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India needs to stake its own claims in East Asia

September 23, 2011 17:37 IST

India is right to forcefully reject Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. It should now build credible strategic partnerships with other regional States to prevent a Chinese dominance, says Harsh V Pant.

As reported by London's Financial Times a few days back, an unidentified Chinese warship had demanded that the INS Airavat, an amphibious assault vessel, identify itself and explain its presence in the South China Sea after the vessel left Vietnamese waters in late July.

The Indian warship was completing a scheduled port call in Vietnam and was in international waters. Though the Indian Navy promptly denied that a Chinese warship had confronted its assault vessel, it did not completely deny the factual basis of the report.

Sino-Indian strategic relationship is rapidly evolving and tensions are building up as was underlined in an incident in 2009 when an Indian kilo class submarine and Chinese warships, on their way to the Gulf of Aden to patrol the pirate-infested waters, reportedly engaged in rounds of maneuvering as they tried to test for weaknesses in each other's sonar systems.

The Chinese media reported that its warships forced the Indian submarine to the surface, which was strongly denied by the Indian Navy.

China's military growth over the last decade has exceeded most forecasts, with the Chinese military fielding an operational anti-ship ballistic missile, completing a prototype of its first stealth fighter jet and launching its first aircraft carrier for a maiden run over the course of the last one year itself.

Chinese capabilities are rapidly growing to an extent where it can challenge the status quo in the Pacific. The latest Pentagon report on the modernisation of Chinese military warns India about the rapid advances Beijing is making in improving infrastructure near the border areas with India but also strengthening its deterrence posture by replacing liquid-fuelled nuclear capable CSS-2 IRBMs with more advanced and survivable solid-fuelled CSS-5 MRBM systems.

The PLA Navy will be building several additional aircraft carriers so as to enhance its naval fleet, in addition to the Kuznetsov-class carrier (Varyag). It is likely that Beijing will have its first indigenous carrier achieving 'operational capability' as early as 2015. The US has also suggested that China's aircraft carrier-killing ballistic missile, the DF-21D, has reached initial operational capability.

In response to the latest Sino-Indian naval incident, the US called for a collaborative diplomatic process on resolving the disputes related to the South China Sea, underlining its desire to recognise the right of passage to international waters in the South China Sea.

Last year, the US secretary of state had suggested that the South China Sea was of strategic importance to the US and offered to act as a mediator.

India too is within its rights to transit through the international waters of South China Sea and Beijing has no right to question the passage though these waters. Of course, China claims the South China Sea in its entirety but its confrontationist posture and rhetoric can easily escalate to a major conflict. The South China Sea is now one of Asia's critical strategic flashpoints, with some even suggesting that it will be the 'military front line' of China in the coming years.

Fears have been rising in Asia that China is seeking to use its growing maritime might to dominate not only the hydrocarbon-rich waters of the South China Sea but also its crucial shipping lanes, the lifeline of regional economies. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, used her visit to Asia last year to signal unequivocally that the US was unwilling to accept China's push for regional hegemony.

When Beijing claimed that it now considers its ownership of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as a 'core interest,' Clinton retorted by proposing that the US help establish an international mechanism to mediate the overlapping claims of sovereignty among China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia that now exist in the South China Sea.

This new US assertiveness vis-à-vis Beijing has been widely welcomed in the region. The other members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations strongly endorsed Clinton's call for multilateral commitment to a code of conduct for the South China Sea rather than China's preferred bilateral approach.

China has collided with Vietnam and Philippines in recent months over issues related to the exploitation of South China Sea for its mineral resources and oil. It was under American guardianship of common interests for the last several decades that China has emerged as the economic powerhouse it is today.

Now it wants a new system -- a system that only works for Beijing and does not deal with the provision of public goods or common resources.

India too has an interest in protecting the sea lanes of communication that cross the South China Sea to Northeast Asia and the US. As India's profile rises in East and Southeast Asia, it will have to assert its legitimate interests in the East Asian waters.

As China expands its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, India needs to stake its own claims in East Asia. India has now decided to work with Vietnam to establish a regular Indian presence in the region as part of a larger Delhi-Hanoi security partnership. Vietnam has given India the right to use its port of Nha Trang.

The US remains distracted by its own economic woes and the challenges unleashed by the Arab Spring in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Japan is proving unable to tackle its political inertia and to emerge as a credible a balancer in the region. As such, the regional environment is conducive for Beijing to assert itself.

India is right to forcefully reject Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. It should now build credible strategic partnerships with other regional states so as to prevent a Chinese regional dominance that will undermine the Indian and regional security interests.

Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London.

Harsh V Pant