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China’s bold assertions in Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean: India’s Concerns

Dr. Sudhanshu Tripathi - 2/10/2013

For the past few years, China has particularly focussed its attention in Asia- Pacific region and almost all countries of South Asia, South East Asia with a specific objective to firmly establish itself as an undisputed regional Power in East Asia. This is so because global geo-politics is said to be moving towards East and the only challenge that may arise is from India in this region, it is nothing but imperative upon China to pursue this policy to prevail upon India in order to ensure its increasing sphere of influence in the East intact and also to maintain its continuing ascendance to the level of global Super Power, perhaps, next only to the USA. It is in this context, the rising Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea is evident from its recent unilateral declaration, claiming exclusive jurisdiction over the disputed islands which is a serious concern not only for India but also for ASEAN nations, particularly, Philippines and Vietnam. And so is Japan.

In fact, China has not only rejected the objections raised by these South East Asian nations but has also announced new rules through its Hainan province (which administers the South China Sea for China) to allow for interception of ships passing through the international shipping lanes. The defence analysts say that Hainan’s move is another step in China’s bid to solidify its control over much of the sea, which includes crucial navigation lanes over which more than a third of global trade passes. The Chinese step has raised concerns not only in the region with fears of simmering disputes with South East Asian nations escalating but also in the whole world including Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region. The Secretary- General of ASEAN, Mr. Surin Pitsuvan has also expressed his anguish in terms of likely serious consequences due to China’s high handedness. Obviously, it is very disturbing that China has boldly advanced its illegal stand over South China Sea immediately after the recently held East Asian Summit in Cambodia in which the US’ President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had participated besides Japan, Vietnam and Philippines who had categorically objected to the unilateral Chinese claim. Both India and the US had also emphasised the need of the freedom of navigation in the international waters and the strict adherence of the United Nations’ Law of the Sea.

Further, China’s new leadership, amidst persisting political mistrust over the long running border dispute and more recent differences over passports and visas, has suggested to India to ignore differences so that both the neighbours may not let differences and problems stand in the way of taking the relationship forward. This was conveyed by the Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo, on Monday, to the visiting India’s National Security Advisor, Shivshanker Menon who is in Beijing for talks on the thorny border question. Mr. Bingguo said that both countries needed “to prevent noise from diverting friendly cooperation and common development.” But, despite all these sane suggestions and cordial overtures, China’s above mentioned activities are highly obnoxious and detrimental to the Indian interests as well as that to ASEAN nations and Japan.

All these developments ought to be viewed in the backdrop of fast rising Chinese presence into Indian Ocean, despite having its very long coastal line along Pacific Ocean. Perhaps Indian Ocean has a specific geo-political significance for China in the event of any significant power-struggle. Here, Maldives occupies a very important position where China has invested enough during Hu Jintao’ tenure. It has also made heavy investments into the other coastal countries of the region. It is further making serious efforts to forge close ties with countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar wherein it is engaged with construction of sea-ports and other major projects. Obviously, it is an important component of China’s long term strategy in the Indian Ocean to attract South Asian nations by its huge economic power so that existing balance of power may shift towards its side. In fact, South China Sea and Maldives represent the increased Chinese activities into Pacific and Indian Ocean, respectively whereas India has mostly lagged far behind due to not giving the required thrust to its Look East Policy.

Are these developments compatible with India’s national interests, particularly with regard to its security and economic cooperation, vis-a-vis China and other countries of the region? Shouldn’t India remain cautious and vigilant because even the internal developments of these neighbouring countries have their significant impact upon India’s interests, particularly in the context of emerging ideology of anti-India blocs, rising terrorism in India and also the loss of its economic and political clout in the region. It is beyond any doubt that the internal events in Nepal and Myanmar have given considerable support to the separatist and Maoist activities in India. Similarly, the internal politics of Maldives, during past two years, is tending towards Islamic fundamentalism which has become quite powerful, after the exit of the former President Nasheed. It is no surprise that Maldives has recently cancelled its Male International Airport’s construction contract with India’s GMR company, worth around Rs.2500 crores, causing great loss to Indian trade and commerce. All these facts make amply clear that, Indian diplomacy and strategy has remained negligent and reluctant towards South Asian countries causing deep credibility crisis on the part of India vis-a-vis China.

Evidently, India must reinvigorate its Look East policy to remain quite relevant, helpful and extra friendly to all its South Asian neighbours and also to the ASEAN countries. It should further enlarge its area of cooperation into Far East, including Japan and also with Australia. At the same time, India must continue its engagement with China in all fields of cooperation as there is no substitute to the healthy and vibrant Sino-Indian friendship in the East Asia which is going to be the centre of global geo-political convergence as Europe- America has been so far.

Dr. Sudhanshu Tripathi is Associate Professor of Political Science in M.D.P.G. College, Pratapgarh (UP), India.

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