By M K Bhadrakumar
India, which has been wetting its toes sporadically in the South China Sea in the recent years, is apparently taking the plunge to wade waist-deep into the troubled waters. It is a historic move – be it there is no clarity whether merely tactical or strategic. But it is historic; India’s “Look East” policy acquires swagger. The Sino-Indian geostrategic rivalry is not going to be the same again.
Two months ago, an unidentified caller on an open radio channel hailed an Indian naval ship INS Airavatas as it was leaving Vietnam after a “goodwill visit”, and advised it to lay off the South China Sea. The Chinese denied Beijing’s involvement in the incident. India kept an ambiguous silence over the incident, which the Western media played up.
But this time around, the spat is for real and is inflammable. It has to do with exploration projects by Indian state-owned company Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Videsh Limited (ONGC Videsh) in two offshore blocks that Vietnam claims. The Indian establishment selectively “leaked” ONGC Videsh’s move just ahead of the visit by India’s external affairs minister SM Krishna to Hanoi this week, presumably to draw out Beijing into a reaction.
Beijing promptly obliged by taking exception to India engaging in oil and gas exploration projects in the disputed South China Sea. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said in reply to a query: ”Our consistent position is that we are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction.”
While maintaining that Beijing was not aware of any Indian involvement in any project in the South China Sea, the spokesperson stressed that China enjoyed ”indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea and its islands. Then came the swipe. ”We hope foreign countries will not get involved in the dispute. For countries outside the region, we hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve this dispute through bilateral channels.”
The Indian spokesman promptly reacted in Delhi to the Chinese foreign ministry statement insisting, ”Our cooperation with Vietnam or any other country is always as per international laws, norms and conventions … cooperation with Vietnam in the area of energy and to secure India’s energy security is very important. There are a number of Indian companies already operational and we are looking at further enhancing the cooperation in the years ahead.”
Oil slicks can spread…
The Indian contention, as articulated by unidentified official sources to the Delhi media, is that the dispute in the South China Sea is strictly bilateral between China and Vietnam and that is something to be addressed within the framework of international law. ”In the meantime, it is in public knowledge that we [India] are going ahead with expanding our ties with Vietnam.”
ONGC Videsh has been active in Vietnam for some years already and is now expanding its activities. The subject is on Krishna’s agenda of talks in Hanoi. Meanwhile, other private Indian companies are also beginning to scout around for exploration work in the disputed offshore fields. The ball is now on Krishna’s court. How he takes the discord forward, whether he pushes the envelope, how assertively he is going to do that – all this is going to set the tempo for Sino-Indian interactions in a near future.
This is by no means a quarrel over energy security or international law. It is a carbon copy of the triangular equations involving China, Pakistan and India. Replace Vietnam with Pakistan and the South China Sea spat is almost a replay of the Indian disquiet about the burgeoning Sino-Pakistan alliance. That alliance is virtually cascading in front of Indian eyes and Beijing blithely pretends it doesn’t notice. Not a month passes without some Pakistani dignitary or the other cogitating with the Chinese political and military leadership.
Far more important is China stepping up its involvement in the disputed part of Kashmir that India claims as its territory but which is under Pakistani occupation and Delhi has named ‘Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’ [POK]. A recent Chinese commentary attributed to an influential strategic thinker, Pan Guang, Director of the Shanghai Center for International Studies and Institute of European and Asian Studies and concurrently the Director of SCI Studies Centre in Shanghai suggested that China might be on the brink of using the Karakorum and the POK territory for developing communication links with Afghanistan. Pan claimed that the matter was under the active consideration of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization following discussions with Beijing.
Pan wrote in an article in China-US Focus titled ”China and US in Central Asia: Role of the SCO and Possibility of Cooperation in Afghanistan”:
”Even though China has not sent its troops to Afghanistan, the Chinese support for the allied forces in the country is widely observable.
”At present, the United States and NATO are considering three options for involving China in the logistic replenishment for Afghan actions. First, China is required to open the Wakhan Corridor on the Sino-Afghan border as a channel for providing logistic support for NATO troops. But the corridor, over 5,000 meters in altitude, has very challenging topography and climate, posing serious technical difficulties to any passage. Second, highways and railways in China are used for transporting goods into the Pakistani Part of Kashmir, to be further trans-shipped into Afghanistan. Third, Goods are to be shipped to Gwadar, the Pakistani port constructed and managed by the Chinese companies, before they are transported into Afghanistan on land. For the moment, the second option is being focused upon by the two parties in negotiation.”
