China’s rulers have a problem. They are not sure if they can continue to portray the image of a country interested in a peaceful rise without this coming into direct conflict with a desire to reassert newly defined core interests. All of 2010 saw a more assertive Chinese foreign policy activity in its periphery, including India, reflecting possibly a tussle of some sorts in Beijing between an assertive People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which may want a bigger role in foreign policy in the decade ahead, and a political leadership that is now going to be in transition as Mr Hu Jintao prepares to hand over power to his selected successor, Xi Jinping, by 2012? And therefore this exercise of display of assertiveness with each power centre, notably the PLA and the Party hierarchy, positioning themselves inside China and positioning themselves against the US where there will be presidential elections in end-2012.
China’s assertiveness and the recent reactions in the Chinese media to the visit of the Indian ship INS Airavat is only a reassertion of its position. China had taken umbrage at US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s July 2010 remarks in Hanoi on creating an international mechanism to resolve this issue, has been particularly visible in the past few weeks. Earlier Dai Bingguo conveyed to Ms Clinton in May 2010 that China regarded its claims to the South China Sea as a core national interest.
The Chinese carried out a live ammunition PLA Navy exercise in the South China Sea on July 26, 2010 followed by another exercise on August 3 along the Yellow Sea coast — the other area of contention. The Chinese conducted exercises there in April and June this year, and were now asserting that China opposed any foreign ships entering the sea or adjacent waters; they even vehemently opposed joint US-South Korean exercises there.
The message in these demarches to the US was in keeping with protecting China’s core interests in the adjacent seas and telling the US that the western Pacific was China’s sphere of interest and influence. It suggested a division of zones of influence between the Eastern and Western Pacific. The US and China have their own geostrategic rivalries to settle, and the Chinese may have assessed that their moment has come.
Its reaction to the visit of the Indian ship has to be seen in this context – it is part belief in its history, part knee jerk, part bullying, part worry about energy resources, and part suspicion about growing India-Vietnamese-US triangular relationship in the South China Sea. The influential Communist Party-managed newspaper the Global Times was somewhat hysterical when, in its editorial of September 16, it warned India that any deal with Vietnam would be ‘serious political provocation’ which could ‘push China to the limit’ and described the ONGC Vietnam deal as a reflection of Indian ambitions. The newspaper went on to say that while China was sincere about its peaceful rise it will not give up its right to use other means to protect its interest. China cherished its friendship with India but this did not mean that China valued this above all else. It referred to India’s intervention in the Dalai Lama issue and ends with the warning that ‘we should not leave the world with the impression that China is only focused on economic development nor should we pursue the reputation of being a peaceful power,’... Clearly, there is a debate inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Chinese Communist Party.
China’s reaction is also a reflection of its concern for energy resources. China has only 1.1% of the world’s known energy reserves but consumes 10.4 % of the world’s oil production and 20.1 % of the total energy consumption in the world. The mismatch is obvious and will grow more in the years ahead. Naturally, China views the disputed South China Sea zone with its energy reserves with special interest. Some estimates state that the known reserves of the South China Sea are twice as much as China’s reserves of oil and there is plenty of gas too.
The Indian reaction to this charge by Beijing has been firm pointing out that India’s cooperation with Vietnam or with any other country ‘is always as per international laws, norms and conventions...’ India has also pointed out China’s role in the disputed part of POK under Pakistan occupation where China may be on the verge of using the territory for developing communication links with Afghanistan. Obviously, China is planning for a post-US phase in Afghanistan, access to its mineral resources, ultimately linking to Iran and the Gulf; it would not want the region to be solely India’s sphere of influence. India has also to keep its own vulnerabilities in Arunachal Pradesh in mind; even though outright war is unlikely we should expect economic cooperation and periodic tensions. China-India relations will not be determined by strict bilateral terms. As both countries rise, there will be competition in other spheres - for markets, resources and influence.
Yet China remains concerned with its intricate trade and financial links with the US, and also with the security of its trade and supply routes that transit the Malacca Straits. It has endeavoured to develop extensive land routes through Central Asia, but these are inadequate. It is a matter of time before China will make its presence more visible in the Indian Ocean. It has port facilities in Kyaukpyu, Hambantota and Gwadar, and a presence in the Arabian Sea as it battles Somali pirates. China has expanded its contacts with Iran and has developed strong ties with Burma.
It is of course entirely feasible that China would have reacted in this manner even if there were not the question of energy reserves of South China Sea. It would have had more to do with its own perception as zhongguo – the “Middle Kingdom” or the “Central Country” where the neighbouring countries were considered to be vassal states and who accepted the Emperor in Beijing as the supreme power in the region.
Thus while New Delhi agonises over challenges across land frontiers, ignoring the new challenge in the Indian Ocean would be extremely hurt Indian interests. There is need to plan counter measures in China's periphery from now. Perpetual whining about China's grand designs will not help.
This was written for ANI, New Delhi