June 29, 2011

Changing power balance in E. Asia:The implications for India

by Harsh V. Pant

MARITIME disputes in the South China Sea are once again hitting the headlines. Vietnam and China are at odds over a recent incident between a Vietnamese survey ship and Chinese patrol boats in waters off the southern coast of Vietnam, and the Philippines is protesting China's recent unloading of building materials on Amy Douglas Bank, an area claimed by the Philippines. This is a repeat of last year when China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea caused a lot of rancour in the region and beyond.

What the present disputes underline, however, is that the geopolitical competition between China and the US is in full swing. The Obama Administration tried to pursue a policy of cooperative strategic engagement vis-à-vis China. It attempted to construct a cooperative partnership under the assumption that China wants to operate within the international order given that the US and China share same threats and interests, including terrorism, economic instability and nuclear proliferation. As was suggested by Hillary Clinton, the multi-polar world would be a multi-partner world where the US could use its unique global role to foster cooperation among major powers for collective benefits.

China was key to this worldview. The Obama Administration went all out to woo Beijing - Obama refused to meet the Dalai Lama, did not raise the issue of human rights while visiting China last year, postponed the decision to sell arms to Taiwan and downgraded India in America’s strategic calculus. But China read it as a symbol of US decline and saw it an opportunity to assert itself as never before. The regional allies of the US became nervous and urged the US to restore its traditional leadership in the region.

This changing Sino-US dynamic is palpable on the issue of expansive claims in the South China Sea and America’s response to the challenge. The US has undertaken military exercises with South Korea to underline commitments and has even offered to mediate on disputes in the South China Sea, much to Beijing’s irritation. Beijing has claimed that the bulk of the South China Sea constitutes Chinese territorial waters, defining it as a “core national interest,” a phrase previously used in reference to Tibet and Taiwan.

This came as a shock to regional states such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan who also have territorial claims in the sea. This sea passage is too important to be controlled by a single country and that too by one that is located far away from these waters. Hillary Clinton responded that the US was willing to help in mediating conflicting claims in the South China Sea, thereby drawing clear red lines for China.

The US-South Korea joint air and naval exercises also irritated Beijing though they were meant as a show of resolve in response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. The Chinese protested against the exercises describing them as being provocative, especially about the possible presence of US aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea, directly off their coast. The US went ahead with the exercises but confined it to the waters west of Japan.

China has made strident claims to virtually the entire South China Sea in recent years. This has resulted in the detention of hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen, the harassment of US and other navies and threats to international oil giants aimed at ending their exploration deals with Hanoi.

After being on the sidelines of the South China Sea dispute for the past two decades, the US has now decided to change its posture to reassure its allies in the region that China’s growing regional dominance would not go unchallenged. The dispute in South China Sea is not merely about resources, it is also central to China’s ambitions for a blue water navy able to operate away from its shores. The South China Sea has also suddenly assumed significance arguably because of the SSBN base China has chosen to build in Hainan to the south, partly enveloped by the Vietnamese coast. The choice of Hainan is poor, but no alternative exists as other places are hemmed in by islands. So, China's chief maritime nuclear base is also what is for now her southern-most point. It wants the waters around clear so that, among other things, no one can track China’s subs.

Last year there were reports of confrontations involving the Malaysian Navy, the Indonesian Navy and the Vietnamese Navy each separately with the PLA Navy. It was in April 2011 that a flotilla of 10 ships of the Chinese Navy's East Sea Fleet conducted exercises that involved passage through international waters between the main island of Okinawa and Miyakojima Island. During these exercises, two Chinese Navy helicopters came within about 90 meters of a Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer of Japan watching over the exercises. There was an outcry in the Japanese media over this dangerous act.

More significantly, some three weeks before the April incident, six ships of the Chinese Navy's North Sea Fleet based in Qingdao, Shandong province, passed through the waters between the Okinawa and Miyakojima islands, headed to the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, and went on to operate in the South China Sea. By purposely deploying the North Sea Fleet, China was demonstrating its great interest in this sea area.

Japan's dispatch of large SDF transport vessels to participate fully in the humanitarian aid operation "Pacific Partnership" led by the US early this year was meant as a response to China's moves. This is happening even as South Korea is re-evaluating its ties with China. Seoul is disillusioned with Beijing’s shielding of North Korea from the global outrage over the Cheonan incident when North torpedoed the 88-meter-long warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors last year in March. China even watered down a presidential statement from the UN Security Council condemning the attack in which North Korea was not even identified as the culprit. As a result, no punishment was meted out.

China would like to extend its territorial waters, which usually run to 12 miles, to include the entire exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles. China is challenging the fundamental principle of free navigation. All maritime powers, including India, have a national interest in the freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea. But India should also be aware of the changing balance of power dynamic between the US and China, and fashion its foreign policy accordingly.n

The writer teaches at King’s College, London.

1 comment:

Power Balance Green said...

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