Conceivably, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. What is absolutely clear is that Delhi took a calculated decision to nudge Beijing. Vietnam is a unique strategic option for Delhi to make Beijing comprehend the depth of Indian feelings about China’s ties with Pakistan. The parallel is almost complete insofar as there is a lot of empathy that India would have from other Southeast Asian countries with involvement in the South China Sea dispute – and from Japan – just as China enjoys in the South Asian region among the small countries surrounding India with which India has had difficult relationships.
… but conflict is unlikely
India has shied away from the US attempts to get it onto a bandwagon along with its other Asian allies but has preferred to go it alone so that the current spat is strictly ‘bilateral’ and its resolution would have to be within the Sino-Indian framework. Delhi could be probing the scope for ground rules with Beijing guiding their behavior in each other’s ‘spheres of influence’ that are equitable and sustainable and based on mutual advantage. The issue here is whether China would see things that way.
For China, its ties with Pakistan or any other South Asian country are not necessarily “India-centric”. Nor can India openly claim the South Asian region to be its “sphere of influence” where China is obliged to calibrate its behavior to suit Delhi’s sensitivities. Over and above, China’s expanding interest in the Indian Ocean region is of such far-reaching consequence to its global strategies that it will be hard-pressed to curb them in order to accommodate the Indian sensitivities. In sum, therefore, a new chapter is commencing in the Sino-Indian geostrategic rivalry.
The pattern of conflict and cooperation inherent in the Sino-Indian relationship is acquiring a new template. In a masterly recent work on India’s foreign policy, Does the Elephant Dance?, David Malone, who served as Canada’s High Commissioner to India during 2006-2008, wrote with great prescience:
”While there can be no certainty with respect to either possible future conflict or sustained cooperation between India and China, the likelihood is a mix of security-related tension and economic cooperation. Outright war is highly unlikely – both sides have too much to lose. But the two nations will continue to rub against each other, with unpredictable outcomes, as they seek to expand their respective spheres of influence.”
Indeed, the economic relationship is rapidly growing. Ironically, on the same day that the Indian foreign-policy establishment chose to “prick” the Chinese sensitivities over South China Sea, the Indian finance ministry took a huge leap forward to encourage Chinese investments in India.
The Indian government decided to allow Indian companies to borrow in yuan up to a new ceiling of US$1 billion. The move aims at facilitating borrowing from China whose cost of credit is low for India’s infrastructure development.
So far India allowed overseas borrowing only in US dollar, euro, yen or pound sterling. In essence, Indian private companies are being enabled to place big orders with Chinese suppliers, especially for power-generation equipment.Arguably, the rapidly developing trade and economic ties between adversaries could have a calming effect on their choler and passions.
On the other hand, the South China spat also shows that despite the booming trade and economic ties, the Sino-Indian relationship is characterized by lingering suspicion and mistrust, which can be inflamed at any moment willfully or otherwise as their competition for influence in South Asia and neighboring regions or the sheer expansion of their international economic interests and their military reach acquires bigger momentum – although neither country is expansionist in territorial terms.
One thing is for sure. All major foreign policy moves and most minor moves in Delhi are directly handled in the prime minister’s office in Delhi with the foreign ministry taking a back seat in the recent past and confining itself to articulating policies rather than crafting them. Put simply, the current spat carries the imprimatur of the Indian prime minister’s office.
That brings up a tangential question. It is widely perceived that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is currently at the lowest point in his trajectory as a politician. A sense of exasperation is growing with his government, which seems to exist for no greater logic than that politics is about power. His trusted mandarins are keenly looking for ways to put a feather on the boss’s cap. A last-minute decision by Manmohan to attend the United Nations General Assembly session in New York next week is seen as an exercise in “image-building”.
However, he is yet to get an okay from US President Barack Obama for a “one-on-one”. The Americans apparently plead “scheduling difficulty”, which is often a diplomatic metaphor for disinterest. Would the fables streaming in from the South China Sea in the past 48 hours incentivize a last-minute change of heart in the White House?
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
- China tells India to stay away from South China Sea (Rediff) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- India rebuffs China’s objections to oil exploration in Vietnam (Economic Times) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)