Utter the word “China” and the world thinks of only one thing – appease, accommodate or run. With nothing but a lot of belligerence, outrageous claims to territory and alliance with rogue nations they seem to bend the world to their will. Nowhere is this more apparent than their commanding dominance in the South China Sea (SCS). Here, China has managed to create a strategic masterpiece enabled by the iconic strategist Sun Tzu’s maxims reverberating through the ages – “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
But first the facts and eventually why India needs to be involved.
SCS is part of the Pacific Ocean straddling about 1.4 million square miles of open sea located South of China, East of Vietnam and East of the Malay Peninsula up to the straits of Malacca, West of the Philippines and North of Borneo.
It consists of over 250 small islands, reefs, shoals, rocks, atolls and islets of varying size most of which are submerged at high tide.
These features are usually referred by their grouping, the prominent ones among them being the Spratly islands, the Paracel islands, the Pratas islands, the Macclesfield Bank, and the Scarborough Shoal.
It’s a hub for a network of shipping lanes linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans forming a key lifeline for global trade in resources. About five trillion in ship borne trade passes through these crucial waterways every year.
Sixty percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies and 80 percent of China’s crude imports pass through the SCS.
Almost one third of the world’s shipping sails through the waters of SCS.
It is estimated to contain at least 213 billion barrels of oil.
Control of SCS by China would enable China to dominate major trading routes through which oil flows and be able to deny navigational access to nations they wish to intimidate, such as India. Such total dominance would allow China to foray into the Indian Ocean and create problems for India via Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The vast oil and natural gas reserves would substantially increase their energy security and provide the resources to power a formidable war machine.
China claims almost all of SCS based on historical claims and delineated their claim via a nine dash line in 1947. This is vehemently disputed by at least five countries Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.
It is to their eternal credit as a civilization that the Chinese in 1947, despite being weak, divided, racked by poverty, and humiliated for centuries by foreign powers, were able to understand the potential wealth buried in SCS, and immediately make a bold claim for it via a nine dash line on the map which encompasses almost the whole of SCS. Since then they have waited like a wounded panther, and strategized for the day when they could become strong enough to stake their claims.
Unlike India who donned the political armor of sitting on the fence of left-leaning non-alignment and preaching to the world, the Chinese were under no such delusion of grandiosity and had their feet planted firmly on the dynamics of real power to ensure that the resources of the world including the sea lanes of commerce accrue to China’s benefit. The goal at that time seemed unreachable but they played the “can-be-ignored nation” card, lulled the world into complacence, made the crucial alliance with America, created trouble for rivals, India and Japan via Pakistan and North Korea, and quietly built up their strength via their unstated policy “power flows from the barrel of a gun”.
In the case of South China Sea, they first made the claim based on ancient history going way back to the Xia and Han dynasty and let the world know that the territory within the nine dash line belongs exclusively to China. Even though at least five other countries (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei) countered their brazen claims, it ended up as a dialogue of the deaf. China’s stance remained ambiguous, vague and in 1947, the world was distracted in a whirl of movements against the White man’s colonial domination. No one spoke up then and no one is speaking up now - at least not loud enough.
China then did what it does best – acquiring territory under the radar, away from the noise of booming guns, slowly, steadily by a strategic process called salami slicing. It involves accumulating small pieces of land, the land acquired is so small that the world hardly notices. Slowly, as time moves on, the acquired pieces of land add up to a substantial territory under their command.
While maintaining a façade of spinning wheels of trade with the contending nations, the Chinese have reclaimed over 3200 acres of land from reefs and islets mostly from the Spratly islands, built airstrips and powerful radar systems, reefs that can accommodate air force assets, runways and ports, missiles, warships and even installed SAM (Surfact to air missile) batteries in the Paracel islands claimed by Vietnam.
Salami slicing has enabled the Chinese to establish an administrative center for all its claims called “Sansha city” in disputed Woody Island hotly contested by Vietnam. Giving substantial heft to this silk-thin veneer of sovereignty is the parading of a 5000 ton paramilitary patrol vessel along with other military and paramilitary garrisons. In addition, Philippines is agonizing over the loss of Scarborough Shoal in an unequal battle where the Chinese captured it using a “cabbage patch” strategy, which is essentially surrounding the enemy with concentric circles of military hardware and soldiers in a sort of modern equivalent of a siege.
The dragon does not hesitate to bare its teeth even on relatively strong countries. There are 5 excursions per month into the territorial waters around Senkaku islands claimed by Japan. On May 19, 2016, Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S military aircraft and in October 2015, China angrily denounced the sailing through of the guided missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, in the waters close to sub reef.
In July 2011, Chinese navy confronted an Indian naval ship, INS Airavat, demanding to know why the ship was in Chinese territory, in spite of the ship being on International waters. On Feb, 2016, China warned against U.S-India joint naval patrols in SCS. In May 2014, China moved an oil rig in the waters claimed by Vietnam and Vietnamese shipping boats are constantly harassed.
A war plane circles ominously on Sub reef next to Fiery Cross reef, a disputed area claimed by 5 countries, sending the message to any nation with an “I dare you” stance. You can smell the air and it seems like you are in Hitler’s Germany before World War II.
Suddenly, countries are clamoring loudly for action and even trumpeting their displeasure in desperation as they realize with increasing dismay that “peaceful china” is eating their lunch and that too with a menacing grin.
