INS Trishul (F43) talwar frigate

Asia’s Great Naval Rivalry: Are these the beginnings of a 21st century cold war?

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September 5, 2011

INS Trishul (F43) talwar frigate

By Mohan Malik, Wall Street Journal, above: INS Trishul, an Indian Talwar-class, guided missile frigate

Media reports last week of a Chinese warship confronting an Indian navy vessel in the South China Sea come as that part of the world is the scene of diplomatic tussling. In recent months, the Philippines and Vietnam objected to Chinese harassment of oil exploration vessels and fishermen. Last year, Beijing let it be known that it would not tolerate another maritime power operating in the South China Sea—which its officials have described as a “core interest.”

It is clearer by the day that this trend will lead to some kind of showdown. China’s growing economic strength, military might and hypernationalism at home are spurring actions abroad that bring it into increasingly dangerous conflicts. The best solution to defuse tension would be to get the biggest naval powers in the region together and draw up general rules for sea navigation and commerce.

The Indian ship in question, INS Airavat, was completing a port call in Vietnam, a country that often clashes with China. The two fought a war over unresolved territorial and maritime boundaries in 1979. Vietnam perceives China as an irredentist and expansionist power. It recently has increased coordination, military and diplomatic, with nations that also see China as a threat, to hedge against its neighbor.

India certainly shares Vietnam’s views on China, and has been receptive to Hanoi’s outreach. New Delhi’s relationship with Beijing is scarred by a border war it fought in 1962 and by other unresolved territorial troubles in the Indian northeast. The two also compete for geopolitical influence, especially as they scramble for energy resources. In 2007, Beijing strongly protested a Vietnamese-Indian energy exploration project in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

India is maneuvering for advantage in those spheres of influence that overlap with China. Vietnam could be to India what Pakistan is to China—a friend because it could be the enemy of its enemy.

The geopolitical chess game intensifies as Chinese and Indian navies show off their flags in the Indian and Pacific oceans with greater frequency. India, for one, is wary of leaving its trade and energy supply routes in the Pacific Ocean to the goodwill of China’s navy.

India’s total trade volume with East Asian economies now exceeds that with the European Union or the United States, while more than half of India’s trade now goes through the Malacca and Singapore Straits. This economic reality drives strategy. As part of its “Look East” strategy, India has concluded over a dozen defense cooperation agreements over the last decade with Southeast and East Asian countries.

In particular, the Indian Navy places energy security and sea-lane protection as priorities. In December 2006, then-Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta expanded the conceptual construct of India’s “greater strategic neighborhood” to include potential sources of oil and gas imports located across the globe—from Venezuela to the Sakhalin Islands.

Not surprisingly, Beijing casts a wary eye on its neighbor’s “Look East” policy. It has protested India’s joint naval exercises with the United States, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore in the East China and South China Seas. Beijing believes all this has been encouraged by Japan and the U.S. to contain China.

Beijing is plainly uncomfortable with the prospect of India’s rise. It has derided U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s calls to India, made most recently in Chennai this year, to play a greater role in East Asia. The Chinese took umbrage at the 2010 “Quadrennial Defense Review,” published by the Pentagon, which described India “as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.” Much to China’s chagrin, India’s naval activism has encouraged countries ranging from South Korea and Japan to Vietnam and Indonesia to “view India as a possible counterweight to future China in Southeast Asia.”

So China is clawing for influence, just as India is. For Beijing, this means presence in the Indian Ocean; for New Delhi, naval presence in the Pacific Ocean becomes critical for strategic deterrence against Beijing.

On current trends, their maritime rivalry could spill into the open in a decade or two, when one Indian aircraft carrier will be deployed in the Pacific Ocean and one Chinese aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. The ostensible reason will be to safeguard each other’s sea lanes of communication.

But, in the absence of rules of engagement and mutual trust, trouble could easily brew. Unresolved disputes, competition for scarce resources, and status and prestige considerations one day can precipitate an armed conflict the next. Since all maritime trading powers have a common interest in the freedom of navigation across the global seas, there is an urgent need to frame rules as well as boost confidence-building measures among regional navies. The Indian Ocean can’t be treated as India’s ocean and the South China Sea as China’s sea.

At the bilateral level, avoiding accidental provocations ought to be accorded high priority. A good starting point could be an agreement such as the 1972 Incidents at Sea agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that set out basic protocols to minimize the risk of conflicts and prevent escalation of any problems. Naval cooperation—joint exercises, exchanges and interoperability—between the two countries can alleviate tension, and maneuver-space agreements can help avoid needless confrontations.

India isn’t the only country that needs such a bilateral understanding with China. Japan does too. Last year, a dispute over the Senkaku Islands broke out when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese coast guard ship.

Multiple bilateral treaties could work, but the time is right for strong multilateral action, as China and India have themselves hinted. A naval conference of major stakeholders in the Indian and Pacific Oceans is sorely needed—attended mainly by navy chiefs from the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, Indonesia and India—to devise common approaches to challenges.

Such an inclusive forum would bring together all major economies and energy consumers with an interest in ensuring secure sea lanes and stable, affordable energy supplies. If such broad multilateralism doesn’t work, a smaller, four-party naval conference involving the United States, China, India and Japan—the countries possessing the four most powerful navies in the Asia-Pacific—would be in order.

Wider action is needed from the international community. Otherwise, growing ambitions, competing interests and the scramble for scarce resources may well spoil Asia’s march to prosperity.

Mr. Malik is professor in Asian Security at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu and author of “China and India: Great Power Rivals” (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011).

(c) 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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