Context: In an essay, the Singapore Prime Minister has highlighted the latest issue of Foreign Affairs that confronts Singapore, and indeed the rest of the nations in the Indo-Pacific - South China Sea.
Reason that worries nations:
- Transformation in the US-China relationship: The two most consequential powers of the world, the United States, which is known as the “resident power”, and China, which is “the reality on the doorstep”, are engaged in a fundamental transformation of their relationship.
- China is not ready to conform to the US worldview, and China ’s rise has been challenged from different quarters.
- US Hegemony: The Indo-Pacific has prospered under American hegemony for the previous 40 years. This is not just because of their huge investments ($328.8 billion) in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) alone and further ($107 billion) in China, but also because of the security blanket that it provides.
- Benefits of US Hegemony for the region: The American military presence has afforded countries the opportunity to pursue economic prosperity without substantial increases in their own defence expenditures. No group of nations has benefited more from the presence of the US than the ASEAN.
- Assertion of Chinese power: China might have replaced the US as the primary engine of growth in the last decade, but it has come with a cost - the assertion of Chinese power.
- Chinese military postures: Is a cause for concern ever since they unilaterally put forward the Nine-Dash Line in 2009 to declare the South China Sea as territorial waters.
- Their territorial claim is disputed, as it is neither treaty-based nor legally sound.
- They act in ways that are neither benign nor helpful for long-term peace and stability.
- For example,
- Chinese naval forces have rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat, buzzed a Philippines naval vessel and harassed a Malaysian oil drilling operation, all within their respective EEZs recently.
- Since 2015, they have built a runway and underground storage facilities on the Subi Reef and Thitu Island as well as radar sites and missile shelters on Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef.
- They conducted ballistic missile tests in the South China Sea in June 2019 and continue to enhance naval patrols to enforce area denial for others.
As COVID imposes crushing costs on all economies, both the US and China may also be weighing its options.
- Finding justification for Chinese actions: In the South China Sea as the countries in the region help themselves to Chinese economic opportunities while sheltering under the US security blanket, is also fraught with risk.
- Inclination towards US or China: Accommodation may have worked but regional prosperity has come at a mounting cost in geo-strategic terms. The South China Sea is effectively militarised and in the post-COVID age, enjoying the best of both worlds may no longer be an option.
- The real choice is not between China and America: It is between keeping the global commons open for all or surrendering the right to choose one’s partners for the foreseeable future.
- Options with ASEAN: Nobody should expect that ASEAN will suddenly reverse course when faced with possibly heightened Sino-US competition.
- China is a major power that will continue to receive the respect of ASEAN and many others in the Indo-Pacific, especially in a post-COVID world where they are struggling to revive their economies.
- ASEAN overtook the European Union to become China’s largest trading partner in the first quarter of 2020, and China is the third-largest investor ($150 billion) in ASEAN.
- The South East Asians are skilled to accommodate competing hegemons while advancing their interests.
- This does not mean that they are not concerned over Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea.
- A robust US military presence: A stronger validation by the littoral states of the South China Sea helps the US Administration in justifying their presence to the American tax-payer.
- Role of others in the region: To collectively encourage an increasingly powerful China to pursue strategic interests in a legitimate way, and on the basis of respect for international law, in the South China Sea.
India in the region:
The situation in the South China Sea will be critical for India’s security and well-being as
- A global common: The South China Sea is not China’s sea but a global common.
- Important for communication: It has been an important sea-lane of communication since the very beginning, and passage has been unimpeded over the centuries.
- Historical importance: Indians have sailed these waters for well over 1,500 years - there is ample historical and archaeological proof of a continuous Indian trading presence from Kedah in Malaysia to Quanzhou in China.
- Trade, investment, diaspora: Nearly $200 billion of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea and thousands of Indian citizens study, work and invest in ASEAN, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
- Stakes in the peace and security of this region in common with others who reside there, and freedom of navigation, as well as other normal activities with friendly countries, are essential for India’s economic well-being.
- Right over the region: India has historical rights established by practice and tradition to traverse the South China Sea without impediment. Both have mutually contributed to each other’s prosperity for two thousand years and continue to do so.
What role India has to play in the region?
- Responsive to ASEAN’s expectations: While strategic partnerships and high-level engagements are important, ASEAN expects long-lasting commitments from India in the future.
- ASEAN nations have taken the initiative time and again to involve India in Indo-Pacific affairs.
- Importance of regional groupings: A restructuring of global trade is unlikely to happen any time soon in the post-COVID context and regional arrangements will become even more important for economic recovery and rejuvenation.
- Part of global supply chains: The clarion call of “Think Global Act Local” requires India to be a part of the global supply chains in the world’s leading growth region for the next half-century.
In this backdrop it is worth paying heed to the words from Singapore’s prime minister, who writes that something significant is lost in an RCEP without India, and urges India to recognise that the value of such agreements goes beyond the economic gains they generate.
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