With Sino-US competition, India needs a strategy

Last Updated 10 October 2010, 16:22 IST

A two-week standoff between Japan and China over a boat collision shows the communist state is adopting a more aggressive stance against rivals and US allies in Asia and there may be more tension to come. The collision happened near a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea called Senkaku that Japan has controlled for decades. Beijing essentially bullied its way through the crisis and by so doing has made it virtually impossible that its rise in Asia will go unchallenged. The US and its allies have already started re-assessing their regional strategies and it is likely that an anti-China balancing will soon be apparent.

China would not have expected that its arrival as the world’s second-largest economy would also be accompanied by a new robustness in US policy towards China and the Asian region. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton used her recent visit to Asia to signal unequivocally that the US is 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 between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia that now exist in the South China Sea.

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. And there were concerns in the region about America’s commitment to regional security. Those concerns have been allayed by the US decision to undertake joint naval and air exercises with South Korea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula. The US also underlined its commitment to freedom of the seas in Asia by undertaking war games in the Yellow Sea despite Chinese threats.

At the same time, Washington has started making overtures to new partners in the region. The US Navy visited Vietnam, for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War.
Building on their March agreement to expand cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the US and Vietnam are discussing a nuclear energy deal with Vietnam deciding to augment its nuclear energy capacity significantly over the next two decades. Despite opposition from human rights groups, the US has announced rehabilitation of American defence links to the Indonesian military’s elite kopassus units that had been suspended for decades.

This new assertiveness vis-à-vis Beijing has been widely welcomed in the region. The remaining members of the ASEAN 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. For China, the issue was all about its sovereign rights and claims to the sea whereas for the rest of the region it was all about freedom of navigation, rights of passage and customary international law. It is under the US provision of public goods for the last several decades that China has emerged as the economic power house it is today. Now it wants a new system in place but a system that only works for Beijing and does not deal with the provision of public goods and common resources will not work. China’s haphazard diplomatic approach and unnecessary bluster on South China Sea has exposed all the myth surrounding Chinese soft power in the region.

Meanwhile, a day after China’s economy was recognised as the world’s second biggest, the US department of defence in its annual report to the Congress on China’s military underlined the advancements the People’s Liberation Army is making across the board in line with its burgeoning economic power. Beijing’s military outlays are the world’ second-highest and have tripled since 2000 to an estimated $100 billion last year well behind Washington’s $617 billion.

The results of China’s military modernisation programme have been quite extraordinary: the largest force of principal combatants, submarines and amphibious warfare ships in Asia, one of the largest forces of surface-to-air missiles in the world, the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile system in the world. The focus of China’s military modernisation programme is on weapons that could deny the ability of American warships to operate in international waters off the cost. But with the military balance in the Taiwan Traits tilting in its favour, China has set its sights much further as it looks to secure its expanding economic interests across the globe.

Against this backdrop of China’s rise and relative US decline, it is imperative that India contribute to the Asian security dynamic to bring greater stability to the region especially as Sino-Indian relations become turbulent with each passing day. The emerging security environment in the Asia-Pacific is likely to revolve around China and the US and each of these powers will have a military with significant offensive capability and unknowable intentions.

The US is investing in new geopolitical partnerships and India is already viewed as a critical balancer in the region. While the Obama Administration will have to court India with a new seriousness of purpose, New Delhi will also have to demonstrate that it is capable of thinking strategically. Ninety years ago, Halford Mackinder, the father of geopolitics, wrote that democracies, unless they are forced into war, simply cannot think strategically. India will have to prove Mackinder wrong if it wants to emerge as a major global player in its own right.

(Published 10 October 2010, 16:22 IST)

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