August 2, 2010Pax Indicageopoliticsmaritime

East of Singapore

Regardless of what the United States does, an Indian strategic commitment in East Asia will strengthen its overall negotiation position with China.

This is an unedited draft of my Pax Indica column for Yahoo! (2010-2011)

Global Times, an English language daily newspaper owned by the People’s Daily, Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece, devoted an astonishing 11 of its 22 editorials last month threatening the United States, South Korea, Vietnam and Southeast Asian countries for challenging China in the western Pacific. The strident criticism rose into a crescendo last week, with the newspaper delivering a thinly-veiled military threat. China’s long-term strategic plan should never be taken as a weak stand, it warned, and while [it] is clear that military clashes would bring bad results to all countries in the region involved, but China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.”

Unlike the Times of India, London, New York or elsewhere, the editors of the Global Times do not speak for themselves. As Pallavi Aiyar, who spent several years in Beijing as a foreign correspondent, says in the August 2010 issue of _Pragati, _foreign affairs and China’s international relations remains a subject that is strongly controlled by the government and independent writings on the topic are forbidden…Writings on [such subjects] in Chinese media therefore almost always have official sanction even if they do not always reflect the government’s official position.”

Using state-controlled media to send signals to other countries is an old trick. In this case it allows the Chinese government to make the threat, yet claim that it is honouring its commitments under its 2002 agreement with ASEAN, where the parties pledged to undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”

China has hardened its position on disputed maritime boundaries with Southeast Asian countries, just like it did in 2006 over its land boundaries with India. Then, Beijing’s advocates and apologists blamed the US-India nuclear deal for causing China to react adversely. There is no such excuse this time—the Obama administration spent its first year in a failed attempt to engage China in a co-operative relationship. Yet from taking up cudgels on behalf of a belligerent North Korea to browbeating Vietnam, Indonesia and the Phillipines over the disputed Spratly islands, it is undeniable that China sees itself as powerful enough to settle territorial disputes on its own terms.

It is not a surprise that it is adamant that dispute over maritime boundaries in the South China sea be settled through bilateral negotiations with each of the numerous claimants. In doing so, it not only ensures that it can prevail over its smaller, weaker neighbours one-by-one, but also undermines the claim that ASEAN is a geopolitical entity. But what really makes Beijing apoplectic is when the United States takes up ASEANs side to check China’s dominance. That is what the United States did last month, and that is what drove the Chinese foreign minister, literally, to apoplexy.

However, by itself, an overstretched United States cannot balance China everywhere. Even after it recovers from the latest of its periodic bouts of declinism and self-doubt, it will not have the resources to check the expansion of Chinese power in theatres like East Asia, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Washington will be forced to prioritise where it will challenge China and where it will concede. Of these, East Asia presents the United States with a conundrum: formal and informal alliance commitments require it to stay in the region, yet it is the region where China is, relatively at its strongest. Here the sensible strategy of contesting where you are relatively strong and conceding where you are not is not available to the United States. Unless it is willing to throw away its alliances with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the United States will have to stay and play.

Even if it relies less on Middle Eastern oil than it used to, that region is important to the United States because both China and its allies depend on it. It can’t easily abandon Israel, another of its allies, either. So if it can’t concede East Asia and the Middle East to China, where can the United States retreat from? Africa, Central Asia and, most importantly from the Indian perspective, Afghanistan-Pakistan. No one, other than perhaps the hapless women of Afghanistan, likes or wants the United States there anyway.

Beyond President Obama’s deadline for the beginning of a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is possible that the US might make a strategic exit from the region, allowing China to take over. It might be the geopolitical equivalent of a poison pill strategy, but it means that India will have to contend with a China-Pakistan axis across its western, northern and eastern borders. India’s neighbourhood could turn hostile. Already, at a recent conference, I was surprised when a former top Bangladeshi diplomat described his country, like Pakistan, as being an all-weather friend” of China.

Which is why it makes sense for India to look East beyond Singapore, the psychological limit of its current Look East policy. India must be part of the security equilibrium in East Asia. It’s strategic power projection will not be unwelcome in South East Asia. It will also enable the United States to remain engaged in Afghanistan-Pakistan by freeing up resources that might otherwise be employed in the western Pacific. Also, regardless of what the United States does, an Indian strategic commitment in East Asia will strengthen its overall negotiation position with China.

During the middle years of this decade, the countries of the region were looking at askance at New Delhi, wondering if it was prepared to balance China’s growing power. Unfortunately, successive cabinet ministers visiting the region repeated the cliche that India didn’t believe in balancing”, which was not quite what the hosts wanted to hear. The first preference of small countries that want to safeguard their independence is to encourage bigger powers to be in balance. Failing which, their second preference is to join the side they think will prevail. Since both the United States and India appeared not to be interested in the region, several South East Asian countries came to believe that they were better off bandwagoning onto China.

Whatever might have caused China to bully its neighbours this year, it has opened another window of opportunity for India to engage with the region. Pre-occupied as it is with the game in the north-western part of the subcontinent, it is unclear if New Delhi sufficiently realises that the seas east of Singapore hold the key to the lands west of the Indus.

There are many more Pax Indica columns here

India must vastly increase its economic, diplomatic and military presence in and beyond South East Asia. Doing so might cause the Global Times to fire some editorial salvos in India’s direction too. Should we care?

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