Friction between India and China has expanded from South Asia to East Asia. Reacting to two oil exploration blocks offered by Vietnam to India in the South China Sea, China has called on countries to refrain from such ventures because of its "indisputable sovereignty" over the Sea. India has firmly rebuffed these objections by stating that its cooperation with Vietnam or with any other country is always as per international laws, norms and conventions, reiterating, furthermore, that it "supports freedom of navigation in South China Sea" . This prompt and emphatic Indian reaction is refreshing.
China's protest blatantly disregards its own policies in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir. It has built the strategic Karakoram Highway there and will assist in upgrading it, besides building a railway line in the area to strengthen links with Sinkiang. It is working on hydro-projects in the territory through which it also plans a pipeline to connect Sinkiang to Gwadar for transport of oil from the Gulf.
Given Pakistan's territorial claims on J&K, China's occupation of Aksai Chin and the deep strategic cooperation between the two, India cannot but see the increased Chinese presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir(which includes the Northern Territories) as a threat of military encirclement in J&K. Our Army Chief has publicly expressed concern about the presence of 3 to 4 thousand Chinese, including PLA troops, in POK.
China is progressively integrating POK into its geo-political strategy in Central Asia and the Indian Ocean area. Pakistan is compliant as, besides signifying China's backing for Pakistan's sovereignty over POK, China's enlarged presence there makes it increasingly an interested party to the "dispute". If China is making such large investments in POK it no doubt intends to protect them diplomatically, and even militarily if the need arises.
To further its strategy, China has begun questioning India's legal status in J&K by issuing stapled visas, which, significantly, it does not issue to POK residents. It did not demur when the "Chief Minister" of Gilgit-Baltistan and the "Prime Minister" of the so-called "Azad Kashmir" accompanied President Zardari to Sinkiang in early September.
China's objection to ONGC's exploration activity in Vietnamese off-shore blocks is part of its muscle-flexing in the South China Sea where it is locked up in maritime disputes with Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. It is implicitly ruling out any negotiated solution except on its own terms by unilaterally declaring the Sea as constituting its core national interest. The extraordinary scope of the Chinese claim will make the waters virtually a Chinese lake. Both US and India have underlined the principle of freedom of navigation more than once in response to China's untenable claims.
China's aggressive posture is dictated by long term strategic goals, which it considers sufficiently vital to risk stoking concerns about its rapid rise as a power. It seeks to break through the chain of island countries ringing it in the east, constituted by Japan, Taiwan and the Phillipines, all US allies. It has plans to operate a number of aircraft carriers, the first of which has begun sea-trials; it is expanding its conventional and nuclear submarine fleet and modernizing its destroyer and frigate fleet. Its blue water naval ambitions compel unhindered access to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
China's strategy is to initially deny the US the level of domination it exercises currently in the South China Sea. It had earlier warned the US against sending its aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea for exercises with South Korea. The US is already concerned about the developing Chinese capability to target moving American aircraft carriers with anti-ship ballistic misiles up to a distance of 2000 miles, which will make it more difficult for the US to deploy its assets close to the Chinese mainland, changing the deterrence balance in the Straits of Taiwan.
China is now too powerful financially and too economically integrated for any containment policy. With the US and European economies suffering from recession and a menacing sovereign debt crisis looming over the horizon, China's growth and its continued investment in US Treasury bonds and purchase of a part of the sovereign debt of affected European countries is, in fact, seen as providing relief.
China's options too are currently circumscribed because of its need for world markets for maintaining its growth rates as well as its internal political stability threatened by the social fractures caused by the grossly unequal distribution of wealth between the urban and rural areas that has accompanied the phenomenal expansion of its economy.
However, with every passing year, the options available to others to restrain China would become fewer and fait accomplis being steadily established would have to accepted. In any case, western democracies, unlike China's closed door political system, have electoral cycles, public expectations and, most importantly, the bottom-lines of their corporations that make them more disposed to make concessions to China under the convenient garb of investing in peace and stability.
Nevertheless the need to develop hedging strategies against China even as it is being engaged is widely recognized. After exhorting India not only to Look East but also to Engage East, the call now is for India to Act East. The US wants India to focus on the China threat in East Asia whereas for India the main Chinese threat is in South Asia. The US, however, remains either silent on this threat or actually distorts reality by projecting China as a responsible player in South Asia with which the US could work to promote regional peace and stability. Admiral Willard, the US CINCPAC Chief, has, most recently, purveyed this US line again.
India and the US do not have any shared view on China's stepped up claims on Arunachal Pradesh, the expansion of its military infrastructure in Tibet, its strategic moves in Myanmar and Pakistan to gain access to the Indian Ocean etc. India's territorial integroty is under threat from China and Pakistan combined, but, unlike in the case of China where the US endorses the principle of China's territorial integrity, there is no similar expression of support for the territorial integrity of India.
Like others, India too has a policy of engaging China and hedging against its inexorable rise. India has a regular high level political dialogue at the bilateral level with China, besides engaging it in multilateral groupings such as the Russia-India-China dialogue and the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa dialogue. China has become India's largest trading partner in goods, with the economic relationship getting enhanced attention with the institutionalizing of a Strategic Economic Dialogue and the setting up of a CEO's Forum.
But, as part of its hedging strategy, India holds regular naval exercises with the US in the Indian Ocean, and now trilateral exercises inolving the Japanese navy too are held, the strategic import of which is apparent. We have begun a strategic dialogue with Japan and have agreed to a India-US-Japan trilateral political dialogue. We are stepping up our relationship with Vietnam.
India has to meet China's challenge without confrontation or appeasement. It must be willing to target China's sensitive spots, even as we engage the country, the strategy that China follows towards India.
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary(email@example.com)