LONDON – An unidentified Chinese warship demanded that the INS Airavat, an amphibious assault vessel, identify itself and explain its presence in the South China Sea after it left Vietnamese waters in late July, London’s Financial Times reported.
The Indian warship was completing a scheduled port call in Vietnam and was in international waters. Although the Indian navy promptly denied that a Chinese warship had confronted its assault vessel, it did not completely deny the factual basis of the report.
The Sino-Indian strategic relationship is rapidly evolving and tensions are building up as was underlined in an incident in 2009 when an Indian kilo-class submarine and Chinese warships, on their way to the Gulf of Aden to patrol the pirate-infested waters, reportedly engaged in rounds of maneuvering as they tried to test for weaknesses in each others sonar systems. The Chinese media reported that its warships forced the Indian submarine to the surface, which was strongly denied by the Indian navy.
China’s military growth over the last decade has exceeded most forecasts with the Chinese military fielding an operational anti-ship ballistic missile, completing a prototype of its first stealth fighter jet and launching its first aircraft carrier for a maiden run over the course of last one year itself. Chinese capabilities are rapidly growing to where it can challenge the status quo in the Pacific.
The latest Pentagon report on the modernization of Chinese military warns India about the rapid advances Beijing is making in improving infrastructure near the border areas with India and in strengthening its deterrence posture by replacing liquid-fueled nuclear capable CSS-2 IRBMs with more advanced and survivable solid-fueled CSS-5 MRBM systems. The PLA navy will be building several additional aircraft carriers to enhance its naval fleet in addition to the Kuznetsov-class carrier (Varyag).
It is likely that Beijing will have its first indigenous carrier achieving “operational capability” as early as 2015. The United States has also suggested that China’s aircraft-carrier-killing ballistic missile, the DF-21D, has reached initial operational capability.
In response to the latest Sino-Indian naval incident, the U.S. called for a collaborative diplomatic process on resolving the disputes related to the South China Sea, underlining its desire to recognize the right of passage through international waters in the South China Sea. Last year, the U.S. Secretary of State had suggested that the South China Sea was of strategic importance to the U.S. and offered to act as a mediator.
India, too, is within its rights to transit through the international waters of South China Sea, and Beijing has no right to question the passage though these waters. Of course, China claims the South China Sea in its entirety but its confrontational posture and rhetoric could easily escalate to a major conflict.
The South China Sea is now one of Asia’s critical strategic flashpoints with some even suggesting that it will be the “military frontline” of China in coming years.
Fears have been rising in Asia that China is seeking to use its growing maritime might to dominate not only the hydrocarbon-rich waters of the South China Sea but also its crucial shipping lanes, the lifeline of regional economies. The U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, used her visit to Asia last year to signal unequivocally that the U.S. was unwilling to accept China’s push for regional hegemony.
When Beijing claimed that it now considers its ownership of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as a “core interest,” Clinton retorted by proposing that the U.S. help establish an international mechanism to mediate the overlapping claims of sovereignty between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
This new U.S. assertiveness vis-à-vis Beijing has been widely welcomed in the region. The other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) strongly endorsed Clinton’s call for multilateral commitment to a code of conduct for the South China Sea rather than China’s preferred bilateral approach.
China has collided with Vietnam and Philippines in recent months over issues related to the exploitation of South China Sea for mineral resources and oil. For the past several decades, the common interests of the sea had been under American guardianship. Now China wants a new system — one that only works for Beijing and does not deal with the provision of public goods or common resources.
India, too, has an interest in protecting the sea lanes of communication that cross the South China Sea to Northeast Asia and the U.S. As India’s profile rises in East and Southeast Asia, it will have to assert its legitimate interests in the East Asian waters.
As China expands its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, India needs to stake its own claims in East Asia. India has decided to work with Vietnam to establish a regular Indian presence in the region as part of a larger Delhi-Hanoi security partnership.
Vietnam has given India the right to use its port of Nha Trang.
While the U.S. remains distracted by economic woes and the challenges of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, Japan is proving unable to tackle its political inertia and emerge as a credible balancer in the region. Thus the regional environment is conducive for assertion by Beijing.
India is right to forcefully reject Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. It should now build credible strategic partnerships with other regional states to prevent a Chinese regional dominance that will undermine Indian and regional security interests.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London.