April 15, 2012

India playing long game in South China Sea

Global Times | April 09, 2012 19:28
By Ju Hailong


Challenging China's objections to India's exploration projects in the South China Sea, India's External Affairs Minister SM Krishna said Friday that the South China Sea is the property of the world and trade in the region must be free from any national intervention. China has never objected to the freedom of navigation and legal trade and economic activities in this region. Describing the South China Sea as global property is a mistake.

Other countries can't denote one country's territory as global property. China claims sovereignty over the disputed area between itself and Vietnam, and according to international law, the rights of freedom of navigation and free trade in the South China Sea cannot surpass the sovereign right of the relevant country. Since US strategic attention refocused on the Asia-Pacific region in 2009, the internationalization of South China Sea disputes has been increasingly obvious. This not only changes the external environment for neighboring countries in solving the disputes, but also provides opportunities for non-involved countries to intervene. India is not directly related to the South China Sea disputes, but its involvement and intervention could increase its stake when handling relations with the US, Japan, China, Vietnam, and other ASEAN countries..

There are still border disputes between China and India. India sees China's strategic relationship with Pakistan and Myanmar as geographical containment on India. Therefore, taking a stronger role in South China Sea disputes and taking advantage of China's territorial conflicts with its neighboring countries are India's strategic means to counter China.

Intervening in the South China Sea disputes also contributes to expanding India's "Look East Policy" and enhancing policy coordination at the global strategic level between US and India. Currently, the global US strategic focus is the Middle East and East Asia. The US strategic advances in the Persian Gulf region have potential conflicts with the India strategy that emphasizes that the Indian Ocean is India's sea. India enhancing its strategic input in the South China Sea disputes could increase its strategic coordination with the ASEAN countries, Japan and the US and help build strategic mutual trust with the US on multiple levels. India's intervention in the South China Sea has not been done on a whim. For India, the strategic benefits brought by it are much greater than the realistic interests gained from the joint oil exploration with Vietnam.

The choice is rooted in India's East Asia policy. Even if the South China Sea dispute hadn't been heated up by US influence and intervention, India would have looked for other opportunities to carry out similar strategic actions. India's joint oil exploration with Vietnam in September 2011 is an important way for India to intervene in the disputes, but given India's existing military and security relationship with Vietnam, the one-time joint exploration is not a simple event.

Currently, when some international scholars discuss possible solutions to the South China Sea disputes, they tend to pay much attention to the disputes themselves, focusing on details such as the divergences in territorial claims, the application of relevant international laws and the construction of a joint exploration mechanism.

However, from the perspective of macro-strategy, the South China Sea disputes are just the epitome of accumulated conflicts in the changing process of the strategic pattern in the Asia-Pacific region. That's the fundamental reason why it is so complicated.

How should China deal with the strategic containment under the traditional Asia-Pacific pattern dominated by the US-Japan alliance during its peaceful rise? This is the real test the internationalization of the South China Sea disputes brings. Facing the question, China should not only strive to realize its rise, but also fulfill its commitment of sticking to a peaceful way to solve the dispute.

Whether the South China Sea disputes could be solved in a short time or whether China can exert control over the dispute through military strength is not so important for today's China. When China establishes itself as economically, politically, and culturally attractive to its neighboring countries, the South China Sea disputes will not be a problem, and the intervention of external countries will not influence the order of the area any more.

The author is a researcher of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Jinan University based in Guangzhou. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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