India’s attitude and policy towards China, surprisingly, hasn’t deviated even a little bit after the BJP assumed power in May 2014. If anything, Narendra Modi’s government has shown even greater reticence if that’s possible than the predecessor Manmohan Singh setup in taking on China. This despite Beijing’s moves steadily to grow its presence in the Indian Ocean region and to emerge as a player regional states have to reckon with. It was expected — this was more a hope than any real indication by candidate Modi — that BJP with a view to burnishing its “nationalist” reputation would be less passive on the northern and the northeastern borders, and that the forward deployed Indian army units would be told to be more “in the face” of the Chinese PLA troops facing them. It turns out just the reverse is happening. Indian units have been told actually to cease doing anything the PLA objects to. Thus, according to a press report, Indian troops who were constructing a water channel from a hot spring source on the Indian side of LAC in the Demchok area of Ladakh were instructed to heed PLA’s objections to such activity and stop it. This water was sought by the local people who, understandably, are upset that New Delhi is more concerned about placating the Chinese than meeting their need in the high-altitude arid terrain they subsist in.
This is the usual submissive approach to China that I have long decried. So the recommendation that follows for the Indian Defence Minister Parrikar to propose to the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in their April 12 meeting joint or, even better, multilateral actions to stop Beijing from realizing its expansive “nine dash line” claims in the South China Sea, will obviously be ignored by a fearful Indian government.
The context for such multilateral action is China’s dredging the waters around the Scarborough Shoal 125 miles from the Philippines preparatory to what Manila fears will be the creation of yet another artificial island air base conjured out of cementing dredged up sand, corals, and earth, which will then be used to justify Chinese claims and exclusive ownership of these narrow seas.
The US has informed Beijing it does not respect the ADIZ (air defence identification zone) in the skies off the Chinese coast, and has sent a US warship on a “freedom of navigation” (FON) patrol through the disputed waters, attracting nothing more than a bit of finger wagging by the Chinese. This has to be followed up with more such patrols but constituted with warships from a whole bunch of countries effected by the disputable Chinese claims. Parrikar should offer, for a start, that Indian naval ships will join American warships in periodic sailings through these waters on FON mission. And agree to persuade littoral states in the region — Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Australia to also join in such patrolling. The problem with single state FON sailings is that China can easily intimidate and thwart them by pressuring the country undertaking it. Even the US has not been immune to such pressure. But a flotilla comprising naval vessels from three, five, or seven regional states will be more difficult for Beijing to handle in the manner it has done single states — by huffing and puffing, and hinting at more decisive military action. This way forcefully to impose the collective will of regional states will have a more salutary effect on China than anything else.
For once, New Delhi needs to lead such an initiative to gain credence especially with Southeast Asian states who are convinced India is all talk and no action. Carter will be taken aback by this show of new found Indian resolve, no doubt, and will likely jump at it. Even if Carter doesn’t, India should proceed with this initiative, try and get other regional countries to join it in opposing China’s adventurism. It will be a welcome departure for the staid and stale no-risk national security strategy New Delhi has followed. It could be the first among other such actions India could take to push China on the defensive.
But, realistically, does the Modi government have the moxy for such enterprise that will serve India’s distant defence interests very well? Nah.