Originally Published 2011-09-03 00:00:00 Published on Sep 03, 2011
The list of China's signs of displaying its assertiveness in the South China Sea is numerous - like the incident with the Japanese coast guard and the USNS Impeccable. The Pentagon accused the Chinese vessels of "harassment" during the US ship's routine operations in international waters.
Can India ignore signs of Chinese assertiveness?
While the Chinese do not consider Indian Ocean to be India's Ocean or even India's strategic backyard, but they do consider the South and East China seas to be China's seas! This has been evidenced again in the recent encounter in high seas in which the amphibious Indian Naval Ship Airavat while returning from a successful tour of South East Asia had to face the Chinese "challenge" from an unknown Chinese warship. The incident happened on 22 July when the INS Airavat was sailing from Nha Trang port in south central Vietnam towards Haiphong, where it was scheduled to make a friendly visit. About 45 to 50 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast on the South China Sea, Airavat was challenged and told not to enter Chinese waters on an open radio channel 16 - an event that has been denied and downplayed officially by both the Indian navy and the Chinese government. The Indian government has not taken up the matter with the Chinese, though it has described the incident as "very unusual".

It must be admitted that this act of the Chinese of challenging a warship in high seas was deliberately provocative and unlikely to be the bravado of a singular ship commanding officer overtaken by nationalistic fervor of maintaining Chinese hold on the South China seas area rather seriously.

In all likelihood, the PLA Navy (PLAN) would have been closely tracking the route and all movements of INS Airavat on this routine "flag showing" visit right from the time it would be in the SE Asian waters. Hence the idea of challenging the Indian Naval ship would have definitely originated from senior authorities ashore - who would have been well aware that such an action would raise Indian and international hackles reinforcing the accusation that the Chinese have become aggressive in their posturing.

Such a move could also have been a manifestation of the Chinese displeasure about India's growing ties with Vietnam expressed last month. China had tersely said that "it is a clear indication that Vietnam is attempting to include a third country in the South Sea dispute".

In addition, India-Vietnam growing military relations have also been a matter of considerable concern for China since Vietnam has been chary of its giant neighbor and are apprehensive of the hegemonistic tendencies of the Chinese from past unpleasant experiences.

It is well known that China claims about 80% of the South China Sea as its own , an aspect that is strongly contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, leading to many faceoffs and even loss of lives as was in the event with the Vietnamese. In recent months, the Philippines and Vietnam have objected to what they said was Chinese harassment of oil exploration vessels and fishermen in the South China Sea. In July, this led the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to condemn acts of "intimidation" in the waters, where it says it has a national interest in free navigation.

China has also warned international oil companies from prospecting for oil off the coast of Vietnam, claiming that it encroached upon its territorial sovereignty. This is in conflict with India's interest since ONGC Videsh has been exploring oil in Vietnam's EEZ after winning the bid in an international tender. In such a situation, the two countries' navies seem almost fated to witness such a face off - probably more so in the coming years.

While the Chinese seem determined to ensure minimal interference in South and East China seas from "external" actors - however the Chinese themselves are not averse to increasing their footprints in the Indian Ocean. Just about a week ago, a Chinese ship camouflaged as a large fishing vessel was seen operating near the Indian waters at Andaman and Nicobar Islands for the past few months. It is suspected that the ship - supposedly equipped with 22 laboratories on board to carry our hydrological tests was closely monitoring Indian missile tests, ship movements and carrying out hydrological survey to enable future Chinese naval operations in the area. Since the ship was stationed just outside Indian waters - little could be done legally to enforce its eviction. These two incidents are hardly unique in their characteristics and conform to a pattern of increasing Chinese assertiveness at sea and on land.

The old Chinese dictum of hiding one's capabilities and biding time which found a revival in Deng's 24 Character strategies on foreign and security policy has given way to aggressive posturing by the Chinese. The impetus for this shift has partly come about due to its rapidly growing military capabilities in recent years. According to the Chinese, this shift signifies the turning of the full circle in which memories of ages in which it had it had to suffer humiliating encroachments by foreign countries, was borne by Beijing as it was too weak to do much about the sovereignty intrusions and its past territorial claims.

Now with the growing sign of assertiveness the Chinese have begun to view the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea - the so-called "near seas" - as core regions of strategic interest along with Taiwan and Tibet -- in which the Chinese seeks to become the predominant military power.

The list of China's signs of displaying its assertiveness in the South China Sea is numerous and include the one with the Japanese coast guard on the east and also the Impeccable incident in which the Pentagon accused the Chinese vessels of "harassment" during its routine operations in international waters while Beijing contested it saying that USNS Impeccable behaved "like a spy".

In many ways, the assertiveness of the Chinese has been manifesting itself on land with mixed results. Denying the Indian General a visa for an official visit, on the pretext that he commanded troops in Jammu and Kashmir, led to a sharp retort from the Indian Government which stopped military exchanges for a period of time. The issue of stapled visas for Indian citizens from certain NE States and the frequent intrusions by Chinese border units into Indian territory in the North East has also led to sharp official protests from the Indian authorities.

However, such behavior is not without its drawbacks. As China becomes economically and militarily capable and keeps adopting an aggressive posture at problem solving, its neighbours undoubtedly will become increasingly apprehensive even though most of them are economically interlinked with China. Notwithstanding these, Chinese actions may well drive India and other Chinese neighbours to align more with the US - an aspect that would be disastrous for China that is still a developing country despite its progress.

(Dr Probal Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)
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