Clash of Titans: India’s ‘Act East’ Policy Meets China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ in the South China Sea

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 3, No. 6, June 2015.

By Gordon G. Chang

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) Littoral Combat Ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) - 11 May 2015 Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) arrived in Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, to resupply May 13 after a weeklong routine patrol in international waters and airspace of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands. While Fort Worth has transited the South China Sea many times, this patrol marks the first time an LCS has operated in international waters near the Spratlys.  (Rex Features via AP Images)

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3)
Littoral Combat Ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) – 11 May 2015
Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) arrived in Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, to resupply May 13 after a weeklong routine patrol in international waters and airspace of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands.
While Fort Worth has transited the South China Sea many times, this patrol marks the first time an LCS has operated in international waters near the Spratlys.
(Rex Features via AP Images)

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.

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What It Takes to Resolve the South China Sea Dispute

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 3, No. 6, June 2015.

By Priscilla A. Tacujan, Ph.D

Supplied photo taken April 12, 2015 shows Subi Reef in the South China Sea, where China has continued reclamation work to build an airstrip. China is asserting sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, which is also claimed in whole or in part by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. (Photo by the Philippine military)(Kyodo)

This photo taken April 12, 2015 shows Subi Reef in the South China Sea, where China has continued reclamation work to build an airstrip. China is asserting sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, which is also claimed in whole or in part by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. (Photo by the Philippine military)(Kyodo)

By now, it should be clear to everyone that China is not giving up its maritime claims in the South China Sea.  Despite pending international court decisions and worldwide condemnations, China has aggressively reclaimed about 2,000 acres of land in the South China Sea — proof of its intent to stay, defend, and protect 90% of the sea that it claims it owns.  Indeed, when State Secretary John Kerry asked China to halt its reclamation activities during his visit to Beijing last week, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s response was as revealing as it was firm: China’s determination “to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the South China Sea is as firm as a rock, and it is unshakable.”[i]

According to the Pentagon’s Annual Report to Congress (2015) on China’s growing military presence on the high seas, China has started infrastructure projects on four reclamation sites that “could include harbors, communications and surveillance systems, logistics support, and at least one airfield,” prompting most analysts to believe that Beijing is attempting “to change facts on the ground.”  In his remarks during a US-Japan relations conference held in Washington DC last month, Admiral Dennis Blair, Chairman of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (USA), described China’s current “gray zone strategy” as “an administrative, civilian and sub-military strategy” that is intended to create a new territorial jurisdiction, hence, de facto control, over the South China Sea.[ii]  With this strategy, China would be able to create “a defensive sea barrier extending hundreds of miles from China’s coast to what it calls ‘the first island chain.”[iii]

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