Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh will be visiting Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia for six days from October 24, 2010. He has to attend the ASEAN summit at Hanoi. He is combining it with bilateral visits to the three countries. 2. China is not expected to be a major issue during his discussions with the Malaysian leaders. Though Malaysia is one of the parties to the dispute with China over the question of sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, it has been favouring a non-confrontational approach to solving the differences among the countries involved without encouraging the interests or involvement of outside powers such as the US.
3. China would be an important issue during the discussions of Dr. Manmohan Singh with the Vietnamese and Japanese leaders. The leaders of all the three countries have valid reasons to be concerned over the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese Navy in projecting its territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas and the Army against India in India’s Arunachal Pradesh area, which the Chinese call southern Tibet. In the territorial disputes, the status quo favours India (in Arunachal Pradesh), Japan and Vietnam. The Chinese have been wanting to change it by strengthening their Navy and their military capability in Tibet. They have started extending their railway line in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region towards the border with Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh and have plans for railway link-ups with Kathmandu and Chittagong. They have launched new projects for upgrading and expanding the highway networks in Tibet and are giving their Air Force, which till now enjoyed less attention than their Navy, a strategic reach beyond their borders as seen during the recent joint exercises of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) and their bilateral joint exercises with the Turkish Air Force in Turkish air space with refueling facilities provided by Pakistan and Iran.
4. The Chinese have also been increasing their strategic presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) in order to strengthen their hold in the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang province and to confront India with a new strategic front with China. They seem determined to go ahead with their plans to supply at least two more nuclear power stations to Pakistan disregarding the opposition from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
5. The over-active Chinese Navy has been harassing Vietnamese fishing and oil/gas exploration vessels in the areas of the South China Sea legitimately belonging to Vietnam and the continuing dispute with Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku group of islands in the East China Sea highlights their determination to challenge the status quo by using their growing naval power. Following Japanese action in capturing a Chinese fishing trawler which trespassed into Japanese territorial waters, they have launched a war of nerves against Japan, started sending military vessels to escort their trespassing fishing trawlers and stopped the export of rare earths to Japan on which Japanese electronic industries are vitally dependent.
6. These are not sporadic developments of a tactical nature. These are evidence of a calculated Chinese strategy to enforce their territorial claims and expand their strategic presence and influence. The port construction projects undertaken by them in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar and proposals for a similar project in Chittagong in Bangladesh are part of the same long-term strategy to expand their strategic frontier. A wake-up call about the Chinese attempts to expand their strategic frontier was recently sounded by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a talk in Washington DC.
7. As the countries most threatened by the Chinese strategy, India, Japan and Vietnam should put their heads together as to how to deal with it without unnecessarily creating a confrontational situation. This subject should be discussed by Dr. Manmohan Singh during his forthcoming visit to Japan and Vietnam. Among the options that could be considered are forming a Hanoi Co-operation Organisation (HCO) similar to the Shanghani Cooperation Organisation (SCO) floated by China and Russia with some Central Asian countries some years ago. The main objective of the SCO was defined as protecting the member-countries from the three evils of terrorism, extremism and splittism. The main objective of the proposed HCO could be promoting co-operative ways of monitoring and assessing threats to regional security from state and non-state actors and helping each other in strengthening their respective capacities.
8. The US, as the major naval power of the region with concerns over the Chinese naval assertiveness and the increase in its activities in the Indian Ocean region, should be an additional member of this organisation along with South Korea which has similar concerns. Initially, the founding membership of the organisation should be confined to these five countries—-India, Vietnam. Japan, South Korea and the US. After it gets going satisfactorily, proposals for its expansion could be considered.
9. India should take advantage of the forthcoming visit of President Barack Obama to New Delhi to discuss this with him in the light of the Prime Minister’s discussions in Hanoi and Tokyo.
(Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group. The writer Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com)