The next government in Delhi must do a lot more than express concern, as the UPA government did last week, at China’s brazen use of force against Vietnam in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. As a country with an expansive territorial dispute with China, India must rapidly modernise its defences on the long and contested border in the Great Himalayas.
At the same time, India should extend vigorous diplomatic and political support to Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, which are at the receiving end of China’s muscular approach to territorial disputes. The next government in Delhi must deepen military partnerships with all Asian nations that share India’s apprehensions about China’s non-peaceful rise. An India that does not stand up for China’s smaller neighbours now will find itself, sooner rather than later, a victim of Beijing’s aggressive actions.
Trapped in ideological confusion, the UPA government downplayed the problems on the China border. It pretended that process — of endless talks at many levels — will somehow compensate for the Himalayan power shift in favour of China. But the latest developments in the South China Sea suggest that Beijing, so conscious of its growing military might, will not be reasonable in resolving territorial disputes with neighbours.
In violation of the Law of the Seas, China claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea’s waters. It refuses to accept international adjudication of the maritime territorial disputes and has begun to enforce its territorial claims through military actions.
The UPA government deluded itself that China’s preoccupation with its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas might make it less hostile in the Himalayas. The wishfulness of this thinking was revealed when units of the People’s Liberation Army entered the Depsang Valley in the Ladakh region in April 2013 and refused to leave.
But for the planned visit to India by the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, a few weeks later, Delhi would have found it hard to make Beijing reverse its military adventure across the Line of Actual Control. India compounded its problems with China with a reluctance to embrace Asian partners who see Delhi as a balancer against Beijing. That India needs a new template to deal with rising China’s assertiveness is not in doubt. The next government in Delhi will not have too much time to devise one.