Can South China Sea help India rein in China in Ladakh?

There have been suggestions that India should increase its role in the South China Sea, another region that has seen salami slicing by China. Argument is that this would put pressure on China as it eyes to change status quo along LAC.

Red dash lines show China’s claim line in the South China Sea, which, according to international laws, is a neutral area. (Photo: Reuters)

For long, India’s China policy has been to keep the northern neighbour in good stead. India was among the first countries to acknowledge One-China policy. It did not change even when India offered asylum to Tibetan government under the Dalai Lama. On Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan, India has avoided comments adversarial to China.

On the other hand, Chinese response has been of belligerence through capturing of Aksai Chin, calling Jammu and Kashmir a dispute, and laying claim to more territories including the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

There have been calls for a review of India’s China policy for many years now. The increased aggression from the Chinese side in recent years, particularly under Xi Jinping, has reinforced the need for a change in India’s China policy.

Despite India having declared itself a neutral power in the race for achieving geo-strategic supremacy during the cold-war and after, the US has favoured India against China.

It did so even during the 1962 war. It was the time of cold-war and a neutral India had a friendship treaty with the USSR, which had refused to take India’s side against a communist brother like China.

Then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had to turn to the US, writing two letters to then President JF Kennedy on November 19 – the second written “for his eyes only” was a secret one and never became part of documents in India.

The US response was swift. India had sought fighter aircraft and trained pilots. They landed in India on November 22. Additionally, the US moved its famed Seventh Fleet from its Hawaii base to the Bay of Bengal. It is incidental that as the news of the US’s active involvement in 1962 war broke out on November 20, China by November 21 morning announced ceasefire unilaterally.

In its November 20-21 night announcement, China said its forces would move back 20 km behind the 1959 Line of Actual control (LAC). Many have attributed this move by China to onset of winters in the high Himalayas. But the US response to India’s call would have weighed on the Chinese mind.

Now China has been found to be making references to 1962 war — with increased frequency during Doklam and Galwan incidents. During the recent face-off in Ladakh, Chinese side repeatedly taunted India for being a smaller military power and only 20 per cent of Chinese economy as it attempted to change the status quo along the LAC.

Again, it was incidental that China agreed to execute the disengagement agreement only after the US made military moves. The US announced it is pulling back troops from Europe to redeploy in the Pacific region in the wake of India-China military tension.

Secondly, the US increased its naval activities in the South China Sea. On Monday, the US Navy conducted military exercises in the South China Sea, over which China claims sovereign control and defies international laws for seas.

The US conducts its activities in the South China Sea in the name of freedom of navigation. India has played a balanced role till now. While India maintains that the South China Sea is a neutral navigation field beyond the sovereign limits of the littoral countries, it has not taken a strong position against Chinese bullying attempts.

China has created artificial islands for its military bases far-off from its coast and near Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines. It has even attacked ships of these countries even when those were inside their exclusive economic zones.

In fact, except the US, no other major power has objected to Chinese design in the South China Sea. It patrols the region on its own. The US military patrols, experts believe, have acted as an assurance to many ASEAN countries in the region. The UK conducted joint patrol with the US but only once.

The US and some of the ASEAN countries want India to increase its presence and role in the South China Sea. The question is, will India still be neutral or play an active role to make QUAD – the US, Japan, Australia and India — to meet Chinese offensive for a more secure world? Can South China Sea be an Indian front to rein in China in Ladakh?

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