China has surpassed Japan to emerge as the world’s second-largest economy. Not surprisingly, it has used its economic prowess to modernize its military and soon it will be ready to take on the US military might in the Asia-Pacific. The balance with its main adversary, Taiwan, has already tilted in Beijing’s favour and now it’s aiming to counter other major regional powers such as Japan and India. Geopolitical competition between China and the US is in full swing in the region with the main regional actors rapidly reconfiguring their policy responses towards China.
Beijing has started claiming that the bulk of South China Sea constitutes Chinese territorial waters, defining it as a “core national interest,” a phrase previously used in reference to Tibet and Taiwan. This has come as a shock to regional states such as Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan who also have territorial claims in the Sea. This sea passage is too important to be controlled by a single country and that too by one that is located far away from these waters. China would like to extend its territorial waters, which usually run to 12 miles, to include the entire exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles. China is challenging the fundamental principle of free navigation. All maritime powers including India have a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.
China has made strident claims to virtually the entire South China Sea in recent years. This has resulted in detention of hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen, the harassment of US and other navies and threats to international oil giants aimed at ending their exploration deals with Hanoi. The US has been forced to respond to preserve its leadership in the region. At the recent ASEAN meeting, Hillary Clinton suggested that the US was willing to help in mediating conflicting claims in the South China Sea, thereby drawing clear red lines for China.
The US-South Korea joint air and naval exercises last month also irritated Beijing though they were meant as a show of resolve in response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. The Chinese protested against the exercises describing them as being provocative, especially about the possible presence of US aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea, directly off their coast. The US has gone ahead with the exercises but has confined them to the waters west of Japan.
After being on the sidelines of the South China Sea dispute for the past two decades, the US has now decided to change its posture to reassure its allies in the region that China’s growing regional dominance would not go unchallenged. The dispute in South China Sea is not merely about resources, it is also central to China’s ambitions for a blue water navy able to operate away from its shores. The South China Sea has also suddenly assumed significance arguably because of the SSBN base China has chosen to build in Hainan to the south, partly enveloped by the Vietnamese coast. The choice of Hainan is poor, but no alternatives exist as other places are hemmed in by islands. So China's chief maritime nuclear base is also what is for now her southernmost point. She wants the waters around clear so that, among other things, no one can track her submarines.
In the last few months, there have been reports of confrontations involving the Malaysian Navy, the Indonesian Navy and the Vietnamese Navy each separately with the PLA Navy. Last April, a flotilla of 10 ships of the Chinese navy's East Sea Fleet conducted exercises that involved passage through international waters between the main island of Okinawa and Miyakojima Island. During these exercises, two Chinese navy helicopters came within about 90 meters of a Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer of Japan watching over the exercises, causing an outcry in Japan.
More significantly, some three weeks before the April incident, six ships of the Chinese navy's North Sea Fleet based in Qingdao, Shandong Province passed through waters between the Okinawa and Miyakojima islands, headed to the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, and went on to operate in the South China Sea. By purposely deploying the North Sea Fleet, China was demonstrating its great interest in this sea area. Japan's dispatch of large SDF transport vessels to participate fully in the humanitarian aid operation "Pacific Partnership" led by the U.S. early this year was meant as a response to China's moves.
Meanwhile, South Korea too is re-evaluating its ties with China. In recent years, China has had no better friend than South Korea in the region--a cultural admirer, with residual memories of the close political and cultural ties that existed in Ming times, and hopeful that Beijing would help stabilize the situation in the peninsula. It is China’s largest trading partner in the region and has been eagerly hospitable to Chinese visits. Today Seoul stands disillusioned with Beijing’s shielding of North Korea from the global outrage over the Cheonan incident when North torpedoed the 88-meter-long warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors in March. Rather than berating Pyongyang, China watered down the presidential statement from the UN Security Council condemning the attack in which North Korea was not even identified as the culprit. As a result, no punishment has been meted out to North Korea for its brinkmanship.
China’s soft power in East Asia lies in tatters and the entire premise of China’s "peaceful rise" has come under a cloud. Indian policy-makers need a realistic assessment of what China’s rise and growing assertiveness means for Indian foreign policy priorities. China has already targeted India in many ways and once it is able to gain hegemony in East Asia, New Delhi will find it difficult to preserve its vital interests. The time to hedge bets against such an eventuality is now.