Even as India struggles to come to terms with the changing realities in Af-Pak, developments of far greater significance are taking place in East Asia. The geopolitical competition between China and the US is already in full swing in the region. And the main regional actors are rapidly reconfiguring their responses towards China.
Beijing has started claiming that the bulk of the South China Sea constitutes Chinese territorial waters, defining it as a “core national interest”, a phrase previously used in reference to Tibet and Taiwan. This has come as a shock to regional states such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, which also have territorial claims in those waters. The South China Sea passage is too important to be controlled by a single country and that too by one that is located far away from these waters.
When China suggests that it would like to extend its territorial waters—which usually runs to 12 miles—to include the entire exclusive economic zone, which actually extends 200 miles, it is challenging the fundamental principle of free navigation. All maritime powers, including India, have a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.
China has been making strident claims to virtually the entire South China Sea in recent years. This has resulted in its detaining hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen, harassing US ships and other navies and threatening international oil giants to end their exploration deals with Vietnam. The US has been forced to respond to preserve its leadership in the region. At an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting last month, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton suggested that the US was willing to help in mediating conflicting claims in the South China Sea, thereby drawing clear red lines for China.
The US-South Korea joint air and naval exercises last month also irritated Beijing—though they were meant as a show of resolve against North Korea (which in March had torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel called the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors). The Chinese protested against the exercises, describing them as provocative. The US has now confined them to the waters west of Japan.
After being on the sidelines of the South China Sea dispute for the past two decades, the US has now decided to change its posture to reassure its allies in the region that China’s growing regional dominance would not go unchallenged. The dispute in South China Sea is not merely about resources, it is also central to China’s ambitions for a blue-water navy able to operate away from its shores.
That’s another factor weighing in: These waters have also suddenly assumed significance arguably because of the submarine base China has chosen to build in Hainan, to its south, near the Vietnamese coast. This arrangement makes China’s chief maritime nuclear base its southernmost point. It wants the waters around the base clear so that, among other things, no one can track its submarines.
In the last few months, there have been reports of separate confrontations involving the Chinese navy on one side, and the Malaysian navy, the Indonesian navy and the Vietnamese navy, on the other. In April, a flotilla of 10 ships of China’s East Sea Fleet conducted exercises that involved passing through international waters between the main island of Okinawa, Japan, and Miyakojima Island. During these exercises, two Chinese navy helicopters came within 90m of a Japanese destroyer, causing an outcry in Japan.
More significantly, some three weeks before the April incident, six ships of China’s North Sea Fleet— based in the more northern Shandong province—passed through the same Japanese waters to head south to the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, going on to operate in the South China Sea. By purposely deploying the North Sea Fleet, China was demonstrating its great interest in this sea area. Japan’s despatch of large transport vessels to participate in the US humanitarian aid operation “Pacific Partnership” early this year was meant as a response to these Chinese moves.
Meanwhile, South Korea too is re-evaluating its ties with China. In recent years, China has had no better friend than South Korea in the region—a cultural admirer, with residual memories of the close political and cultural ties that existed earlier in history, Seoul is hopeful that Beijing would help stabilize the situation with North Korea. It is China’s largest trading partner in the region, and eagerly hospitable to Chinese visits. Today, Seoul stands disillusioned with Beijing, after it shielded North Korea over the Cheonan incident. Rather than berating Pyongyang, China got the United Nations Security Council statement watered down. As a result, no punishment has been meted out to North Korea.
These changing tides show how China’s soft power in East Asia lies in tatters. The entire premise of China’s “peaceful rise” has come under a cloud. Indian policymakers need a realistic assessment of what China’s rise and growing assertiveness mean for Indian foreign policy priorities.
Harsh V Pant teaches at King’s College, London.
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