We’re in a season of warnings. After six Chinese coastguard ships and over 200 fishing vessels sailed close to the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands (also known as the Diaoyu Islands) in the East China Sea, Japan cautioned China over its maritime adventurism.

China, meanwhile, has delivered its own warning to Australia against interfering in the South China Sea (SCS). Beijing is unhappy that Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recognised the Philippines' right to seek international arbitration and announced she would ask China to explain its construction activities on SCS reefs. An angry editorial in the government-overseen Global Times denounced Australia as a ‘paper cat’ with an ‘inglorious history’, often ‘mocked by others’.

Canberra isn’t the only one at the receiving China’s ire. Beijing has issued notices to other states perceived to be unsympathetic to its cause in the South China Sea. Ahead of Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to India, the Global Times carried a commentary that warned New Delhi of dire implications if it failed to support Beijing’s stand in the South China Sea. Chinese leaders are surprised that India openly contradicted Beijing, as it sought to portray India as a supporter of China’s stand in the South China Sea. 

Beijing is also sore that Indian observers continue to hold China responsible for scuttling India’s bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group membership a few weeks ago. New Delhi’s ‘puzzling’ attitude over the NSG and South China Sea, a Global Times editorial stated, ‘might risk unnecessary side effects to Sino-Indian ties and potentially set up obstacles for Indian exporters…including the revision of tariffs on Indian imports’.

India announced the deployment of BrahMos supersonic missiles on its Northeastern border – a-none-too-subtle caution that if China continued with its political bluster, India is prepared to up the ante. New Delhi also announced that its Sukhoi Su-30 MKI fighters are being modified to carry the air variant of the BrahMos missile, even as the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) has begun receiving air dominance fighters modified to carry air-launched BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.

The United States too is playing the warning game, hinting at the implications of China failing to abide by the Tribunal’s decision on the South China Sea back in June. Not to be put down, China has announced joint naval drills in the region with Russia, and has warned against US freedom of navigation patrols in the area.

In international relations, warnings are part of a strategic dynamic where one side expresses its intent to act should a certain situation arise, without really revealing what its specific response might be. The idea is to inject a dose of deterrence into a situation turning unfavourable for the side issuing the warning. Doing so thoughtlessly, however, serves to harm the issuer’s interests, as it can create the impression of a desperate actor whose only available option is bluster. Not surprisingly, hurriedly issued threats in international relations rarely elicit the desired response.

This does not detract from the larger efficacy of political warnings. When a warning is delivered by a state as part of a carefully constructed strategy, it has the potential to strongly influence the adversary. Such warnings almost seem like an act of benevolence on the part of the issuer, as if the advance notice is a gentle substitute for punitive action. 

The thing about a good warning is that it preempts prevarication, which can be toxic in international diplomacy. While nations are always drawing red lines for others to heed, the act of drawing the line needs to be undertaken well before an impression has been created that the political leadership is in a bind over an issue. The challenge for state is to act before it is seen to be dithering. Here, strategically rendered threats can be an effective tool. Most often, a thoughtfully conceived caution, issued in good time, can create the illusion of a leadership in control – supremely self-assured of its own position. 

In A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problem of Peace, Henry Kissinger argued that political warnings needed to be seen as a negotiating tactic that tend to maximise bargaining power and influence. If diplomacy is the art of deal-making, as Kissinger characterised it in a later work, then a well-timed ‘warning’ is an effective instrument.

Ultimately, political warnings are part of a state’s predisposition for regime survival; political leaders feel compelled to act when confronted with security crises. Each government, however, is guided by a distinct set of strategic principles, geared to tackle the challenges before their consequences exact a heavy price. What publicly issued threats do is to limit the costs involved. By issuing a timely caution, a party notifies an adversary about the undesirability of its acts without needing to resort to actual counter-action. In many ways, therefore, a smartly issued warning is a ‘win-win’ for both sides.

In the case of the South China Sea, it is interesting that a month after the tribunal passed a verdict there has still been no real military action. While the security picture remains grim, there has been a  absence of overt aggression. 

Even so, each party continues to issue warnings to the other, urging respect for its own rights, claims and perspective (as a case in point, Vietnam has placed anti-air missiles on occupied features in the Spratly Islands). Despite the rhetoric, however, there is a healthy amount of empathy being displayed by Vietnam and ASEAN towards China. The occasional public denouncements do not alter the fact that all sides remain wary of military action. 

While India isn’t directly involved in the South China Sea dispute, the nature and type of Chinese threats are useful in assessing Beijing’s political attitude towards India. It is noteworthy that the tenor of commentary in Chinese-overseen media outlets appears dismissive of India’s stand on international issues. If Chinese observers hold a low opinion of Indian foreign policy positions, a pragmatic settlement between India and China on contentious bilateral issues seems a fair distance away. For its part, India has refrained from publicly criticising China for its aggressive South China Sea policy. But Indian leaders recognise the indirect threat that China poses to the international legal system, especially the prospect of a restructuring of rules to favour Beijing’s interests. 

That is certainly a warning India cannot afford to take lightly.

Photo: Flickr/MEAphotogallery