December 27, 2012

India and the cow tongue tightrope

The cow tongue, Chinese line of claim.

In the rising rhetoric with China, India should be careful that it does not lose sight of its strategic objectives in the region. The Great Game of the nineteenth century- rivalry between the Russians and the British- is long over. The Great Game of the 21st century has already begun, and the South China Sea may well be its first major flashpoint. The main adversaries are the US and China, of course, but there are many other countries that are seething at Chinese territorial claims- the so called red lined ‘cow tongue’ in the graphic- in the strategic and oil rich South China Sea.

That territorial dispute is now hotting up. China obviously wants to ensure its sea borders are well within its control, that it has access to nearby oil and gas and that other powers- particularly the US- are kept out of the region as much as possible. Ranged against it, for one reason or another, are the US, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia- and India. China’s recent belligerent moves, particularly the announcement that police from its southern Hainan province would search vessels that pass through waters everybody else sees as international and open to innocent passage, has every one of these up in arms.

The Navy Day remarks of the Indian naval chief DK Joshi should be seen in this context. Referring to Indian Public Sector giant ONGC’s oil related activities off Vietnam, Joshi said after the Chinese announcement, “When the requirement is there – for example, in situations where our country’s interests are involved, for example ONGC – we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that.” He added, “So, are we preparing for it? Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is yes.”  

As expected, Joshi’s rambling but pointed statement was downplayed by the Indian government that suggested that the whole thing was a media created mess. Salman Khurshid, the External Affairs Minister, made soothing noises a couple of days later, saying that as India and China moved to "finding resolutions to the issues… India will have to accept the new reality of China's presence in many areas that we consider an exclusive area for India and its friends."

Part of the doublespeak may be just an attempted fist in glove approach. Right of free passage and oil aside, the South China Sea is of considerable strategic significance; nearly half the world’s seaborne oil passes through it, for a start. India also obviously sees its moves in that region as a counterpoint to the ‘sea of pearls’ strategy that the Chinese have so successfully employed in the Indian Ocean- the encirclement of India, if you will.

However, India needs to realise that China’s projection of power in the South China Sea, belligerent as it is, is nonetheless inevitable; one cannot expect a superpower to ignore influencing its own backyard. India also needs to take note of the extreme polarisation that the ‘cow of tongue’ is causing in the region, with countries banding together in pro-US camps, and it needs to stay out of these camps. It needs to realise that rising tensions may suit the Chinese, the US and even US allies like the Philippines and Taiwan, for their own reasons, but they do not automatically suit India. In fact, escalation of tensions with China may be detrimental to Indian national interest.

Naval Chiefs are paid to adopt aggressive stances, but India’s response to Chinese pugnacity has so far been calibrated and its strategic interests demand that it continues to pursue trade and quiet diplomacy, much like it has been doing thus far. In any case, banding itself together with smaller and usually less powerful countries will automatically reduce the ‘major power’ status that India aspires for, and so will be a tactical mistake, and not just because Big Brother, the US, is in the room.

Any conflict near China will suit the US just fine. It will then use countries like the Philippines, Australia, Taiwan- and even Vietnam, a strange bedfellow, given the history- to legitimise its expansion in the region. That objective does nothing for India; its imperatives are different, even contradictory.

Besides, India needs to take note of its many weaknesses in its relationship with China. It remains far behind China in terms of political, financial and military strength, not to speak of trade and prosperity. It is way behind on all socio-economic indicators. Most importantly, it cannot outspend China militarily or match its political influence. India will therefore have to learn to live with a superpower neighbour sooner rather than later.

The good news is that rhetoric aside, India and China have sought relations backed by trade in recent years. It is precisely because there is much suspicion in India about Chinese intentions that these commercial activities need to continue. That, and not confliction, is in the best interests of both the countries.

All in all, India would do well not to be associated too deeply with the US camp in the South China Sea imbroglio. And, given our experiences over the decades with Pakistan- backed by its intermittent ally, the US- India would do well to be suspicious of that superpower’s intentions in the region too.

Unfortunately, the Manmohan Singh led Indian Government sometimes comes across as fawningly pro-US. It would do much better if it were aggressively seen to be more pro-Indian. 



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