India must assert claim on South China Sea for image and continuity in trade

After the Indian debacle in the Sino-Indian hostilities in 1962, India has been on the defensive in regard to the Chinese, though this country has travelled far from those days of lack of preparedness in Nehruvian era.

But for an occasional hard stance in recent days with Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopting a more forthright approach than the erstwhile Manmohan Singh government, India has been wary of rubbing the Chinese on the wrong side perhaps because it is still psychological overawed.

The recent Indian stance in the wake of COVID-19 that any investment from a neighbouring country must seek Indian Central clearance, which was clearly directed at Beijing, to stave off hostile takeovers of banks or other Indian corporates, has rattled the Chinese who were apparently looking at smooth takeovers to exploit the turmoil in markets as a result of the pandemic.

Under Modi’s leadership, a two-pronged strategy has been evolved: India is continuing to engage with China and, at the same time, taking steps to modernise its armed forces.

The Chinese impudence in going ahead with a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is an index of India’s soft-pedalling and unaggressive approach. Though India has not joined the China-sponsored project, it has desisted from asserting its right strongly on the aspect of the corridor passing through PoK.

The Chinese have also been pin-pricking India by flirting with its neighbours, be it Pakistan whom Beijing backs to the hilt and looks to loading with debts but also Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar which it woos from time to time with specific agendas in mind seeking to have a stronger hold over them. It must be said to India’s credit that it has by and large held on despite overt and covert Chinese pressures.

The Chinese have also blocked India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, despite all the other crucial countries including the United States, Russia, the UK, France and Germany being receptive to it. India on its part has swallowed its pride vis-à-vis China without batting an eyelid. The Chinese also willy-nilly baulked at Indian attempts to declare the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks of 1993 Hafeez Saeed as a proclaimed terrorist.

It is thanks to Indian diplomacy that the two countries have warded off threats of a brush between the two armies as a result of border disputes. Modi has cultivated Xi Jinping as best as he could without seeming to cringe before him.

The Chinese aggressive designs have instead shifted to another arena — the South China sea — where Beijing is flexing its muscles and coming in conflict with American and South-East Asian interests.

While India has desisted from taking a strong position on the Chinese hegemonic designs in the South China Sea, if it has aspirations to be deemed to be at least a regional power it would have to show at least a semblance of muscle-flexing in solidarity with the countries of South-East Asia, especially Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Myanmar and also Japan. There is no denying that these countries and China have divergent interests in the region.

While India is looking the other way, it cannot overlook the fact that nearly 55 per cent of its international trade passes through the South China Sea and any Chinese bid to block or restrict that route for Indian ships could jeopardise Indian economic and strategic interests. India shares a 4,057 km border with China; except for a few stray incidents of transgression by Chinese soldiers, the borders have remained relatively peaceful since the 1962 war.

It is no secret that New Delhi allowed China to ride roughshod over Indian small scale and medium scale interests by looking the other way when Chinese firms outpriced Indian goods in the Indian market, virtually driving thousands of them out of business. The Modi government is now rueing that and seeking to keep the Chinese out by hook or by crook.

Now the Chinese are citing WTO (World Trade Organisation) norms to threaten India on the insistence of obtaining the Central government’s clearance for any new investment into India. They say it amounts to veiled protectionism but it is to guard against hostile takeovers which are not unknown to Chinese business tactics.

Sooner than later, India will have to put its foot down against future impediments to trade stemming from Chinese bid to control the flow of trade in the South China Sea. That American, European, Australian and Japanese interests are also at stake in any such blockade is reason enough for India to make common cause with these countries in the event of Chinese attempts to arm-twist.

The Americans have been pressing India to take part in joint naval exercises with it in the South China Sea as a mark of solidarity but India is wary of being drawn into a controversy as an adversary of China.

Last weekend, China took yet another step to expand its administrative claims over the South China Sea. China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs announced that the State Council of China had approved two new administrative divisions under Sansha City, an earlier administrative unit created in 2012 to encompass the South China Sea. While nominally a “city,” Sansha encompasses 2 million square kilometres and more than 200 features.

The two districts — named Xisha and Nansha — use the Chinese names for the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands, respectively, and correspond to those features. China claims the entirety of the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Five other parties — Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia — have overlapping territorial claims with Beijing’s; Indonesia and China have also locked horns over an exclusive economic zone overlap.

The writer is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.

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