IPCS Discussion: The Evolving Situation in the East and South China Seas

14 Feb, 2013    ·   3816

Rana Divyank Chaudhary reports on the discussion led by Professors Kanti Bajpai and Huang Jing on the US Pivot, Chinese Interests and Beyond

Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Research Intern
Prof Kanti Bajpai
There are certain core issues which have always cast a shadow over the relations between India and China. The first core issue is the Sino-Indian border. The second is the India-Pakistan-China triangle which continues to bedevil the relationship. The third is the fear on both sides that the other does and will continue to interfere in its domestic politics.
Looking forward, there are a series of issues growing between India and China. These issues structurally flow from the two countries’ fast and simultaneous economic growth. One expects high rates of economic growth over a long period of time to translate into greater military power. There has been a strong drive for military modernisation and expansion in force numbers in both India and China. 

Secondly, with rise in hard power, the countries' desire for greater global importance also grows and they become more assertive in expressing their opinions on issues which do not immediately or even regionally concern them. Thirdly, one can expect the demand for four strategic resources to increase sharply - food, water, energy, and strategic minerals - from the point of view of agricultural and industrial growth as well as burgeoning household needs. 
In this fast evolving context, are India and China headed on a path of unavoidable competition or conflict? There is a hope that in spite of these growing concerns, there are opportunities for collaboration and at the very least, parallel interests and possibly similar positions on structural issues. This is a paradoxical scenario with both India and China poised at the cusp of conflict and cooperation. 
Prof Huang Jing
The overall strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific can be summed up in two keywords – integration and uncertainty. Never before has the entire region, including China and India, been integrated in terms of economic development such as now. This integration of economies is a result of the market forces and the division of labour prevalent in the international economy. The resulting interdependence has laid the foundation for cooperation and stability in this region.
However, uncertainty is the other side of the story which is more complicated and worrisome. All the major powers in the region – the US, China, India, Japan, and so on – are in transition. One of the major characteristics of this transition is that domestic politics has become a major driver and foreign policy is becoming increasingly expendable. All the major powers are demonstrating ad hoc foreign policies, lacking long term vision and rationality and focusing on countering each other in the short term. 
Secondly, this region’s strategic balance too has been shifting. So far, all the states tried to align with or respond to US strategy which was the pre-eminent external yardstick. Now, China is the new yardstick in terms of economy, trade, and military power. All major powers have to now hedge against these two centres. Thirdly, the states now in ascendance, namely India, China, and Russia, have a growing sense of importance and responsibility in global and regional affairs. But the existing US-led security arrangements are structurally exclusive of their needs and concerns. The national security interests of China and India are not institutionally compensated in the region.
The East China Sea islands dispute is a conflict between China and Japan over national pride, capacity and determination. Japan, being dependent on the US, will inevitably bring it into this conflict. But the US has failed to back up other states in the region vis-a-vis China. Can it back up Japan? The regimes in China, Japan, and the US are all transitional and new. None can afford to climb down on external issues deeply linked with domestic sentiments and pressure groups. Any meaningful compromise at the moment is improbable.
On the South China Sea islands dispute, the Chinese take three factors into consideration. Firstly, they know time is on China’s side and it will grow stronger. Secondly, the Southeast Asian states are unlikely to form a consensus or make common cause against China. Thirdly, the US is even less likely to militarily back these states in a major confrontation with China. China will remain tough and uncompromising as long as it sees all the factors tipped in its favour. It will take full advantage of its strategic ambiguity and its thrust for multilateralism in cooperation and bilateralism in conflict resolution.

The American perspective by Prof PR Chari

When the US speaks of the “pivot,” its intentions are clear which is to contain China. It seeks to counter China’s territorial expansion in the East and South China Seas and cast itself in the role of the protector of international law of the seas and freedom of navigation. Obversely, this casts China as a contrarian planning to revise international laws and threaten free use of arterial sea lanes. 

