Since the eruption of South China Sea crisis in East Asia, a serious debate has started in India about possible ways to respond to the crisis. In normal circumstances it should not have bothered India much about what happens in this part of the world, however, the fast changing strategic balance of forces in East Asia has started worrying Indian strategic thinkers and policy makers. What happens in the South China Sea will have a direct bearing on India's strategic core.
Lately China's unprecedented military expansion has been overturning the security order put in place by the U.S. after the end of World War II. Despite China's high pitch claims of a peaceful rise, it is becoming clearer that Beijing's unprecedented military expansion will continue in the foreseeable future.
In response to this expansion, many strategic Indian thinkers have started advocating proactive polices, such as supporting an armed insurgency in Tibet or providing nuclear technology to southeast countries. However, any high pitch approach can further complicate the problem instead of solving it.
Currently India is not seen as a serious stake holder in the region. To protect its interests in the region India needs to adopt a comprehensive engagement strategy (CES) with the region.
Today North Korea is the biggest flash point. There is a very high possibility that China can exploit North Korea's heavy dependence for survival as a way to pursue its own foreign policy agenda. Further economic collapse of North Korea will have repercussions far beyond the Korean peninsula and will have a direct bearing on Asian and Indian security. Strengthening economic and diplomatic relations with North Korea might be the first step in strengthening India's engagement with the region.
Strengthening unification and the peace process on the Korean peninsula could be the next thing on India's policy priorities list. A united, strong and democratic Korea is India's best defense against China's eastward expansion. So far India's efforts in promoting peace and unification on the Korea peninsula are next to nothing. India must understand the strategic importance of a united Korea in preserving the peace and security in the Indian Ocean and act accordingly.
Strengthening Japan-Korea friendship ties through a trilateral dialogue process is something which India now must focus on. In these difficult times, it is very important that these two powerful democracies to remain united and on the same side of the great divide. Any serious rift between them could cause serious havoc in the whole of East Asia. India must do whatever it can to reduce the differences between these two great Asian powers.
Further, India must do whatever it can do to support American and Japanese efforts to keep the South China Sea free and open to all countries in the region. So far it has provided only token support. India needs to strengthen its bilateral defense relations with all southeastern countries. India must provide whatever military help it can provide not only to Vietnam, but to all counties facing a similar threat. Today ASEAN is in great danger. China is trying to mold it to suit its own strategic interests. India must protect and support the independence of ASEAN.
Though currently not involved in the South China Sea dispute, Russia is an important player in East Asia. Keeping strong and healthy relations with Russia must be a top priority for India. In the end, Russia will be important in preserving security and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. Thus India needs to keep Russia in the loop regarding its East Asia policy. India must make sure the current developing closeness between China and Russia does not start compromising its own security interests in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
Strengthening the U.S. naval presence in the Indian Ocean is the urgent need of the hour. India needs to provide whatever help it can to keep U.S. naval dominance in the Indian Ocean as long as possible. Though European countries are not connected with the current crisis, they have a serious stake in the independence and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and will be a major factor in the final end game with China. India must make sure these countries understand India's concerns. There is a very high possibility China can win them over to its point of view by using its economic muscles. India must make sure that it does not happen. So far India is not doing much on this front.
Australia is another important player in the region to which India must pay attention. Australian priorities and concerns must be incorporated into any Indian initiative in the region. It is becoming clearer that China has no plans to engage in a direct confrontation with the U.S. in East Asia in the near future, but rather is just going to make it more and more expensive for the U.S. to keep its regional dominance. However, given the current economic situation in the U.S., it may not be possible for the U.S. to compete with China in East Asia for a long and mighty walk away leaving the whole region at the disposal of China, just like the Soviet Union did with eastern Europe in the 1970s and ‘80s when it could no more compete with the U.S. in the new arms race and just gave up. This could create a very dangerous situation for the region. Countries must prepare themselves for this eventuality. India must avoid this trap and keep its resources for a rainy day. Any intense arms race with China must be avoided at all costs.
With the way Chinese naval power is expanding in the Indian Ocean, it is only a matter of time before it starts calling it home. India alone cannot meet this challenge. It needs to weave a web of alliances in East Asia to protect the Indian Ocean for free use by all nations.
The current crisis in East Asia has no military solution. Diplomacy is the only way out. India must tread its way in the region carefully. At stake is the very survival of India as a nation and as a people.
The writer is director of Peace Program at Asia institute in Seoul and a visiting professor at Institute of Far Eastern Studies Seoul. Views expressed in this article are of his own and do not reflect the views any of his affiliated institutions.
Article was originally published in Korea Times on December 25, 2015.
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