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