The South China Sea controversy demonstrates how Beijing’s actions will inevitably draw Washington and New Delhi closer together.
The respective security roles that the United States and India traditionally play in East Asia seemed to switch last week. By deciding not to supply Taiwan with the new fighter aircraft it has requested, the U.S. appeared to defer to China, which had cautioned that the sale was a “red line” that must not be crossed. In contrast, New Delhi’s determined sally into the South China Sea, in defiance of Beijing’s explicit warnings, exemplified the strategic assertion that the Obama administration has been urging on India. The dichotomy offers a glimpse of the shifting power dynamics now underway in Asia and, perhaps, a preview of what the regional security order might look like beyond the horizon.
The U.S. decision to refurbish Taiwan’s aging F-16 fleet rather than provide it with more sophisticated versions of the aircraft is taken by some in Asia as the latest sign of China’s ascent and America’s subsidence in the western Pacific, an area long thought of as a U.S. lake. The Associated Press reported that Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin sees the decision primarily as a function of Beijing’s growing financial leverage vis-à-vis Washington. “It has a large debt and if China will try to apply pressure, the U.S. can end up in trouble,” he said. “The U.S. has to temper its relations with Taiwan for China.” The report also quoted a South Korean defense analyst as saying that some in that country have reached the conclusion that it would be better to bandwagon with China than continue to adhere to the decades-old security alliance with the United States.
By striking coincidence, a similar storyline was being replicated last week in another part of the world in which Washington has long exercised sway. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner put in an unprecedented appearance at a gathering of European finance officials called to address the region’s burgeoning debt crisis. His presence was intended to signal U.S. concern about the spillover potential of Europe’s financial woes. But some in the audience did not take kindly to his telling them what to do. Both the Austrian and Belgian finance ministers tartly questioned how the Americans could presume to dispense advice when their own fiscal house is in such visible disarray. One media commentator observed the proceedings underscore that “in the wake of the debt-ceiling debacle, Geithner has lost a significant amount of international heft.” The Europeans, on the other, are much more interested these days in China’s views. With Beijing sitting on top of the world’s largest pile of foreign exchange, regional leaders have started to look to it as a potential financial savior.
India’s actions last week, in contrast, were the very definition of foreign policy steadfastness. On a visit to Vietnam, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna announced that the overseas arm of India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) would proceed with hydrocarbon exploration activities in the South China Sea, an energy-rich area that in claimed in almost its entirety by Beijing. China has been increasingly brusque in asserting its claim of “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters, which it last year elevated to a “core national interest.” The marker Krishna laid down comes two months after Beijing warned New Delhi against involving itself in the area and after an unusual incident between the INS Airavat, an amphibious warfare vessel, and the Chinese navy off the coast of Vietnam.
New Delhi’s temerity sparked a passionate reaction in the China Times, a nationalist tabloid affiliated with the Communist Party. It lashed out in a lead editorial that India was engaged in “a serious political provocation” that constitutes a major challenge to China’s national resolve. It urged the Chinese leadership to use “every means possible” to reverse Indian actions. And in what seemed to be a retaliatory move, Beijing quickly announced that it would expand seabed explorations in the southwestern Indian Ocean.
Media commentary in India saw things differently. A Times of India editorial averred that “India has done well to hold its ground” and termed the ONGC move as a befitting response to the infrastructure projects China is conducting in the disputed territory of Kashmir. In a similar vein, Harsh V. Pant, a well-known foreign policy expert, noted that if “China wants to expand its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, New Delhi’s thinking goes, India can do the same thing in East Asia.” And M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, called India’s actions “a historic move,” arguing that “India’s ‘Look East’ policy acquires swagger. The Sino-Indian geostrategic rivalry is not going to be the same again.”
Observing the train of events, Time magazine’s “Global Spin” blog asked “Is This How Wars Start?” Of course, a booming bilateral economic relationship gives New Delhi and Beijing strong reason to moderate impulses toward outright military conflict. But as both countries continue simultaneously to rise in power and prestige, dynamics of competition and one-upmanship will inevitability deepen. This pattern is already evident in their Himalayan border area, in Burma and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region and as far afield as Africa. And as last week’s events demonstrate, the South China Sea is now emerging as a new arena for strategic rivalry.
Pundits in Washington who doubt the prospects for the United States and India conjoining in a coalition directed against China should take note. The meteoric rise of Beijing’s power and the assertiveness in which it is exercised will ineluctably draw Washington and New Delhi even closer together. As a former U.S. official once predicted, “we don’t need to talk about the containment of China. It will take care of itself as India rises.”