The only nation that can deter China and put a halt to its messianic zeal to own SCS, is busy swiping daggers with the Bear in Ukraine and Syria. In Iraq and Libya they are embroiled with the ISIS trek to “sharia heaven.” Despite the much touted “pivot to Asia”, the Obama administration is seen by Asian leaders as missing in action in SCS. While the rest of the world including India continues to yawn, the crouching dragon is ready to pounce on the jackpot of SCS.
And when that is allowed to happen, India will be the first low lying fruit that China will pick. For they know that the quixotic caravans of peace still perched on the delusional wall of non-alignment with their exclusive agenda “bring down Modi,” do not care for the Chinese in SCS or Arunachal Pradesh or anywhere else. Nor will there be any opposition from the spiteful media that afflicts the nation like a low-grade fever. They also know that a weak and shrinking navy and an emasculated army suffering years of neglect under the moribund UPA cannot stand up to the Chinese navy hammering Mumbai from the gates of Gwadar or Karachi.
Therefore, it is in India’s interest to protect its maritime rights and interests including freedom of Navigation of the sea and the sea lanes of commerce by making a bold strategic move to bring Russia and America together to counter China. It may seem like a tough call, but such bold strokes happened before as when China and America were brought together by the Nixon China strategic embrace. China was weak and cornered in 1971, a virtual pariah among nations, but the embrace of Nixon gave it respectability and a very fruitful alliance that built up its economic and military might. The agent that brought about this historical embrace is none other than our nemesis, Pakistan. Needless to say, the strategic and political dividends that Pakistan reaped were enormous.
India too, can be an agent-facilitator acting in a similar fashion to engineer a tactical alliance between Russia and America. Americans have belatedly realized the serious implications of SCS. But war weary and with an economy slowly going South, America is slow in responding to the threats by China. Distracted in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the superpower’s foreign policy seems more poised to putting out fires than confronting the growing menace of China.
A tactical embrace of Russia and America would solve the problems due to their rivalry in the Middle East. The U.S could also stop provoking the bear by halting expansion of NATO in Russia’s backyard. This may also include not stationing missiles in Poland. More than anything else, it should stop the American demonizing of Russia, which is driving the Russians into Chinese arms. The ramifications of a Russia China embrace would leave China the uncontested bully not only in SCS but also all over Asia ensuring economic thuggery with a military swagger.
If there is a will, this diplomatic coup can be done, as Russia is also wary of the Chinese desire to poach into Eastern Siberia and lure Central Asia with their check book diplomacy. This coup will enable India to maintain relations with both - long-time ally and friend, Russia, and their new found friend America. Once Russian concerns are addressed, Gulliver like America can have its hands free to deal with the bigger menace of China choking the “Freedom of Navigation of the Sea” by militarizing its marine assets. Even if it’s a long shot, it’s worth taking, failing which, India can still protect her interests by getting down from the comfort zone of left-leaning nonalignment and aligning with America while also managing her relations with Russia.
America has laid down the welcome mat for India to join its bandwagon of democracies since the signing of the India-U.S civil nuclear agreement in 2005. India, however, has been slow to respond to this strategic embrace in order to avoid annoying China. The dragon however has shown no such reciprocity. Instead it has shown its ruthless and relentless animosity towards India by -
a) arming Pakistan with nuclear weapons and missiles,
b) circling India with the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC) to access Gwadar port and eventually harass Indian ships plying in the Arabian Sea,
c) obstructing India’s entry into APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation)
d) making India’s entry into SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) contingent upon Pakistan also getting inside the SCO,
e) influencing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, of which India is a major shareholder, to approve its first loan to Pakistan,
f) blocking India’s move to ban Jaish-i-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar at the UN
g) Blocking India’s entry into the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group)
h) menacing the border with frequent incursions at Ladakh,
i) audaciously laying claim to the whole state of Arunachal Pradesh and providing stapled visas to residents of that state,
j) building dams and hydroelectric power plants in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in lands disputed by India and many more.
China leaves no stone unturned to put India in its place.
Hence there is no reason why India should coddle China intent on hurting her at every step. The apostles of left-leaning nonalignment need to wake up to the global power game which operates under the principle of “in politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.” Even sworn enemies have come together to counter a common threat, as for example America and Vietnam. For forty years they were daggers drawn but now they have skillfully eschewed all hostility and come together in a strategic embrace to counter China in SCS.
America’s welcome mat has now become a red carpet with the U.S willing to treat India as an ally similar to NATO and Israel, even willing to provide it with submarine capability and warfare. In March of this year before Defense secretary Ashton Carter’s visit, the U.S Congress introduced legislation to amend the Arms Export Control Act to reinforce terms to ensure India as an ally.
Fortunately, the Modi Govt. is slowly veering away from the useless stance of decades of nonalignment and taken initial steps in principle to sign the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) to provide logistics facilities to the U.S Military and vice versa. India could use the leverage created by such an alliance to ensure India’s interests regarding Kashmir and restraining American support for Hurriyat separatists.
However America is no angel and India would be wise to sup with them using a long spoon. Yet, the advantages of aligning with America far outweigh being nonaligned and remaining in splendid isolation while China straddles the Indian Ocean, acquires capabilities to block Indian ports and gobbles up territory in Ladakh.
The battle lines are being drawn for the SCS’s game of thrones as gunslinger China is getting ready for action. As blustering winds of aggression blow hard on SCS, many countries are adjusting their sails via military alliances. India can either seize the moment and ride with them or sit on the shores of disaster wallowing on the cozy comfort of inaction.
As Trotsky so eloquently put it, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”