Simultaneous to the high drama of a standoff between Chinese and Philippine naval vessels, a war of words broke out recently between India and China over the freedom of navigation in the hotly contested South China Sea. India's external affairs minister SM Krishna reiterated firmly that the sea is the common "property of the world" that must be kept free from "national interference". The Chinese foreign ministry rebutted immediately that India was not being "objective and fair" by raking up controversies where China had "indisputable sovereignty."
The Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece, Global Times, termed Krishna's comments "a mistake" and alleged that India is a "non-involved country" playing a "long game" of tit-for-tat against China. It insinuated that India is inserting itself in South China Sea squabbles to "enhance policy coordination at the global strategic level" with the US. The perception that New Delhi is an instrument in Washington's strategic ‘pivot' to contain Beijing's rise is widespread in Chinese officialdom, even though India itself is seeking a middle-ofthe-road approach.
A recent document drafted by Indian scholars and former practitioners of diplomacy, titled Nonalignment 2.0, advocates an independent line that positions India somewhere between China and the US.
Yet, such neutrality is a tough trampoline act in the light of rising tensions among Washington, Hanoi and Manila on one side, and Beijing on the other side. India's verbal stance on the South China Sea is by no stretch of imagination non-aligned. A Vice Admiral of the Indian Navy has commented that protection of ONGC Videsh, India's State-owned oil company which is drilling in the South China Sea with Vietnam's cooperation, can't be "offloaded to the Vietnamese Navy" in the event of a Chinese aggression. He added that the burden of safeguarding Indian offshore rigs in the South China Sea has to be on the Indian Navy itself.
So are we going to witness a new military entrant in the form of India into the already overcrowded South China Sea arena? Thus far, India's naval projection in East Asia is no match to that of the humongous People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy of China. The scope and pace of Chinese military modernisation, highlighted by the PLA'S 'anti-access/area denial' build-up in its spheres of influence in Southeast and East Asia, mean that not even the US can be absolutely sure of taming China if a crisis erupts over the Spratlys, the Paracels or the Taiwan Straits.
Hawks in the Chinese establishment are openly saying that their country's waiting period of "keeping a low profile" in strategic affairs is over. The overloaded self-confidence of Beijing's top leadership vis-à-vis America and other major powers is transparent in a new monograph authored by the Communist Party insider, Wang Jisi, which showcases a Chinese elite that is preparing to be the number one power in the world in "a matter of years rather than decades."
Forward planners in Beijing envisage a world where China is superior to the US in economic might, to begin with. Of course, power projections often fail the test of time and it remains to be seen whether Chinese self-estimations are exaggerated. But nonalignment will be increasingly harder to maintain for India as China inches closer to surging ahead of the US and leaving the rest of the world far behind.
Martin Jacques' book When China Rules the World portrayed a futuristic international order wherein China would return to being the imperial 'Middle Kingdom' and demand tributes from near and far states. There are omens of such an eventuality in China's present unwillingness to share strategic space or cede quarters in Asia to any other power, least of all India.
New Delhi's real 'long game' in the light of growing Chinese assertiveness and exclusivist territorial claims will, therefore, have to transcend neutrality between Washington and Beijing. It has to be a quest for means by which India can be a truly "involved country"— the antithesis of China's belittling — across Asia's landmass and waterways, and beyond them.
Choosing non-alignment or passive nonintervention is an intellectually lazy option when the need of the hour for India is to imagine itself to be a third superpower in the making, with its own camp of followers and a distinct brand name. India needs to develop itself as a pole of power instead of swinging as a calculating pendulum between China and the US. The first test of this grander vision could come in the South China Sea.
Sreeram Chaulia is vice-dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal.