THE CHURN IN THE OCEANS

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Ananth Kr­ish­nan

The al­most 4,000 km-long un­de­mar­cated land bound­ary that sep­a­rates In­dia and China tends to oc­cupy much of the at­ten­tion when it comes to the thorny bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship. But in­creas­ingly, it’s not just on land but at sea where the two Asian pow­ers are rub­bing up against each other with grow­ing fre­quency, whether in the In­dian Ocean or in the South China Sea. And un­like on land, where both coun­tries have painstak­ingly come up with as many as four dif­fer­ent agree­ments that lay out de­tailed con­fi­dence-build­ing and con­flic­tre­duc­ing mea­sures, there is, till date, nowhere close to an un­der­stand­ing on man­ag­ing their en­coun­ters on sea.

The prob­lem is any prospect of ad­dress­ing this dilemma ap­pears to be dim, or so say the fine strate­gic minds whose es­says make up this new vol­ume. David Brew­ster, a se­nior re­search fel­low with the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Col­lege at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity who has edited the book, ar­gues that there’s a fun­da­men­tal fail­ure by both sides to grasp the other’s mo­ti­va­tions and con­cerns on the seas. In In­dia, he says, most are con­vinced that ev­ery Chi­nese ac­tion in the In­dian Ocean is be­ing di­rected at In­dia, which is fur­ther fu­elled by a Chi­nese re­fusal to recog­nise some of In­dia’s le­git­i­mate con­cerns.

Strate­gists have long de­bated the “string of pearls” of Chi­nese mil­i­tary bases and the mo­ti­va­tions of Bei­jing’s In­dian Ocean in­ten­tions. To­day, the fact is that an ac­tive Chi­nese pres­ence is no longer just spec­u­la­tion, ar­gues Aus­tralian scholar Rory Med­calf. In­dia and other res­i­dent pow­ers need to ad­just to this reality, he says, but this does not mean they must ac­cept it on Chi­nese terms.

Per­haps easier said than done. John Garver, the Amer­i­can Si­nol­o­gist, of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal anal­y­sis of China’s neigh­bour­hood strat­egy, which, “shows cer­tain re­sem­blance to autism” in its in­abil­ity to grasp its neigh­bours’ views. This he at­tributes to “deeply rooted and emo­tion­ally pow­er­ful” Chi­nese be­liefs of their coun­try’s “glo­ri­ous” im­pe­rial his­tory and mythol­o­gised re­la­tions with its “in­fe­rior” but grate­ful neigh­bour­hood clientstat­es, which leaves China in­ca­pable of ad­dress­ing the deep ap­pre­hen­sions about its ris­ing power.

For Garver, the dan­ger is that the fail­ure to do so will in­evitably see China’s neigh­bours grav­i­tat­ing to each other in search of col­lec­tive se­cu­rity (al­ready ev­i­dent in the nascent re­union of the Quad) while the ris­ing Chi­nese ten­dency to view any ap­pre­hen­sions as in­sid­i­ous “anti-China” coali­tions may even­tu­ally lead it to “em­brace a force­ful move to break out of this loom­ing en­cir­clement”.

Garver’s dis­turb­ing con­clu­sion is that In­dia may be the weak tar­get if Bei­jing chooses to do so, and that the PLA’s rapid ac­qui­si­tion of ca­pa­bil­i­ties aimed at fight­ing and win­ning a war against the United States over Tai­wan leaves it in­creas­ingly ca­pa­ble, if it wishes, of seiz­ing the An­daman is­lands. “The point is not that China is about to seize the An­damans,” he says, “but that it con­tin­ues to en­hance the ma­te­rial ca­pa­bil­ity to do that”. As Garver re­minds us, China is lit­er­ally mov­ing ever closer with its moves to ex­pand its pres­ence in the South China Sea. To­day, the straight line dis­tance be­tween Fiery Cross shoal (the PLA’s main base in the Spratlys) and Port Blair is only dou­ble the dis­tance from Visakha­p­at­nam, and with ev­ery pass­ing day, the dis­tance nar­rows.

The In­dia-China re­la­tion­ship has al­ways in­volved a sen­si­tive bal­ance of com­pe­ti­tion and co­op­er­a­tion. This book serves a timely re­minder that any last­ing at­tempt at main­tain­ing this bal­ance and pre­vent­ing a slide into con­flict would not be im­pos­si­ble with­out solv­ing this emerg­ing—but long ig­nored—chal­lenge from the sea.

China is mov­ing ever closer to In­dia with its moves to ex­pand its pres­ence in the South China Sea

By David Brew­ster

In­dia & China at Sea: Com­pe­ti­tion for Naval Dom­i­nance in the In­dian Ocean Ox­ford Univer­sity Press `950; 256 pages

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