Shift focus to the maritime domain

Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s speech in Ladakh on July 3, where he addressed Indian Army personnel and commended them for their professionalism and valour, even while asserting that the “era of expansionism is over”, marks the beginning of a definitive reset in the troubled but the, up to now, violence-free India-China relationship

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Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s speech in Ladakh on July 3, where he addressed Indian Army personnel and commended them for their professionalism and valour, even while asserting that the “era of expansionism is over”, marks the beginning of a definitive reset in the troubled but the, up to now, violence-free India-China relationship.

The cordial tenor changed with the Galwan Valley incident in May/June where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops moved into previously uncontested locations in eastern Ladakh, taking advantage of the thin Indian tactical presence. This resulted in the loss of 20 Indian lives (PLA is yet to confirm the casualties it has sustained) and led to the surprise Modi visit to Nimu in Ladakh. The signal to Beijing is that Delhi will not blink and that the Galwan knot, triggered by PLA’s pre-meditated belligerence, will have to be untied by China.

On current evidence, it appears that PLA has hunkered down for an extended stay in the areas it has occupied and the two armies will be monitoring each other for compliance as per the agreed disengagement and return to status quo protocols. The received wisdom is that this going to be a long haul into the winter months, even as the freshly-minted Chinese claim to Galwan is on the territorial expansion anvil.

While Modi’s reference to this expansionist characteristic refers to the unresolved territorial dispute on land across 3,800 kilometres which has morphed into a Line of Actual Control (LAC) and shifting claim lines, Beijing has already set a precedent in the maritime domain in an audacious and innovative manner.

The South China Sea (SCS) dispute that pitted Chinese Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and fishing rights claims against those of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) began with the adoption of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

China then invoked a historical, but dubious, nine-dash line formulation and adopted the might-is-right approach, much to the chagrin of the smaller nations. Consequently, the SCS dispute festered in an inconclusive manner for decades. The PLA began its creeping assertiveness by occupying certain atolls and enlarging the topography through artificial means and then staking a maximalist EEZ claim.

What does a smaller nation do when a bigger more powerful neighbour refuses to engage in sincere dialogue to resolve a territorial jurisdiction matter? Seek third party arbitration or go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The Philippines took this path despite veiled warnings from China. Much to the consternation of Beijing, the international tribunal ruled in favour of Manila.

Predictably, China rejected this ruling and asserted that its historical claim was the only truth that mattered. This unabashed assertion of expansionism by Beijing caused dismay in many capitals. But little was done in tangible terms to push back, since none of the major powers wanted to get into this tangle, except to defend the principle of free navigation in international waters.

However, in an unusual development, the 36th Asean Summit held at the end of June under Vietnam as chair, made specific reference to the centrality of the UNCLOS and the need to uphold international law. This is a familiar politico-diplomatic position in relation to the SCS dispute. But what is instructive is that over the last six months, many Asean states have been visibly vocal about China’s expansionism and related belligerence.

Thus, the template which has evolved is that China stakes a maximalist territorial claim, using history among other determinants, and then engages in salami-slicing through military intimidation, even while proclaiming its commitment to peace and tranquillity. Modi has belled the cat in Ladakh. India will now have to stay the course in managing the tensions that are bound to increase in the bilateral relationship.

Whether other nations will support Delhi or not remains opaque at this point. But India could look at other leverages to temper the Chinese response and the maritime domain is the logical choice. Beijing has long harboured a deep anxiety about its vulnerability at sea — or what is referred to as the Malacca dilemma.

India has the potential to either stoke this anxiety along with like-minded nations, or assuage it as part of the common good order at sea. The four-nation Quad (United States, Japan, Australia and India) is a work in progress and India could sherpa a cluster of Indo-Pacific nations into a “sagar panchayat” and uphold the rule of law at sea. Some Asean nations may be willing to join such a grouping. Enhancing interoperability at sea, intelligence- sharing and capacity-building would be the early building blocks.

However, to be effective, India will have to invest in specific transborder military capabilities. The recent announcement by Canberra where it has committed $70 billion to acquire new inventory is illustrative. Delhi will have to undertake a radical review of its defence budget despite the Covid-19 constraints to increase its naval/maritime allocations for over a decade-plus. This could enable creating credible military capability in the Andaman & Nicobar islands, a proposal that has been on Delhi’s pending list since 1963. With a suitably-fortified Andaman & Nicobar, the Malacca dilemma can become very real for Beijing.

India can create more negotiating space along the land border by turning to the seas. If this tenet is appropriately understood by Delhi, this policy transmutation could be the silver lining in the Galwan cloud.

(The author is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. The article first appeared in Hindustan Times)