Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 3, No. 6, June 2015.
By Gordon G. Chang
As Beijing seeks to exert influence westward, into the Indian Ocean, New Delhi is looking east, into the South China Sea.
The two powers, acting on each other’s periphery, can reach compromises and cooperate in many areas, but on some points resolution of differences will be difficult. China, from all appearances, is trying to exclude the vessels and aircraft of other nations from most of the South China Sea, and India insists on freedom of navigation.
Their clashing maritime initiatives suggest ties between the two giants will remain troubled. Chinese President Xi Jinping likes to use the phrase “win-win,” but the South China Sea looks for China and India to now be a zero-sum contest.
For decades, the two nations had almost no interaction in international water. India had announced a “Look East” policy in 1991, but its outreach was limited, more aspiration than core policy.[i] Moreover, there was no element of competition with China for control of sea lanes. The phrase “South China Sea” rarely passed the lips of Indian diplomats or security analysts, and the Indian navy did not venture far from its ports. China’s fleet, for its part, stayed in coastal waters, the Indian Ocean being well beyond its capabilities.