If there could be one theatre, in the near future, where India’s maritime capabilities alongwith its air power could be tested – apart from a military confrontation with Pakistan – it would be in South east Asia, as tensions build up over China’s aggressive posturing on the South China sea. Over the past one year or more, a series of incidents in that region have left little room for comfort for Washington and its strategic partners, with the most recent being Chinese state media assertions that it is the U.S. and not China that could push the region into a possible military confrontation.
For several years now, Beijing had been steadily increasing its dominance of the South China sea to the annoyance of the U.S. and other ASEA Nnations; all of whom resent China’s aggressive military muscle flexing and encroachments into their territorial waters. China’s assertions are based on a two millennium old historical claim, on the basis of which the Chinese had occupied and reclaimed islands. But it was finally the Philippines that decided to take the Chinese to an International Tribunal at the Hague, to contest China’s encroachment of Scarborough Shoal located close to the Philippines in the South China Sea, which is surrounded by South East Asian countries, all part of ASEAN. China claims much of the sea on the basis of its ‘Nine Dash Line’ that would give Beijing virtual control over 90 percent of the Sea and its key oil and natural resources, plus much of the shipping through the straits of Malacca,a vital transit route for ships heading to countries in East Asia, like Japan and Taiwan.
And in a stinging verdict, the International Tribunal has dismissed Beijing’s claims stating: “There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine dash line”. China was quick to denounce this UN report’s verdict as ‘garbage’ by a panel paid by the Philippines, and even warn that the South China sea could become a ‘cradle of war’, even as the U.S. and other countries have called upon the Chinese to show respect for international laws. Ironically, Beijing, along with many other nations, had helped draft the UN Convention on the Laws of Sea in 1992, that requires countries to respect the territorial waters of others and permit free movement of ships and maritime cargo. But now, this verdict has not only come as a blow to China’s aspirations to be a respected power but it has challenged the ambitious personal project of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The world will now be watching if China truly respects the global order or wants separate rules for itself. For several years now, Chinese ships have been threatening those of other countries including that from India, that undertake routine visits to this region. But, as the incoming US administration insists that China’s island building and dominance of the South China sea cannot be allowed to continue, China is unlikely to be deterred by America’s assertions. And that therefore might lead to a confrontation, which could even draw a reluctant India in, now that India enjoys the tag of a major defence partner of the U.S., although this arrangement is essentially about the U.S. sharing military technology with India.
Over several years, India’s forces have conducted military exercises with the US, and there is healthy respect for the professionalism of India’s military. And with India’s navy still capable of blocking the choke points to the straits of Malacca – a key access point for China’s and the world shipping routes – to and from South China sea, Washington is likely to demand that Delhi should side with it, if push comes to shove. Moreover, Delhi’s growing military relationship with Vietnam, another adversary of China, with India now willing to arm Vietnam with Indian made missiles, is already causing serious concern in Beijing, apart from India’s close ties with Washington.
For more details on Maroof Raza, visit:www.maroofraza.com