Strategic encirclement by China Looking East to counter it

CHINA views India as a future challenger for supremacy in Asia and has been engaged in the strategic encirclement of India through its proxies like Pakistan along our land borders and its “string of pearls strategy” in the northern Indian Ocean region. However, till very recently India had not taken recourse to proactive measures to develop counter- leverages of its own. This is now changing gradually as India has begun to reach out to its friends in Southeast Asia and further east along the Asia-Pacific rim as part of a carefully thought through strategy to develop some pressure points.
The first step in the new “Look East” policy is to propel India’s strategic partnership with Vietnam to a higher trajectory. One month after China objected to oil exploration by India in the South China Sea under a contract awarded to the Indian state-owned company ONGC Videsh Ltd by the Vietnamese and three months after the Chinese Navy warned Indian Naval ship Airawat, which was sailing in international waters between the Vietnamese ports of Nha Trang and Hai Phong, to leave Chinese waters - a warning that INS Airawat ignored --- India and Vietnam signed an agreement on energy cooperation during the visit of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang to New Delhi. The two countries also decided to pursue a regular security dialogue.
Visibly incensed, China’s state-controlled media responded angrily. The Global Times warned that prospecting for oil in China-claimed waters would “push China to the limits”. The relatively more moderate People’s Daily also did not mince words: “… China should denounce this agreement as illegal. Once India and Vietnam initiate their exploration, China can send non-military forces to disturb their work, and cause dispute or friction to halt the two countries' exploration.” The China Energy News said, “India is playing with fire by agreeing to explore for oil with Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea… its energy strategy is slipping into an extremely dangerous whirlpool.”
Chinese analysts are perhaps unaware that the ONGC’s association with Vietnam for oil and gas exploration goes back 23 years. For the time being India has chosen to ignore Chinese warnings and continue its activities in accordance with the contract signed by ONGC Videsh with Vietnam.
Defence cooperation between India and Vietnam is being gradually stepped up. Recent news reports have suggested that India is considering the sale of the non-nuclear BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam. A case can be made out for the transfer of obsolescent SRBMs like the Prithvi missiles to Vietnam as these are likely to be removed soon from the Indian arsenal. Some Indian analysts have gone to the extent of saying that India should project Vietnam as “India’s Pakistan” in its quest to develop leverages against China as Vietnam offers India an entry point through which it can “penetrate China’s periphery.” Others have suggested the supply of military hardware at “friendship prices” and the provision of advanced combat training facilities in India, especially for Vietnamese fighter pilots.
Another nation on China’s periphery that India has begun to engage pro-actively is Myanmar. India’s relations with Myanmar, a devoutly Buddhist country, have been traditionally close and friendly. India’s national interest lies in a strong and stable Myanmar that observes strict neutrality between India and China. For India, Myanmar is a bridge between the countries comprising the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC for short, (Myanmar has an observer status at SAARC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). President Thein Sein of Myanmar visited India in October to further cement the growing relationship.
China has made rapid advances into Myanmar and established close political, military and economic relations. China is engaged in exploiting Myanmar’s oil and gas reserves, is building a 1,100-km overland pipeline from Kyaukryu port in Myanmar to the border city of Ruili in Yunnan and is developing Sittwe as a commercial port on Myanmar’s west coast. It is natural that Chinese naval activity in the Bay of Bengal will soon follow. China has also been stepping up arms sales to Myanmar as other nations, including India, are loathe to sell offensive military hardware to that country.
The key drivers of the India-Myanmar strategic relationship are cooperation in counter-insurgency operations and the need for India to ensure that Myanmar is not driven into Chinese arms through neglect of its security concerns and arms requirements. Indian insurgent groups (NSCN, ULFA and Manipur rebels among others) have been operating out of their bases in the weakly controlled areas across the borders of Manipur and Mizoram and Myanmarese rebels, primarily the Chins and the Arakanese, have often taken shelter on the Indian side. The two armies have been cooperating with each other for mutual benefit.
India-Myanmar cooperation is also essential to control narcotics trafficking and to curb the proliferation of small arms in the region. India and the other regional powers can play a positive role in the re-entry of Myanmar into the international mainstream so that it can be nudged towards becoming a strong and stable democracy.
India is also developing a low-key security relationship with Japan and South Korea. During Defence Minister A. K. Antony’s recent visit, Japan agreed to join India for the first bilateral naval and air force exercise in 2012. Significantly, stepping up defence cooperation, the two countries agreed to deal with maritime security issues, including anti-piracy measures, freedom of navigation and maintaining the security of the Sea Lanes of Communication to facilitate unhindered trade bilaterally as well as multilaterally with regional neighbours. The Japan-India Defence Policy Dialogue will be held in Tokyo in early 2012. This will be followed by staff-level talks between the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force and the Indian Army, and staff exchanges between the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force and the Indian Air Force.
As India begins to flex its maritime muscles and reach out to its East Asian and Southeast Asian neighbours, the geopolitical implications of enhanced strategic cooperation will not be lost on China. The footprints of the navies and the merchant fleets of India and China will increasingly criss-cross in future and there is need for a serious dialogue to avoid clashes. Both nations need to exhibit maturity and balance in their responses to the emerging challenges.
The writer is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.