The pivot is an offshore containment strategy much like the US containment of the USSR all along the latter’s periphery during the Cold War and will require the support of all of America’s major partners – Japan, South Korea, Australia, and of course, Taiwan. The strategy will involve shifting sixty per cent of the US naval air forces to the western Pacific Ocean. It is also the raison d'être for the evolving US air-sea battle doctrine which calls for tri-service integration and cyber warfare preparedness. 
The aim is to counter China’s Anti-Access Area-Denial (A2AD) military strategy with massive deployment of US expeditionary forces and maintaining control of maritime chokepoints with the full cooperation of the Southeast Asian littoral. Economically speaking, the US government is yet to fully achieve bipartisan consensus over such a major military reorientation in the face of serious fiscal pressures and cut-down in military expenditures.

The Chinese perspective by Mr Jayadeva Ranade
There has been a significant recalibration in Chinese strategy towards the East and South China Seas and the islands disputes since 2006 when the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) launched into large scale expansion and modernisation including acquiring its first aircraft carrier. China has invested concertedly into what it sees as a window of opportunity to gradually edge the US out and establish strategic pre-eminence in the region. 
China has also employed and exerted economic levers on Japan and the Southeast Asian littoral states from time to time. It is banking on extensive economic ties which neither its neighbours nor the US have risked antagonising so far. Xi Jinping, who has taken over as China’s new paramount leader after the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, was intimately involved in critical decision-making in the previous Hu Jintao administration. Therefore, a lot of the policies crafted then are expected to be continued.
The Chinese leadership has taken cognisance of the fact that the East and Southeast Asian states harbour suspicion about the US’ will to confront China on issues directly concerning their interests. Beijing itself sees US efforts to manage conflicts in the region and play a peacemaking role as a potential weakness. With its forces continuing to redeploy to forward positions and staking out Japanese offshore outposts, China is steadily pursuing unchallengeable dominance in the region and is adding teeth to its strategy of deterring the American rebalancing act.
The Southeast Asian Perspective by Amb Leela Ponappa
Southeast Asia is where India and China find the largest avenues of interaction, cooperation and competition. The region has remained in the orbit of US influence since the Cold War but its close proximity to China has resulted in an extremely challenging strategic environment. Southeast Asian states share land as well as maritime borders with China. Territorial disputes and riparian issues have often made relations difficult amid growing integration of trade and economies with the Chinese economy.
In the regional context, various institutions and structures such as the APEC, the ARF, and the EAS have also been created with the larger goal of redrawing common interests and rethinking the fault-lines. But these structures are still functioning in isolation from the ASEAN which itself as an organisation has achieved little by way of a consensus on how best to engage with China while outstanding disputes continue to fester.
There is certainly the factor of inevitability of China’s rise which looms large in Southeast Asian thinking and expectations. The states in this region have permanently hedged for great power benefits and will continue to do so. From the Southeast Asian perspective, the “pivot” will remain a label until the US decidedly acts to reinforce its ties with these states and identifies a roadmap for strategic cooperation. Greater hopes are from India to assert its place in the emerging regional structures, explore a solid and well-defined role in the Asia-Pacific, and commit to a balancing role vis-a-vis China.
The East Asian Perspective by Amb Skand Tayal
In the context of the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, it is important to look at the levels of interdependence between Japan and China. In the face of widening economic ties and deepening mutual interests, Japan and China have been involved in threatening manoeuvres against each other in international waters.
The nature of this dyad is characterised by Chinese escalation and Japanese reaction. The Japanese are quite vulnerable to Chinese pressures and have very few options of response. This makes Japan defend its possession of the islands much more aggressively. The hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it clear that the islands issue is non-negotiable and has gone for an increase in the defence expenditure. 
However, the realities of the situation are two-fold. Firstly, possession means nine-tenths of the law in border disputes meaning that disturbing the status quo implies heavy costs for all involved parties. China and Japan are aware of this and have kept the option of dialogue open. 
Secondly, the hard positions on both sides and the US being non-committal on supporting either’s claims means that the only possible routes to resolution are through mutual investments in emerging regional security architectures. If the US-backed alliances weaken, China’s search for uncontested primacy in the region will get seriously mired in unchecked hostilities.