Beijing's South China Sea gambit: The view from India

The rising Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea as evident from its unilateral declaration on 29th November, claiming exclusive jurisdiction over disputed islands is a serious concern for India as well as ASEAN nations particularly, Philippines and Vietnam. China has not only rejected the objections raised by these South East Asian nations but has also announced new rules through its Hainan province (which administers the South China Sea for China) to allow for interception of ships passing through the international shipping lanes.

Defense analysts say that Hainan's move is another step in China's bid to solidify its control over much of the sea, which includes crucial navigation lanes over which more than a third of global trade passes. The Chinese step has raised concerns not only in the region of fears that simmering disputes with South East Asian nations will escalate, but also of rising tensions in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region. The Secretary- General of ASEAN, Mr. Surin Pitsuvan has also expressed his anguish in terms of likely serious consequences due to China's high handedness.

What is disturbing is the fact that China boldly advanced its illegal stand over the South China Sea immediately after the recently held East Asian Summit in Cambodia. US President Barack Obama, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as well as the heads of state of Japan, Vietnam and Philippines had categorically objected to the unilateral Chinese claim over the disputed waters. Both India and the US had also emphasised the need of the freedom of navigation in international waters and the honest adherence to the United Nations' Law of the Sea.

Further, China's new leadership, amidst persistent political mistrust over the long running dispute, and more recent differences over passports and visas, has suggested to India to ignore differences so that both neighbours won't let differences and problems stand in the way of taking the relationship forward. This was conveyed by the Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo on Monday, to the visiting India's National Security Advisor, Shivshanker Menon who is in Beijing for talks on the thorny border question.

Mr. Bingguo said that both countries needed "to prevent noise from diverting friendly cooperation and common development." But, despite all these sane suggestions and cordial overtures, China's above mentioned activities are highly obnoxious and detrimental to Indian interests as well as that to ASEAN nations. Perhaps that forced Indian Navy Chief Admiral D. K. Joshi to describe the situation in the South China Sea as "complex," as he said that "India would protect its economic interests in the disputed waters by sending forces, if need be."

All of this ought to be viewed in the context of a rising Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, despite having its very long coast line along Pacific Ocean. Perhaps the Indian Ocean has a specific geo-political significance for China in any regional power-struggle. Here, Maldives occupies a very important position and is a place  where China has invested heavily. during Hu Jintao' tenure. That is why, it has also made heavy investments into the other coastal countries of the region. It is also making serious efforts to forge close ties with countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) wherein it is engaged in the construction of sea-ports and other major projects.

Obviously, it is an important component of China's long term strategy in the Indian Ocean to attract South Asian nations with its huge economic power so that the existing balance of power may shift towards its side. In fact, the South China Sea and Maldives represent increased Chinese activities into Pacific and Indian Ocean, respectively.

Are these developments compatible with India's national interests, particularly with regard to its security, vis a vis China and economic cooperation with these countries? Shouldn't India remain cautious and vigilant? Unfortunately, Indian diplomacy and strategy looks a bit negligent and also reluctantly towards these developments, particularly with regard to Maldives which has cancelled an ambitious Male International Airport's construction contract with India's GMR company causing great loss to Indian interests.

India must remain helpful and extra cooperative to all its South Asian neighbours in order to protect its genuine interests without looking as a "Big Brother" or it will be a big loser.