotten reduced considerably since the DPP took office two months ago. A vacuum has been created, into many parts of which Japan is likely to enter.

However, as seen even by such shortsighted policies as blocking India from becoming a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it seems clear that the Deng Xiaoping policy of avoiding recourse to armed force in disputes is practically over. In other words, the gates have been opened for war, most likely a limited conflict involving naval vessels and aircraft rather than land troops. Even a brief war would poison relations between Beijing and the other countries involved for more than a generation, as we have seen in the still toxic response in India to the brief 1962 border conflict with China, and this despite the Chinese side withdrawing from all its territorial gains soon after declaring a unilateral ceasefire. The importance of The Hague decree on the South China Sea dispute is that it has, in effect, branded China’s actions in the region as outside the ambit of international law. It follows that any action taken by other countries to reverse such moves by Beijing would be deemed to be legitimate. By its judgement, the Court of Arbitration in The Hague has provided legal cover for Japan, the US and other countries that are preparing to challenge the Chinese military in the matter of control over the South China Sea.