The latest Chinese warning to India not to carry out drilling activities in the South China Sea surely comes as a shocker, more so, since it comes across as yet another act of belligerence by our aggressive neighbour, who continues to pinprick India on every occasion possible. Whether it is continued border intrusions, issuing stapled visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir, building infrastructure in the border region opposite India or arming and aiding Pakistan for anti-India activities, China continues to be at India’s throat. The latest spat, which was the highlight of Foreign Minister S M Krishna’s recent visit to Hanoi, comes close on the heels of an Indian warship being buzzed by the Chinese Navy off the Vietnamese coast.
A word about the recent set of provocations apart from this oceanic spat; the continued presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) is a cause of anxiety to New Delhi. “Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan and the Northern Areas is increasing steadily. There are many who are concerned about the fact that if there was to be hostility between the US and Pakistan, what will be the complicity of the Chinese. Not only they are in the neighbourhood but are actually present and stationed along the line of control”, Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General K T Parnaik had remarked recently, while addressing a seminar in Jammu.
In yet another blatant act of intrusion, Chinese army personnel, in two helicopters, landed on the Indian side of the line of actual control in Village Chumur, Leh, on August, 25, and destroyed 17 unused bunkers of the Indian army. The entire episode was witnessed by ITBP personnel but was not reported to the Army authorities immediately. Instead, they sent a report directly to the Home Ministry, which remained quiet on the issue. An enquiry was ordered by the Deputy Commissioner, Leh, as late as September, 09; a clear case of ‘too less, too late”. It is notable that the Army has repeatedly asked the Defence Ministry to take up the intrusion issue with the Ministry of External Affairs, so that steps could be taken to properly demarcate the boundary with China. The Army has also asked for control over the ITBP in the region. Both issues are still hanging fire.
For India, another cause of worry is that China has been developing a rail and road network in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions bordering India. This includes the Qinghai-Tibet railway line and development of road and airport facilities. Beijing is laying a web of roads that run across areas as distant from each other as Skardu in PoK and Kunming in China near the Burma border. This is being done despite having already constructed roads connecting all its highways to logistic centres and major defence installations that dot its border with India. This move will actually translate into faster movement of its military machinery, when required for deployment against India.
For now, it seems that the oceans are the new theatre of Indo-China competition. India, for a change, did well to hold ground and press ahead with oil and gas exploration in two offshore blocks in Vietnam, despite the expected protests from China that sees the South China Sea as its exclusive sphere of influence. No sooner had this happened, China announced its plans to expand exploration of 10,000 sq km of seabed in the southwest Indian Ocean as part of its five year policy for oceanic development. This directly affects India and has security implications. India’s Naval Hydrograph Department has done extensive work towards mapping the bottom of the Indian Ocean and thus has a good knowledge of same. This not only helps Indian mariners, it is also invaluable for India’s defence and strategic planning. Once China begins mining here, all this knowledge would no more be exclusive to our Navy.
In order to counter inimical maritime ambitions of the Chinese in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India has to make a sagacious move to regain and retain its traditional influence in the Indian Ocean island states. Hence, the foremost task for Indian policy makers is to augment the economic and trade cooperation with these island countries. Secondly, the IOR needs to create an active forum to enhance economic and defence cooperation amongst member states. New Delhi should make a serious attempt to form a sub-regional grouping or rejuvenate the inactive Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). Such moves can possibly discourage the involvement of China.
China’s strengthening of relationship with island states in IOR is a replica of its Africa policy. To enhance influence in the western Indian Ocean, New Delhi must realise the importance of strong bonding with neglected East African countries. The US and India are two key players who can work together to combat piracy and terrorism in the Western Indian Ocean, as well as potentially squeeze Chinese aspirations. New Delhi, therefore, also needs to further strengthen Indo -US maritime cooperation. Additionally, the necessity of a reliable maritime access in the Indian Ocean requires India to have an effective blue water Navy.
India needs to dwell seriously on the aforementioned priorities while formulating our strategic outreach and foreign policy. There has to be a sense of urgency since procrastination will allow to China the space to simply run us over in the region. If India does not act fast she is are likely to be squeezed in from all sides, by China which is poised to do so already. It is time to wake up and face realities before it is too late.