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Chinese and American Muscle-flexing in South-China Sea: Implications for India

Dr. R. N. Das is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 19, 2010

    After a temporary lull, tension and turbulence have resurfaced in the placid waters of South China Sea in the wake of the Cheonan incident in March 2010 in which a South Korean ship was allegedly destroyed by North Korea. This seems to have triggered a face-off between China on the one hand and the US and South Korea on the other. The latest phase of tension began when the US and South Korea held a joint naval exercise from 24 to 27 July in the Sea of Japan with an oblique reference to restrain Pyongyang from its military adventurism. Pyongyang, however, had denied the allegation. Chinese military analysts said the joint naval exercise by the US and South Korea placed the Chinese capital within striking distance of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.1 Not to be left behind, China simultaneously held a naval exercise in the South China Sea. As such exercises take a long period of advanced preparation, it is difficult to speculate if the two exercises were just coincidence or were pre-planned.

    The jurisdiction over South China Sea which has rich natural resources like oil and gas and which is of great strategic significance, has been a matter of dispute between China and a number of littoral states in the region. A large volume of the world’s merchandise passes through these sea-lanes. China has claimed a large number of islands there and in fact the entire South China Sea. In a submission to the United Nations in May 2010, China claimed that it had “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the sea-bed and subsoil. . .” It attached a map along with its claim to the UN that shows the entire South China Sea as part of its territory.2

    The Chinese military exercise was well orchestrated by the Chinese media, which reported that the exercise was witnessed by Chief of General Staff of the People’s Army Chen Bingde, as well as by the navy commander and other high level military leaders. It was reported that “Cheng Bingde stressed that (the military) should pay close attention to changes in the situation and tasks, and get well prepared for military conflict.” The Chinese media also quoted Li Jie, a researcher with the Chinese Navy’s military academy, as saying that “Beijing has shown it has the determination to protect its territory not only through diplomatic speeches but also by demonstrating its military strength.” He was further quoted as saying, “If the bottom lines were to be crossed, then China would firmly react.” Li also said the actions further stress that the South China Sea is one of China’s core interests.3

    What further fuelled the tension already building up in the South China Sea was the statement of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Vietnam on 23 July that resolving the South China Sea issue was pivotal to regional stability and mooted “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.”4

    As expected, China reacted very strongly to this overture fraught with strategic implications for it. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized the idea as “attack on China,” an article in Global Times, which is basically a government mouthpiece, was captioned “American Shadow over the South China Sea.” The article cautioned the South-east Asian countries that “regional stability will be difficult to maintain” if they “allow themselves to be controlled” by the United States. The article further added, “South-east Asian countries need to understand any attempt to maximize gains by playing a balancing game between China and the US is risky…China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.”5 In yet another article, China criticized Ms. Clinton’s idea “to internationalize the South China Sea issue” and said that the US wants to “put off its resolutions so as to contain China’s rise.” The article also said that “Washington has strengthened its military cooperation in the region, stealthily instigated and supported some local countries to scramble for the Nancha Islands, and has dispatched naval vessels to China’s exclusive economic zone to conduct surveys.”6

    What exacerbated the matter further was the report that the Obama administration is in an advanced stage of negotiation to share nuclear fuel and technology with Vietnam.7 To demonstrate that words matched with intent, a US nuclear super carrier, the USS George Washington, stopped at Danang, about 320 km off Vietnam’s central coast in the South China Sea. Although the port call was ostensibly billed to mark the commemoration of last month’s 15th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam, the timing reflected Washington’s heightened interest in maintaining security and stability in the region.8

    The move was perceived by China as the latest example of the US’s renewed assertiveness in South and South-east Asia, as Washington strengthens ties with nations that have grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s regional might. China was flabbergasted at the US insistence on a nuclear deal with Vietnam. A leading Chinese strategic expert on nuclear policy and disarmament, in an interview to an Indian newspaper, said that any move to allow Vietnam to enrich its own uranium would be a “double standard” on part of the US. ‘If the US-Vietnam nuclear deal is a copy of the US deal with the United Arab Emirates, there is no fuss. But if it [involves] enrichment of spent fuel, that is the matter we worry about,” Zhai Dequan, the deputy secretary general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament association, said. Mr. Zhai further said that the deal would likely be seen in China in the context of Ms. Clinton’s remarks, which suggested a move by the US to internationalize the South China Sea issue as well as expand its footprints in the region.9

    This development in the region has its remote resonance on Indian foreign policy. India has to calibrate its relationship with China, the US, and countries of the region with great circumspection. No doubt it is a tight ropewalk. There is a perception in some sections of the Chinese strategic community that “on a strategic level, Washington wants South-east Asia to form the centre of an Asian strategic alliance that includes North-east Asia, South-east Asia and India.”10 It is against this backdrop that every diplomatic posturing by India in respect of the countries of the region has to be nuanced.

    • 1. China Daily, 30 July 2010.
    • 2. Mint, 4 August 2010.
    • 3. China Daily, 30 July 2010.
    • 4. Nayan Chanda, Looking for a Sea Change, The Times of India, 7 August 2010.
    • 5. Global Times, 26 July 2010.
    • 6. China Daily, 29 July 2010.
    • 7. The Wall Street Journal, in Mint, 6 August 2010.
    • 8. The Times of India, 9 August 2010.
    • 9. The Hindu, 9 August 2010.
    • 10. China Daily, 29 July 2010.