In July, an Indian warship, INS Jalashva, leaving the port of Nha Trang in Vietnam, heard a message on a commercial maritime radio channel, monitored by all vessels entering or leaving ports, asking a ship to leave waters which fell under China’s sovereignty. Nothing was in sight nor was there any contact on radar to indicate the source of the transmission, and the warship continued on her assigned deployment unhindered. In certain conditions radio waves at sea travel far beyond the expected ranges and quite often communications off Karachi are heard off Mumbai. In this case, it is not known if this was the case, but the Chinese did not follow up this ‘encroachment’, leading to the inference that this was just a case of much ado about nothing.
More recently, however, there has been a more visible manifestation of China’s assertive posturing. In an official communication to the Indian government, China has protested an Indian joint venture with Vietnam for offshore exploration of oil in that country’s Exclusive Economic Zone on the basis that those waters form part of Chinese territory. Our government has responded firmly by saying that the work is being done adhering to international laws and no infringement of China’s waters was involved. A Chinese news agency known to be close to the Establishment has put out a strong Op-Ed more or less condemning the Indian action. The fact that this happened just as the Indian foreign minister visited Vietnam has been seen as a deliberate and well considered move by Beijing. We may not have heard the last on this subject.
China’s claims over the South China Sea, exaggerated as they are, have to be seen in a larger context and not just sovereignty over a few islands — i.e., the Spratly and the Paracel groups, some mere rocky outcrops. The Chinese, despite their recent stress on maritime prowess as an important constituent of state power, have still to shed traditional continental mindsets in which territory is not just land. For them, the sea is simply an extension of the coast and when they claim historical sovereign rights in these waters, they are, in effect, claiming the entire land and sea areas as one over which they had ‘historically’ exercised control. In this understanding, rules such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have only marginal application.
On the other hand, several countries of South East Asia such as Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia and Taiwan claim parts of these waters as theirs, based on UNCLOS provisions. It is obvious that the two positions can never meet. China wants to negotiate with each of these nations bilaterally while they, recognising their weakness vis-à-vis their giant neighbour, would prefer to act as a group. An agreement concluded between China and South East Asian countries to maintain tranquility is just a piece of paper which has already begun to unravel, with incidents involving Philippines. Chinese media commentaries, most with the clear backing of the government, have continued to be assertive on the issue. It is in this background that the recent interface between China and India in Vietnam should be seen.
Chinese postures also have a larger strategic dimension, flowing from India’s increasing friendship with Vietnam and, indeed, its relationship with the USA. There is insecurity in Beijing that these interfaces are structured to ‘contain’ China. India has always maintained that these bilateral interactions and, indeed, many others, are not geared towards China with which it would like to have as strong a relationship, recognising its position as a major world power. Despite several quite positive meetings between leaders of the two countries, the deficit of trust remains. Both countries are going to be serious competitors not only for energy resources but also markets. The prime minister has said that in the emerging global environment there is space for both but it is not easy to overcome suspicions, on the Indian side as much as in China. Media on both sides, more so in India, can often overhype relatively ordinary incidents and it is the responsibility of both governments to tone down rhetoric.
That having been said, India has responded correctly, without taking any confrontational positions. The situation in the South China Sea and, for that matter, in the East China Sea (where China, Japan and South Korea have ongoing disputes over the sovereignty of some islands) is of increasing concern to several countries including the US, which has its own interests to safeguard even though it is not directly involved in the disputes; access to these waters is critical to its Asia-Pacific strategies. Nearly half of India’s overseas trade passes through the South China Sea and beyond, and the quantum will only increase as the years go by. Turmoil in this region will have adverse effects on India’s economic growth, as it will impact its trade not only with South East Asia, Japan and Korea but equally with China which, already, is India’s largest trading partner. There is, therefore, need to tread these waters with caution, without compromising on our fundamental interests.
There are also potentially worrying issues in the Indian Ocean which need to be kept in mind. While deployment of PLA Navy ships in these waters and development of ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar with Chinese assistance is perfectly legitimate and a sovereign decision of those countries, their possible utilisation as naval facilities by China will be a different matter and of concern not only to India but to others. There is need to watch the situation closely and to ensure that our own capabilities keep pace with the developing situation. Our diplomacy must be in sync and ensure that scenarios inimical to India’s interests at sea are not allowed to take root. Developing closer relations with Sri Lanka and Myanmar must be important constituents of this strategy.
Unlike in Europe of the Cold War days, where the security environment lay centered on land, in Asia, the maritime theatre will play the defining role — whether in the Indian Ocean or in the East and South China Seas — and threats, traditional as well as otherwise, will largely emanate at and from the sea. With security of energy and overseas trade becoming two important pillars of economic growth, India’s security is no longer simply predicated on ensuring sanitisation of its land borders; it is equally about safeguarding its interests at sea, and recent events have only served as a warning which we can not afford to ignore.
The author is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command
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