As tensions rise between US and China, and the ripple effect of Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea spreads, India’s hand is being forced, Harsh V Pant writes.
The Cold War between the United States and China over the South China Sea is heating up. Washington has raised the stakes on China’s “militarisation” of the South China Sea, warning that “specific actions will have specific consequences,” if it continues down the path of militarising the region.
The US is planning joint exercises around the South China Sea and intends to spend US$8 billion on submarines and undersea drones. India’s role in the dispute is also assuming a new dimension – particularly at a time when China is deploying advanced radar systems in the Spratly Islands archipelago and missiles on Woody Island, and the US is encouraging its allies to carry out their own freedom of navigation operations to challenge Beijing’s controversial assertions of maritime sovereignty.
Last month it was reported that the United States and India held talks about conducting joint naval patrols that could possibly include the disputed South China Sea. The US and Indian government officials were quick to dismiss the story. Washington suggested that while the US and India have a shared vision of peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, the two countries were not planning joint maritime patrols in the Indian Ocean or South China Sea. China, not surprisingly, reacted swiftly and angrily.
Even though it seems clear that the US and India are not yet ready for joint patrols, the trial balloon sent out to the media to gauge the audience’s reaction is indicative of the rapidly evolving Indian position on one of the key strategic disputes in Asia.
A number of factors are forcing India’s hand. The US has been forced to adopt a more robust posture in the Indo-Pacific, the dramatic acceleration in American military commitment largely down to the astonishing rise of China, which is on the cusp of becoming a serious regional military power. This transition appears all the more menacing because of China’s aggressive posturing in the East and South China Seas, challenging the freedom of navigation in these waters and open access to the global commons.
Since most of China’s territorial conflicts are spread across the East and South China Seas, naval force projection has gained uncharacteristic momentum for a country that has not had a continental mind-set. China’s maritime strategy and its increasing capabilities may simply overwhelm the smaller powers in the region. With respect to extra-regional powers such as the United States, China’s singular objective is to deny them any operational space in its oceanic sphere of influence.
Against this background, Obama’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia represents a simultaneous attempt to warn China away from using heavy-handed tactics against its neighbours and provide confidence to other Asia-Pacific countries that want to resist pressure from Beijing now and in the future. In response, China has accused Washington of seeking maritime hegemony in the name of freedom of navigation after the US Navy’s attempts to demonstrate its power in China’s vicinity.
American officials have found a strategic partnership with India attractive, especially in guarding the Indian Ocean from the negative fallouts of China’s rapid rise. Washington continues to express its appreciation of India as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region. Maritime security cooperation between India and the United States has become a strategic necessity, especially for sustaining a favourable strategic equilibrium as Chinese power rises. American strategy, according to some in Washington, should focus on supporting Indian pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean and closer US-India strategic cooperation.
India has had to respond to these growing expectations and it has its own reasons for challenging China. China’s antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden have raised hackles, with some in the Indian Navy questioning the need for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s continuous deployment of two frontline warships and a tanker.
But the rivalry also extends to waters beyond Malacca. If, for China, the Indian Ocean is not an Indian lake, New Delhi’s imperative is to contest impressions in Beijing that the waters east of Malacca automatically fall under the latter’s sphere of influence. India’s naval engagement in the east, therefore, has also been a reaction to China’s expansion in the Indian Ocean region. The turf war between the two navies, as both nations further prosper and seek greater roles in regional dynamics, is set to grow.
Least ideologically driven and also the most strategic-minded of all the services in India’s defence establishment, the navy has long articulated the need to expand India’s maritime vision. This ambitious thinking is evident in its policy documents, as well as in its increasing maritime engagement with states across the Indo-Pacific. Indian naval officials and maritime strategists seem to favour a ‘naval forward strategy’ that, logically speaking, could extend eastward into the South China Sea and the Pacific Rim.
In their recent joint statements both the US and India have repeatedly declared their support for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, signalling that the Modi government is not reluctant to highlight New Delhi’s convergence with Washington on regional issues. India’s engagements with states like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines have become more serious. India has publicly supported Vietnam and the Philippines in their disputes with China, Indian naval ships have visited Vietnam in the South China Sea region, and the two nations have continued to cooperate on hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea despite Beijing’s warnings.
Joint patrols with the US or not, India is conceiving a new and more ambitious role for itself in East Asia and Indo-US interests in the region are converging at an unprecedented rate. It is now up to Delhi and Washington to take full advantage of these developments.