By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Nov 11
Given China’s infrastructure building activity in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, there was more than a hint of irony in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remark this morning to his Chinese counterpart, Premier Wen Jiabao, that India’s oil and gas exploration, in partnership with Vietnam, in an offshore area claimed by China, was “purely commercial activity”. That and the PM’s remark that China’s claims over the South China Sea "should be resolved according to international law and practice" highlights a new Indian matter-of-factness in dealing with China. New Delhi’s diplomacy is increasingly unapologetic; without directly confronting Beijing, New Delhi will defend the robust pursuit of India’s national interest.
On the eve of the East Asia Summit on 19th Nov in Bali, China finds itself alone in its corner. In its unwise strategic over-reach during the preceding 18 months, Beijing has alarmed and alienated all of South East Asia by its aggressive assertion of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Last year, Beijing made a crisis of a joint South Korea-US naval exercise planned in international waters in the Yellow Sea. The arrest of a Chinese trawler captain for illegally entering Japanese waters snowballed into a vociferous and ugly anti-Japan campaign across several Chinese cities. Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats were regularly intimidated. And after Hillary Clinton suggested that the US had a national interest in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Beijing for the first time labelled the South China Sea as a Chinese “core interest”, on par with Tibet and Taiwan.
Given the alarm bells across ASEAN, it is hardly surprising that the US was invited for the first time to the 6th East Asia Summit. To render that direct approach less offensive to China, Russia was invited too. For China, the signal is clear: the Asia-Pacific is wary of a regional order that is dominated by China.
But Beijing has continued a confrontationist approach, with the state-controlled Chinese media now threatening the Asia-Pacific states with economic retaliation. Global Times warned in a commentary on Friday: “China has more resources to oppose the US ambition of dominating the region than US has to fulfil it. As long as China is patient, there will be no room for those who choose to depend economically on China while looking to the US to guarantee their security.”
Washington has jumped in with both feet. President Obama has said twice over the last week that, “the US is a Pacific power” and made it clear that the Asia-Pacific is the new US focus. This assertive new approach contrasts with Obama’s faint-hearted G-2 proposal to China (a two-member condominium of superpowers, US and China, to oversee global matters) during his 2009 presidential visit to that country. The American withdrawal from Iraq and its ongoing disengagement from Afghanistan have freed up the strategic will and military resources to confront what America sees as a rising global challenge.
The US has begun actively confronting the expressed intention of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) for gaining overlordship over the western Pacific Ocean. The PLAN intends to hold off US aircraft carrier battle groups at a distance from the Chinese coast, using weapons like anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) and “swarm tactics”, in which masses of low-tech attack vessels overwhelm the defences of US high-tech warships. This would allow the PLA to seize Taiwan, or to physically capture disputed territory in the South China Sea.
The US strategy for dealing with this is called AirSea Battle and emphasises defence against Chinese ballistic missiles. This joint Navy-Air Force doctrine combines firepower from US Air Force fighters, bombers, and missiles; with US Navy aircraft flown from carriers and land bases; and with missiles launched from submarines and surface ships. US military bases in Japan, South Korea, and Guam will be physically strengthened to withstand Chinese missile attacks, while an “active defence” would destroy PLA aircraft and missiles, using a mix of fighter aircraft, air defence weapons, electronic warfare, and cyber operations. Nuclear war plans will also be dovetailed into the AirSea Battle concept.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will walk a fine line at Bali, where his schedule includes official meetings with both President Obama and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. US officials are conspicuously pushing the phrase, “Indo-Pacific”, to induce India to play a more visible role. New Delhi is also receiving this message with increasing clarity from the ASEAN countries. While there is little inclination to join any overt anti-Beijing grouping, New Delhi is likely to publicly support formulations like “rule-based systems in the global commons”, implicitly ruling out unilateral Chinese claims over any part of the Indo-Pacific.