East Sea warms up as US inches closer to India


The 'POTUS' – The President of the United States left India after witnessing a colourful 66th Republic Day celebrations on January 26  as the chief guest.  Despite a brief spoil sport played by nature on the Day, the shortened three-day visit (Jan 25-27) of the US President to New Delhi has created an uneasy ripple in Beijing. It is not only the reiteration of faith in freedom of navigation in and around East Sea (South China Sea) alone, but breaking logjam on civil nuclear cooperation, backing for a permanent seat in reformed UN Security Council and assurance in supporting India's full membership of the four international export control regimes, including Nuclear Supplier Groups (NSG), that have sent several aftershocks to Beijing.


While China has been closely watching this new found camaraderie between both leaders of oldest and largest democracies, in response, several layers of its power structure have reacted cautiously. China seemed to be sulking privately, but was not surprised of a mutual understanding between US and India with regard to East Sea. Both countries agreed on Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region on 25 January.


Joint Strategic Vision for East Sea

The US’s 'Asia pivot' or 'rebalancing' which primarily focuses on Asia-Pacific has come to its logical conclusion through this Strategic Vision. The Vision emphasises and reaffirms the 'importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea'. Despite China’s massive overseas investments in Asia-Africa for infrastructure led development, far greater  than the combined contribution of both the US and India,  the partnership between the two countries, as the Statement says, is 'indispensable to promoting peace, prosperity and stability in Asia Pacific and Indian Oceans.’ 


Both India and the US reiterated that East Asia dispute must be resolved through all peaceful means according to universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Threat of force to resolve territorial and maritime dispute is unacceptable to both countries. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman commented (on January 26 and 27) that disputes in the East Sea (South China Sea) should be resolved through dialogue and consultation between countries directly concerned, not outsiders. Foreign Ministry suggests that countries out of the region (referring to US and India) should respect regional efforts and keeps the serenity of the South China Sea!


India and the US are set to develop a roadmap for securing Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean. As the 21st Century world politics is shifting gear unexpectedly with geo-politics overtone, the Joint Vision has intended to strike  a deterrence to China’s growth in Asia and Africa. One of such strategies is reinvigorating the East Asia Summit which recently concluded its 9th Summit in Myanmar (Burma). The next Summit, comprising all ASEAN countries -- Australia, India, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, US and the Russian Federation and China -- intends to discuss regional political and security issues, according to Vision Statement, which definitely aims at East Sea. The Joint Vision also includes promoting of robust trilateral consultations with third countries in the region. If the US and India chose Viet Nam in coming years for such a trilateral consultation, wouldn’t the East Sea be more warmer? 


 Nuclear Supplier Group

China also expressed concerns about President Obama’s offer to support India’s membership in the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an organization devised to ensure that civilian nuclear trade is not diverted for military uses.  NSG controls almost all international nuclear trade. Its membership enables countries to freely use technology and nuclear material from other nations.


As India's accession to the NSG, China maintains that only careful consideration by all member countries through consensus would make that expansion. The Chinese Foreign Ministry put a red flag by advising Indian government to take measures to meet relevant requirements - most importantly India's signing of NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty).  China is emerging as a major exporter of nuclear technology in the world. By pointing to a decision based on consensus for inclusion of new member, China has clearly sent a message that any moves by the US to include India would be vetoed against in NSG. Similarly, China will also block India's long standing demand for a permanent seat in UN Security Council.


It is interesting to note that as India and US dismantle their distances,  China and Russia's proximity to Pakistan is increasing. Even, we like it or not, the Cold War mentality has not withered away completely. If a Cold War 2.0 has started at the frontiers of Russia and West upon Ukraine, its splintered take away effect has been seen elsewhere. After the formation of a new government in Sri Lanka  early this month, the so called Chinese 'String of Pearls' strategy in the Indian Ocean seems to be falling apart. While Obama was in Delhi, a visiting Pakistan Army has received assurance from China that Pakistan is its 'irreplaceable' all weather friend. Reciprocating with same vibes during a Seminar, National Security Advisor to Prime Minister of Pakistan echoed that 'the new leadership in China has set out a vision of deeper engagement with South Asia, raising the prospects of advancing shared goals of peace, security and prosperity'.


Meanwhile, India's External Affairs Minister is scheduled to visit China at end of this week (1-3 February). The Foreign Minister level meeting will discuss bilateral, regional and global issues of concern to both sides. It will be interesting to note whether the Chinese would query about the Strategic Vision or not. Despite India would like to forge a delicate balance between US and China as the road map of Joint Strategic Vision will be laid down sooner, India's stance on East Sea will remain not only firm but more proactive.

Author Note
Avilash Roul, Senior Fellow, Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi