What The New Flashpoint In The South China Sea Means For India

What The New Flashpoint In The South China Sea Means For India

In case of a conflict with Beijing, can India count on its Western partners, especially the US, to stand by it?

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Sunday, July 07, 2024, 10:52 PM IST
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China Coast Guard ship CCG 5901 | File

On Sunday as the world’s largest coast guard ship — the “monster” 165-metre-long CCG 5901 — edged closer to a Philippine defence vessel off the coast of the Manila-controlled Sabina shoal, the South China Sea where its is situated turned into a tense flashpoint once again.

Headlines in Manila Times screamed, “China taunts Philippines” while the archipelago nation’s President Ferdinand Marcos Jr warned his armed forces to be “vigilant amid threats”. China, for its part, claimed its deployed ships and missiles were not targeting the Spanish-speaking Pacific Ocean nation, a statement which had few buyers.

The Sabina shoal, part of the Spratlys island group, is about 150 kms from mainland Philippines, well within its exclusive economic zone and about 65 kms from the Second Thomas island where Beijing and Manila have had several military stand-offs.

The Chinese have been claiming that almost 90% of the 3.5million square km area of the sea bounded by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan is its own. And that the Spratly island which lies between Vietnam and Philippines is really Nansha Qundao, a bunch of tiny spots on a Yuan dynasty map.

At stake for all sides concerned are coveted oil-rich seas and the right of maritime passage through waters through which nearly a fourth of the world’s trade passes.

India, the US and Japan along with the littoral powers do not accept China’s claimed suzerainty based on nothing more than doubtful ancient maps and advocates freedom of navigation and over-flight through the commercially important waters.

Some 55 per cent of India’s shipping passes through these waters carrying cargo to and from China, Korea, Japan, Russia and the east coast of USA, including oil and gas from its acreages in Siberia and Sakhalin.

A couple of months back India has sent three warships to the South China Sea ostensibly to visit Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, but in actuality in a ‘show the flag outing’.

Similarly, for the US, a sixth of its shipping and nearly all its growing trade with South East Asia passes through this Sea. Japan, the other global economic powerhouse which depends on the South China Sea routes for more than half its trade, is the third large power which finds itself alarmed by China’s claims and behaviour in the region.

As a consequence, both individually as well as collectively these powers along with littoral nations have been conducting naval exercises to show Beijing that they mean business in defending what they perceive to be the global commons.

However the question which begs an answer is how far will either side go in defending their respective positions? As also the related question of what implications will this “naval shadow war” have on China’s conflict with India in the High Himalayas.

For the littoral powers, and to a large extent Japan, the contest is one of life and death in both economic and political terms. For the India and the US, loss of the South China Sea to Beijing would have grave economic and political costs and would certainly be unacceptable but would certainly not represent existential crisis.

China however is unlikely to back down on its claims or its attempts to turn the sea named after it, into its “personal pond”. It has shown its intent not only through naval deployments but also by creating artificial islands which can be used as military launching pads.

That the shadow war in the seas and what China considers India’s “ganging up” with the US and Japan will have consequences has already been made clear by the ‘Middle Kingdom’, through calibrated tit-for-tat moves in the Himalayas.

The latest satellite pictures show China has started building new bases near the northern shore of Pangong lake, an obvious attempt to pressure India. Earlier as India drew closer with the West for a variety of reasons, China has followed a deliberate policy of reinforcing its troop presence on India’s northern borders.

The West has been India’s partner of choice since the beginning of the 1990s when the South Asian giant came up with its own version of ‘Perestroika’. Foreign investment, and trade flowed into what was the last big market to open up.

India also needed the west not only to fuel its economic rise but as an insurance policy against China which had clashed with it in 1962 over a contested border.

Till the break up of the Soviet empire, India’s mainstay against China was its close relationship with Moscow. With its decline and the rise of the US as the sole global power, to check Beijing a new friendship with Washington became a necessity.

In time India too became the political partner the West wished to prop up in as a counterpoise to China. The US on its part realised that ‘Chimerica’, a term which historian Niall Ferguson had coined to describe the symbiotic relationship between itself and China, was but a front for the rise of an Asian power which was challenging America’s century-old hegemony of the world.

During the first decade of the 21st century, India signed both a military alliance and a nuclear deal with the US, opening up new vistas of defence and technological cooperation with the world’s largest power.

China responded by claiming the whole of the Indian state of Arunachal as its territory in 2005, an escalation from disputing the McMahon line as the border and ownership of Tawang, the birthplace of one of the Dalai Lamas.

In 2013, the Chinese followed this up by an incursion into Indian territory in Ladakh, followed by a stand-off at Doklam at the tri-junction of Bhutan, India, and China in 2017, and a bloody stand off at Galwan in Ladakh in 2020.

The Chinese construction of ports at Pakistan’s Gwadar, Myanmar’s Arakan, and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota also followed during this century, raising fears in New Delhi that China intended to encircle it militarily.

Even as India grows more alarmed by the behaviour of its northern neighbour, the US which looks upon India as its foremost ally in its pivot towards Asia and its military, economic and technological competition with China, frets that in the ultimate analysis India will play the role of a neutral and step away from challenge.

Its frustrations with getting India and Japan, two members of the Quad or quadrilateral alliance which the US had forged, to commit themselves to bigger roles in the defence of the Indo-Pacific, has already goaded it into forging the AUKUS, a straightforward defence arrangement between the US, UK and Australia aimed at China.

All this raises fresh strategic questions for India. Should it tighten its embrace of Washington and help the West contain China? Or should it waffle along as it has and take half-measures? Will its embrace of the West result in further reprisals on the northern border and is it ready to face up to those?

The corollary to these questions is the single biggest query for strategists in New Delhi — in case of a conflict with Beijing, can India count on its Western partners, especially the US, to stand by it?

After all the sole nuclear power in the world in the 1940s did not do much to save the fall of the Chiang Kai-shek regime in 1949 and its retreat to the island of Taiwan from mainland China.

The writer is former head of PTI’s eastern region network

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