At the Raisina Dialogue, the Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar pointing out that India is not a ‘disruptionist power’ at the world stage and it should not be a self-centred or a mercantilist. He, in fact, was indicating that China, which of late has been destroying the strategic balance and behaving like a mercantilist power by indulging in its debt trap game plan under the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), should desist from such sinister activities.
Such remarks have been made in the backdrop of continuing Chinese aggressive activities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. In the South China Sea, Beijing is blatantly violating international norms. It continues to make sweeping claims in that region on the basis of self-created nine-dashed lines for which there is no basis. After creating artificial islands it has militarised them. It is making aggressive moves in the EEZs of other countries. In 2014, China had deployed the Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HYSY 981) oil rig and three Chinese oil and gas service ships in the EEZs of Vietnam. In 2019, China had deployed a ship for a month-long seismic survey, together with armed escorts, into Tu Chinh–Vung May Basin. Chinese coast guard ships patrolled Malaysian-claimed waters for 258 days over the year ending in September 2019. Recently, China had dispatched armed coastguard vessels to accompany fishing trawlers into disputed waters around a strategic island (Natuna) chain claimed by Indonesia, which has responded by sending warships to the area.
China’s assertive moves are backed by the growing military and naval heft as well as massive financial muscle. It has created naval bases in Cambodia using its economic power. Dara Sakor is the new port being built in Cambodia by Beijing. China is enhancing its naval capabilities in the region to reinforce its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
China has also rejected the PCA Ruing. Lack of follow up of the arbitral Ruling has not only emboldened China to continue with its assertive activities in violation of international norms and laws but is also changing the geo-strategic balance in the region. The blatant use of coercive diplomacy by China has ensured that the other disputants do not oppose the Chinese claims. The ASEAN has not been able to contain Chinese activities. The meetings show differences among the members in the approach towards China on the one hand and other disputants on the other. On the contentious issues, instead of unified statements, the joint communiques only mention the phrases like ‘some leaders’ and ‘some ministers’. The single draft of CoC reflects several differences. It is unlikely to be finalised by next year or even a year later.
In the Indian Ocean, the Chinese naval presence is rapidly increasing. The Indian Navy Chief speaking at the Raisina Dialogue clearly pointed out that China’s BRI and China –Pakistan Economic Corridor impinge on India’s sovereignty. He further said that there had been instances when PLA (N) ships had entered India’s EEZ and Navy had told them it impinged on India’s sovereignty.
While the message was loud and clear to China, it is unlikely to deter that country which is guided by self-interest and has no concern for international laws and norms. The moot question is how to deal with increasingly aggressive China which has the economic power to coerce smaller disputants and its strategic aim is to establish its hegemony in the region. Its only claim on the South China Sea is based on its imaginary lines with the aim of converting it into its own lake and from there it is moving to the Indian Ocean.
Can Quad take action to contain China? While all nations would like to do so, their own differences may come in the way. None of them would like to see their relations with China as a zero-sum game. However, this appears to be an option and for this, all the powers have to work out a strategy to contain the Chinese activity, which is in their interests.
Without Russia’s help, any pressure on China is unlikely to work. Russia is opposing the concept of Indo-Pacific Vision as it perceives that its objective is to contain China and move away from the centrality of ASEAN in it. This is not true. India has made it clear that the Indo-Pacific Vision is not against any country but it is aimed at creating an open and democratically governed region with ASEAN playing a central role.
While India had stated that it will be a stabilising power indicating that it would not see the developments from the ring-side but would take decisive action to protect the region from being disrupted, the road appears to belong as it would have to obtain the support of other nations. The urgency to do so cannot be underestimated as China is permanently destroying the strategic balance in the region.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.