Sreeram Chaulia For The Straits Times

India must be game-changer in maritime row

The status quo scenario could too easily flare up into conflict. Compromise is needed to dial down the tension.

An aerial file photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015.-- PHOTO:
An aerial file photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015.-- PHOTO: REUTERS

THE war of words and battle of wills over the disputed South China Sea are heating up. Beijing's response to the latest American clamour about its land reclamation activities in marine reefs has been nonchalant.

Chinese military spokesmen confidently assert that the United States may keep up its verbal criticism and continue with surveillance, but it will never do more than that.

From the Chinese perspective, the US is a declining hegemon with shrinking enforcement powers.

The US' "pivot" or "rebalancing" to Asia had envisaged deploying more than half of its naval assets to the Pacific to leash China's maritime expansion.

But Washington currently has 289 ships, of which only 58 are prowling the Western Pacific.

Therefore, China is calling the American bluff by breaking free of its previous bounds of "offshore defence" to pursue "open-seas protection", that is, with a blue-water navy that can prevail far away from its coastline.

The calculation that the Americans may huff and puff but lack the resolve to force China to backtrack lies at the heart of the insecurity enveloping Asia.

With one big shark, the US, in effect passing the baton to the other big animal, China, are the smaller nations in the Indo-Pacific region doomed to become subservient fish in a new Sino-centric pond?

Emboldened by its unstoppable momentum, Beijing has just fired shots across the bow to New Delhi, demanding that it must "first get approval from China" before exploring for energy off the coast of Vietnam.

What are the options for weaker parties in the light of the US being past its prime and China on the rampage in its reclamation over disputed territories?

Australian think-tank the Lowy Institute has called for "minilateral" coalitions of middle powers like India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia to enhance indigenous capacities and inter-operability for upholding balance in a region undergoing rapid flux and power transition.

The need of the hour is alternative security institutions involving smaller nations warily watching the Sino-American tussle, where the final outcome could be a Chinese victory.

India - which is not a party to the South China Sea fracas but whose "Act East" policy and primacy in the Indian Ocean are being pressured by advancing Chinese flotillas - must take the lead in forging new security permutations, norms and understandings among lesser regional actors.

Pinning hopes on the US to rein in China is wishful thinking.

Two parallel shifts demand India to step up to the plate.

First is the reluctant but evident abdication of an attenuating US in favour of a resurgent China.

The other is the endeavour of medium-ranked powers in Asia to catch up with ascendant China and equalise their terms of interaction.

With deft diplomacy, India can steer this dual change.

India lags behind China and the US in military firepower and economic muscle.

But it can parlay this disadvantage into an attraction by convening new "plurilateral" institutions of the underdogs in the Indo-Pacific just as it once floated the non-aligned movement during the Cold War period.

India's initiation of forums, dialogues and joint exercises will be welcomed at the present juncture, as New Delhi lacks the means and intentions to dominate the region.

The South China Sea tinderbox, with a sharp US-versus-China binary, has an opening for a non-threatening third force to strengthen a spirit of regionalism that reduces dependency of the minnows on the whims of hegemons.

Doubts persist over whether India, hobbled by an understaffed career diplomatic corps notorious for its overcautious foreign policy, can grasp the nettle and assume a proactive role as a gatherer of like-minded countries and a moderator of new security communities in the Indo-Pacific.

The saving grace is the bold Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has a king-size ambition to convert India into a great power.

Given the top-down nature of India's bureaucratic apparatus, a concerted push from Mr Modi can infuse creativity and fresh blood into its diplomatic arsenal.

For too long, India has contemplated defensively about whether to catch or drop the ball of rules and institutions conceived and proposed by other countries. Under Mr Modi, the onus is on India to develop and throw the ball.

The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.