Reports suggest that after completing its port call in southern Vietnam, an Indian ship, INS Airavat, was “confronted” by the Chinese navy. The ship was cruising to another port, Hai Phong, in the northern part of the country. It was challenged off the Vietnamese coast.
The ministry of external affairs issued a statement saying that “at a distance of 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea, it was contacted on open radio channel by a caller identifying himself as the ‘Chinese Navy’ stating that ‘you are entering Chinese waters’. No ship or aircraft was visible from INS Airavat, which proceeded on her onward journey as scheduled.” The statement added that “there was no confrontation involving INS Airavat”. The incident, reported by the Financial Times, occurred on 22 July.
This may be true. But what cannot be denied is the aggressive intent behind such communication. It certainly fits into a pattern observed over the past few years.
India and Chinese soldiers have often confronted each other while patrolling land borders that they claim as their own. These are disputed territories that led to a war between the two countries in 1962. There has been peace since then, until the frictions of the last one-two years. What has changed now?
A lot. Since 1978, China has grown by leaps and bounds. In the decades ahead it will move to within catching distance of the US, the world’s biggest economy. At the same time, the US is facing economic problems. While its ability to project military power anywhere on the globe remains undiminished, China’s military prowess has grown tremendously.
Historically, there have been few examples of a rising Great Power that has not had to muscle its way up. This process always involves friction, confrontation and even war. History is replete with such examples. It should surprise no one that there can be a repeat performance in South or South-East Asia. What needs to be appreciated is that India and its zone of interests lie on a major geopolitical fault line.
The naval “engagement” off Vietnam is the first time the navies of the two countries have been in such a situation. It will not be the last. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, a calm appreciation of the situation and build-up of defensive (and offensive) military capabilities are needed.
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