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South China Sea, India and China’s Assertiveness

The recent news that the Chinese navy spooked the Indian warship INS Airavat sailing the South China Sea, should not have surprised anybody.  The Airavat received a radio message warning it was in Chinese waters and should leave.  Of course, it was equally not surprising that a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman in Beijing replied to press enquiry that they did not have any record on the issue.

On August 18, the official Chinese news agency the Xinhua, produced a report from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily titled “India Moves Closer to Vietnam”. The report commented that India and Vietnam have recently stepped up their military ties, and that on July 19 the INS Airavat, at Vietnam’s invitation, visited the Nha Trang port in Southern Vietnam, an important US military base during the Vietnam war and still equipped militarily.

The Xinhua also referred to the November 2000 “Mekong-Ganga cooperation agreement between India, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as an indication of joint efforts between India and Vietnam to compete with China, and diminish China’s economic influence over Vietnam.  It may be recalled that from the late 1990s Chinese official media articles have been warning India to keep out of South China Sea.

Even if many Indians do not, the Chinese strategists look back to history not only to learn for the future but also to interpret and assert their territorial claims.  Few Indian strategists emphasise India’s historic connections and peaceful influence on most of the South East Asian countries.  The Angkor Vat temples in Cambodia, historical relics in Laos, the Hindu influence in Indonesia (Bali) are living examples.  Many names in these countries bear likeness to Hindu names and in Indonesia, the Ramayana still remains relevant.  Buddhism went to China from India, but also to South East Asia. The most important aspect is that the Indian influence spread peacefully, unlike invasion by the Chinese as historical records show.  In Malaysia, the Indian diaspora was never involved in political subversion, while the Chinese diaspora was. India has a mixed relationship with Japan.  While during World War II, many Indians supported the British and the Allied Powers, the great Indian freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose took support from the Japanese to fight British colonial rule in India.

Many Chinese strategists believe that a spark from India’s side could start a chain of policy changes among the countries of East Asia – South East Asia region, especially when faced with China’s suffocating pressure.  Many of these countries would want India’s presence to balance all forces.  Vietnam is a special case because Hanoi’s relationship with not only New Delhi but the people of India go back to the colonial period.  India won its independence in 1947, and the struggle involved both Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful approach, and militant acts as represented by Bose, Bhagat Singh and Khudiram Bose among many others.  It was natural, therefore, for the Indian people to have empathy for Vietnam.

The Chinese are concerned about USA’s reentry into the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) after a hiatus of more than a decade, being preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is seen in the re-emergence of power projection – both military and financial enticement power of the US in the region.  But India’s soft power, which is now a combination of positive historical and current relationships with countries in this region, and its rising economic power (which has brought with it political, economic and a credible military power and self-confidence) has become a new challenge for Beijing. This is the kind of soft power like flowing water which can cut through stones.  Beijing, which thinks in terms of decades, half-centuries and centuries, therefore sees India as a difficult competitor eventually.

Chairman Mao Zedong was a great believer in history as a strategic teacher. Chinese historians studied the footprints and soft power of ancient India.  The decision was apparently taken to crush independent India in its embryonic stage and damage it psychologically.  Mao succeeded to a significant extent, when the 1962 India-China war psychologically debilitated the Indian army and the foreign policy establishment extensively.  India has recovered to a great extent from that mental arrest, but may not be totally.

But the rapid changes taking place in India has not been missed by China.  At the same time Beijing’s strategy to build an antagonistic circle around India has not diminished. Only, there has been an incremental readjustment of strategy.  The India-China bilateral trade of $ 60 billion, projected to increase to $ 100 billion by 2015 is an advertisement of the good relations between the two countries. But the trade is heavily in China’s favour with China importing mainly raw material (iron ore) which it direly requires.  Chinese exports to India, though comprising     $ 40 billion of the $ 60 billion do not help India’s economic base, and Beijing continues to close doors to exports India wants.

Reacting to the recent US Defence Department’s Annual Report on China which remarked on China’s military threat to India, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun, remarked (August, Sept 01) that “ China and India are not enemies, not opponents, but nighbours and partners”.

To understand the deception of Chinese official statements it is necessary to consider the following.  Apart from the South China Sea / INS Airavat issue discussed above, why did the PLA take part in a military exercise with the Pakistani army along India’s border, apart from continuously arming Pakistan’s military and nuclear weapons establishment?  China has bribed Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa and his family, according to Sri Lankan media reports, to facilitate Chinese influence in Sri Lanka including in the area of sea port, roads and infrastructure and establishment of Chinese military companies. The Chinese have not contradicted these reports.  Nor has the Sri Lankan President’s office, apparently because the reports were authentic and based on documents.  Finally, just before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s official visit to Bangladesh (Sept 06-07), which has raised a hype on India-Bangladesh friendship in Dhaka, the Chinese decided to write off a loan to Bangladesh.  China has also changed its position on the Kashmir issue in favour of Pakistan.   Chinese activities on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along the India – China border cannot be ignored either.  Lastly, in the South Asian context, China’s involvement in Nepal to counter Indian influence has to be taken into calculation.  How innocent are these developments?

Coming to the case of a Chinese fishing vessel equipped with survey and ocean mapping equipment, which was found trawling the Indian Ocean just outside Indian waters, the bigger picture must be seen.  There should no longer be any doubt over China’s determination to deploy its navy heavily in the Indian Ocean as its naval strength grows.  The Indian Ocean is a major life line for China’s energy and raw material imports and securing ocean lanes is of the highest importance.  Therefore, the potential for conflict in the future is very alive.

Over more than a decade China has been converting large fishing vessels for espionage and small skirmishes.  This was amply demonstrated against Japan in 2010 and in the South China Sea against the Philippines this year.  Mapping of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea has been in operation since Chinese naval ships started paying friendly visits to and holding joint exercises with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. These are military preparations that countries undertake.  India has to take these developments into account and prepare its own strategic responses. Complaining about China is not a solution.

The Indian government has reacted with restraint.  It would be futile to react strongly, as that would give Beijing an opportunity convert its covert counter-India strategy into another verbal duel.  India has no intention of discarding its independent foreign policy and join alliances to counter China.  The Indian government is fully aware of what China is doing, and New Delhi has a large measure of patience.   But  Beijing  must  not  read  this  as  weakness.   India  will continue to pursue its interest, and China must understand that its stance on South China Sea will not make India accept it as China’s sovereign territory or core interest.  China has no historical or legal rights here, and opinions inside China are also beginning to understand it.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email: grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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