India Must Not Shy Away From Its Strategic Imperatives

The importance of the South China Sea (SCS) has grown manifold in recent years, primarily for three reasons. One, it is a strategic economic zone due to the busy shipping lanes to the booming economies of Southeast Asia. Two, the area, which is described as “the next Persian Gulf” by some analysts, is believed to hold vast deposits of oil, gas, mineral, and fishery resources. Three, it is home to the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Pratas Islands, the Macclesfield Bank, and the Scarborough Shoal. These Islands can be used as listening and staging posts. Therefore, the region is hotly contested by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines, which collectively form the SCS littoral. Overlapping claims to the territorial waters of the SCS and its islands threaten to turn the region into a flashpoint of global conflict. Ever since the withdrawal of US forces from the Philippines in 1991, China has consistently laid claims to the entire sea. China’s assertiveness has now turned bellicose and overbearing against the backdrop of its growing appetite for energy and fishery resources.

In 1974, China seized the Paracel Islands from the crumbling South Vietnamese regime. It later took over the Spratly Islands from Vietnam and the Mischeef Reef from the Philippines in 1995. Pag-Asa is the biggest in a cluster of the Spratly Islands that the Philippines claim as its own. In 1998, a skirmish between China and Vietnam over the Johnson South Reef led to the deaths of over 70 Vietnamese sailors. There is an ongoing tussle between China, Taiwan, and the Philippines over the Malampaya and Campago gas fields. China steadily and subtly consolidated its hold over these priceless maritime assets by intimidation and coercion. In recent months, there has been a spate of violent flare-ups between China on one side and Vietnam and the Philippines on the other over issues of harnessing of marine resources. The most chilling incident this year is that of May 26, wherein a maritime security vessel of China cut the cables of an oil exploration ship near the Cam Ranh Bay—a strategic naval base in the Vietnamese coast—in violation of the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) charter, which declares, “Freedom of the high seas is to comprise inter alia freedom of navigation, of overflights, of laying cables and pipelines and of fishing and scientific research, subject to the provision of parts vi and viii.” Even China had ratified the charter in 1996. But it would be pertinent to note that China has refrained from any meddling with the right to transit and overflights in the SCS. At an ASEAN meeting in Bali, China even agreed to the guidelines that form the basis of an impending draft on the final code of conduct in the sea. Secretary Clinton had also emphasized the US interest to play a mediatory role among the warring states to propose a collective and collaborative approach for a permanent solution. In 2009, the US offered a pact of “strategic reassurance” to China, in which America would welcome China’s “peaceful rise” if it would be transparent in its aims and objectives of the rapid and robust military build-up, but the pact is yet to take off. China is incensed over anything that is detrimental to its interests—real or perceived. It may be recalled that in 2008, China tried to halt Exxon and BP’s oil exploration bids off Vietnam.

In March 2010, China told America that the SCS is part of its “core interests” and so, “non-negotiable.” Beijing’s ploy is to gradually erode the credibility of US security guarantees to its East Asian security dependents. It seeks to undercut US power projection capabilities by the so-called “anti-access and area denial” strategy, which is based on the use of a wide array of options like sea-skimming missiles, stealthier submarines, anti-ship ballistic missiles, space and cyber warfare capabilities, and ground-based satellite blinders to interdict or destroy hostile ships and bases operating near China’s coastline. To add more teeth to this unfolding strategy, the development of a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent is a doctrinal imperative for China, which believes that only such a form deterrence can keep the US-Japan alliance, which often conduct joint anti-submarine warfare operations in the nearby waters of the Philippine Sea, on a tight leash. China’s recent acquisition of the aircraft carrier Varyag, renamed Shilang, from Ukraine and the development of the Jin class SSBN’s—PLAN’s (PLA Navy’s) second generation ballistic nuclear ship—is the bedrock of this strategy. Such developments threaten US naval supremacy in the crucial Southeast Asian theatre. The rise of a countervailing force that could impinge on its superpower status is anathema to the US.

