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China’s naval nationalism: Has A K Antony blinked?

Why is it all right for the Chinese Navy to operate in India’s backyard and wrong,from the perspective of our Ministry of Defence,for the Indian Navy to conduct naval exercises in China’s frontyard? As Beijing revels in its newly minted naval nationalism,New Delhi seems determined to curb the Indian Navy’s enthusiasm to raise the nation’s […]

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
October 5, 2009 3:03:13 pm

Why is it all right for the Chinese Navy to operate in India’s backyard and wrong,from the perspective of our Ministry of Defence,for the Indian Navy to conduct naval exercises in China’s frontyard?

As Beijing revels in its newly minted naval nationalism,New Delhi seems determined to curb the Indian Navy’s enthusiasm to raise the nation’s maritime profile.

The MoD’s decision,at the eleventh hour,to pull the services out of a multilateral naval exercise in the Western Pacific last week,begs some serious questions. Is the Minister of Defence,A K Antony,in sync with India’s naval aspirations? Or has he begun to feel the heat from the Chinese pressures on our land borders?

Questions about his uncertain naval vision arose when he refused to let the Navy join the international operations against pirates in the Gulf of Aden last year. As Antony dithered for long before saying yes,Beijing used the international concerns on piracy to mount its first ever expeditionary naval operation into the Indian Ocean.

As it completes its year-long deployment in the Indian Ocean,Beijing is now eager to expand its maritime cooperation with the US and other western powers that have begun to acknowledge China’s rise as a naval power.

The Indian Navy,which has a longer record of modern operations at sea and enjoys many maritime advantages over China,appears increasingly tied down by the terrible timidity of the MoD’s political leadership.

In contrast,the Chinese Communist Party has embarked on a massive mobilisation of naval nationalism. CCP chairman Hu Jintao repeatedly talks of China’s “manifest maritime destiny”. Thanks to the CCP campaign,Chinese citizens are turning up in droves to offer personal donations to help Beijing build aircraft carriers.

If Antony thinks he is being ‘nice’ to the Chinese by cancelling exercises in the Western Pacific,he has no inkling of how Beijing thinks. The Chinese respect those with the will to power,and they mount relentless pressure on those who wilt.

Recall the recent Chinese tease for a naval condominium with the US: Washington could stay in the Eastern Pacific and China would police the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans.

As it rises,China will inevitably build a powerful navy. It is also logical that China will protect its growing interests in the Indian Ocean. There is no way India can or should stop it. New Delhi must focus,instead,on consolidating its own position in the Indian Ocean and elevating its maritime profile in the Western Pacific.

It is that strategic parity that will provide the basis for a much needed maritime dialogue and cooperation with China. But if New Delhi is eager to offer unilateral naval concessions,why blame Beijing for turning up the heat?

(C. Raja Mohan is Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress,Washington DC).

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