Preventing other countries from intervening in its disputes with Pakistan has long been a major objective of India’s foreign policy. New Delhi goes to great lengths to make sure third parties are either neutral or tilt in India’s favour. Any sense of empathy for Pakistan, real or perceived, on the question of India’s territorial sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, for example, has often complicated India’s relations with China, the United States, Britain, western Europe and the Muslim world in general.
As it receives the president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, this week and hosts Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, as an honoured guest during the Republic Day celebrations later this month, Delhi has a different problem. It is about responding to mounting territorial tensions among India’s East Asian neighbours.
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One set of disputes involves China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea against many of its Southeast Asian neighbours. This conflict is expressing itself most visibly in the current military tension between China on the one hand, and Vietnam and the Philippines on the other. It has escalated another notch in the new year with the Chinese demand that all “foreign” fishing operations in the South China Sea must get explicit permission from Beijing.
China and Japan are locked in another dispute in the East China Sea. Their contest over tiny islands, called Senkaku in Tokyo and Diaoyu in Beijing, has brought the militaries of the two nations face to face on a routine basis. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea are squabbling over small islets in the Sea of Japan, also called the East Sea. The rocks are called Dokdo in Seoul and Takeshima in Tokyo. Further up north, a fourth dispute involves Japan and Russia over an island chain called Kuriles in Moscow and the Northern Territories in Tokyo.
As in South Asia, where political emotions rise at the very mention of Kashmir, maritime territorial disputes have now fanned the flames of nationalism in East Asia.
Unlike in the subcontinent, the East Asian neighbours don’t even agree on the names of the disputed island territories. All countries marshal impressive historical and legal arguments to justify their claims. Their leaders say there is no domestic political room at all for compromise. As all these disputes acquire a new intensity, China’s neighbours, increasingly worried about Beijing’s assertiveness, are seeking strong support from third parties, including India.
Some would think this is hardly a problem. Given India’s own territorial disputes with China and Beijing’s support to Pakistan on Kashmir, Delhi, it would seem, should be backing its friends in Tokyo, Hanoi and Manila. And where a dispute involves two of its friends, for example, Japan and South Korea or Moscow and Tokyo, Delhi must encourage political accommodation. The UPA government, however, seems paralysed at the very moment when many Asian nations are looking up to India.
India has no reason to present itself as a knee-jerk opponent to China in East Asia. At the same time, India can’t ignore the implications of China’s maritime disputes for Delhi’s own boundary negotiations with Beijing. One does not have to be a geopolitical genius to figure that if China prevails over Japan and the ASEAN, Beijing might be a lot less accommodative of India’s interests along and across the Great Himalayas.
India’s approach to the East Asian territorial disputes, then, must be based on considerations of both power and principle. Delhi must take into account the specific historical background to each of the disputes, oppose claims that are blatantly against international law, ensure there is freedom of navigation, prevent any restrictions on India’s right to exploit the natural resources in the waters of the western Pacific, and underline the importance of peaceful resolution of territorial disputes.
Although some of these positions have found expression in South Block’s statements over the last couple of years, Delhi has been hesitant in highlighting India’s genuine concerns apparently for the fear of offending Beijing. Worse still, the UPA government’s strategic ambivalence and administrative dysfunction have prevented India from deepening economic and security cooperation with key regional powers like South Korea and Japan without a reference to the Asian territorial disputes. As its decade-long tenure draws to a close, the UPA government has an opportunity to make a few amends this month.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’