Weary of the Chinese Navy’s intentions, the Philippines and Vietnam have gravitated towards the US. They are holding joint war games with the US and sharing intelligence. Vietnam is making forays into the various sectors of the Cambodian economy and expanding trade relations to counter the Chinese dominance in its neighborhood. The Philippines sent a congressional delegation to the Pag-Asa Island to assert its sovereignty. Beijing has not defined clearly the basis of its territorial claim to the SCS. Only a dubious map of 1940 shows that the entire sea belongs to China. Beijing’s control over the SCS would not only mean control over its rich and bountiful resources but also control of the crucial trade routes to Japan and South Korea. The dispute involves Chinese claim of sovereignty not only over the island territories, but also over the territorial waters of the SCS, which the other littoral states vehemently reject, as there are interlocking claims on some of those islands. Thus there is a bilateral dispute between China and the other claimants over the lordship of these islands and a multilateral dispute over the territorial waters of the sea.

The US is not a bystander in this imbroglio. It is alarmed by China’s consistent claims over the entire SCS.. The US is the pre-eminent maritime trading state with the world’s largest navy. Any attempt to disrupt navigation rights will surely not go unchallenged. This is the cornerstone of US naval policy since the days of the Barbary wars. Up to a third of global trade passes through the SCS, so preserving freedom of navigation is America’s “national interest”. Obviously the US is leery of getting directly  entangled in this row, mainly because it is not a ‘resident entity’ in the SCS area, but has tenaciously stood up for the right of freedom of navigation and overflights. Apart from the commercial and strategic interests, the US has to uphold security commitments to its regional allies. The US has much to gain by being engaged with them because these economically dynamic states have embarked on a military modernization spree, which will invariably benefit the US military-industrial-complex in the years ahead.

India may not be a part of the littoral, but in sync with the country’s stable economic growth and expanding global profile, securing oil and gas from all possible sources is an obligation of “national interest”. India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the SCS, and the right to passage in accordance with the 2002 declaration of conduct in the sea. On this issue, there is an understandable congruence in Indian and American strategic thinking. For Delhi to safely access the energy resources of the volatile SCS, it must neither confront China nor cave in to its pressure tactics. India’s bulwark against the Chinese threat lies in diversifying its sources of support. India’s sound economic growth gives it the clout to co-opt  partners on issues of mutual interests. As part of its ‘Look and Engage East’ Policy, Delhi has forged strategic ties with some of the littoral states, especially with Vietnam. Delhi needs to build on the momentum in existing ties. India must build tactical linkages with the incipient navies of the SCS region for interoperability purposes and help them in capacity-building to combat piracy and weapons smuggling, and foiling hegemonic designs in the sea. India can help in defusing a crisis if it maintains warm relationships with all the stake-holders and forcefully articulates the merits of stability and shared prosperity – the only way to tide over any upheaval in the SCS. The Annual Defense Dialogue between India and China and the Strategic Dialogue will go a long way in building confidence and resolving complex issues, like China’s objection to Ongc Videsh Limited’s (OVL, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s [ONGC] overseas arm) oil exploration bid off Vietnam and avert skirmishes like that of 22 July between an Indian and Chinese warship.

Delhi’s initiative to set up the Indian Ports Global is a proactive step to expand India’s maritime footprint. By acquiring ports and terminals in the Asian maritime markets, India can evolve into an indispensable business and strategic partner. The over US$60 billion modernization plan to build a 3-dimensional blue water Indian Navy, backed by an  IAF with a tactical reach outgrowing its traditional zone of interest, will help India in asserting its strategic objectives. The new acquisitions will transform the IAF into a ‘network centric’ force with the capacity to rapidly deploy and operate wherever compelling. For India to establish itself as a ‘no-pushover’, an integrated approach between military and diplomacy backed by an unflagging political mandate is a crying need of the hour. China’s difficulties should not be seen as India’s opportunities either. But any rare and ripe opportunity to further the nation’s interests and consolidate its gains should be grabbed with both hands. India’s geostrategic priorities should be guided by pragmatism, progress and principles of power play.