India must navigate cautiously through the South China Sea

  • Harsh V Pant
  • Updated: Aug 12, 2016 01:05 IST
India will have to carefully assess the implications of rapidly evolving maritime order in Asia for its own interests and engage with Beijing accordingly (Arvind-Yadav/HT)

As India readies to welcome Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, tensions are rising in Asia as China takes steps to assert its control over the waters of the South China Sea after its claims were rejected by an international tribunal at The Hague last month. China’s defence minister Chang Wanquan has called for a “people’s war at sea” to push back against threats to Chinese claims.

More significantly, China is also changing its laws to arrest and jail anyone caught fishing in waters Beijing considers its own, even though those bits are disputed among China’s neighbours in the South China Sea.

Read | India should avoid ‘entanglement’ in South China Sea, says Chinese media

Over the past week, all three Chinese naval fleets have taken to the sea to practice for a “sudden, cruel, and short” conflict. Beijing has begun to fly bomber and fighter aircraft near disputed islands in the South China Sea. It has also announced that it would hold joint naval “routine” drills in the waters with Russia in September. A group of new photographs have revealed the construction of several reinforced aircraft hangars at Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs, all land formations built up by China in recent months.

China’s neighbours too aren’t keeping quiet. Reports have emerged of Vietnam fortifying several of its islands in the South China Sea with mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China’s runways and military installations across the vital trade route. Japan filed a protest with Beijing over its recently discovered radar equipment installed in a gas exploration platform close to disputed waters in the East China Sea. The protest came on the same day an armada of 13 Chinese coast guard ships sailed into waters just outside what Japan considers its territorial waters in the East China Sea.

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South Korea is now willing to share the US Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system’s radar data on North Korean missile launches with Japan. It would also be a culmination of some of China’s worst fears, as the move would bring South Korea closer into a trilateral alliance involving the US and Japan. The US is also responding at both diplomatic and military levels. The USS Benfold, a US Navy guided missile destroyer, docked at the northern Chinese port of Qingdao, becoming the first visit by an American warship since Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea were ripped apart in The Hague.

Ahead of Wang’s visit, Chinese State media is warning India to avoid “unnecessary entanglement with China over the South China Sea debate” if New Delhi “wishes to create a good atmosphere for economic cooperation.” His visit will be the first high-level visit between the two countries after China blocked India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership bid at the plenary meeting of the 48-nation grouping in June on the grounds that it was not a signatory to the NPT. Next month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in China to attend the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

Read | Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea, sources claim

India will have to carefully assess the implications of rapidly evolving maritime order in Asia for its own interests and engage with Beijing accordingly. The stakes of what happens in the waters around South China Sea are as high for India as they are for the regional states.

Harsh V Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London

The views expressed are personal

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