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State of Play: India & China in South China Sea ; By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0201/2015

Courtesy: DNA India 

India’s enthusiasm for fishing in the troubled waters of the South China Sea (SCS) may give the impression that China is being isolated on the issue. New Delhi’s posturing may lead one to (mistakenly) assume that India is on the frontline of the strategic tussle between China on the one hand and the affected East Asian countries backed by the US on the other. At least, that is how it is made to look in India. The reality is somewhat different.

At the recent Southeast Asian defence ministers’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Manohar Parrikar said that “the situation in the South China Sea and recent developments have attracted interest and concern”. The message to China was that it should back off in the SCS. The message attracted unusual attention because the gathering of ASEAN 10 plus India, US, China, Japan and Australia held back a planned joint declaration — because China objected to any reference to the SCS dispute in it. However, India was bent upon rushing in where the other 14 feared to tread.

China’s claim to the SCS islands has raised tensions in the region because of its land reclamation activities. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan are also claiming historical rights over this area. China and the ASEAN countries had signed a declaration in 2002 for peaceful resolution of the dispute.

China’s land reclamation and heightened assertiveness to the detriment of the other claimants and in violation of the freedom of navigation has drawn in countries from further away. Tensions rose further last week when a US guided-missile destroyer sailed close to China’s man-made islands. Both the US and China resorted to aggressive posturing: China calling it a “provocation” and the US asserting that these were not China’s sovereign territory.

Although a Chinese destroyer and patrol boat shadowed and “warned” the US vessel, there seemed to be an element of play-acting. Around the same time, China and the US staged their first joint military drill in the Atlantic with three warships from each side.

Caught in this balance-of-power game between the US and China are countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, which are affected by China’s actions in the SCS. But, these countries are wary of being snared by the US into a conflict with China. They do not want relations with China to be vitiated by this issue to a point where it affects cooperation on other tracks.

China is acutely aware of this and, as has been its policy, does not allow a dispute to restrain it from pursuing bilateral cooperation, even more vigorously, in other areas. Thus, while India sees its engagement with Japan as something that may rattle Beijing, China and Japan are making the most of a thaw in their relations. The atmosphere and exchanges in the recently concluded Beijing-Tokyo Forum were remarkably upbeat. The two north Asian economic powers were all bhai, bhai at a recent trilateral summit of Japan, China and Korea held in Seoul. Soon after, President Xi Jinping visited Vietnam and Singapore, which brokered a momentous meeting between President Xi and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou, the first such of the cross-Straits leaders in 70 years. Ahead of Xi’s upcoming visit to Manila for the APEC Summit, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has assured that “thorny issues” would be avoided.

To all appearances, China is out to win friends and influence nations (involved in the SCS dispute), and chasing opportunities to shore up trust and expand practical cooperation. In contrast, India, with its loud talk and posturing on the dispute seems to be like a stuck record.

(The author, an independent political foreign affairs commentator, was Senior Editor & Writer with the Global Times and China Daily in Beijing.)

Published Date: Nov 17, 2015

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