A regional security architecture for Asia
China’s rapidly rising military budget and her growing land, air and naval power, together with her belligerent attitude to her neighbours make the idea of a regional security architecture for Asia with India as its centerpiece worth examining.
As far as India’s relation with China is concerned, the stumbling block is the border dispute. Given the irreconcilable position taken by both sides, no solution or settlement of the dispute is possible unless one side retracts from its position. The objective, therefore, is to prevent the dispute from escalating into a full-blown conflict. This was admitted by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval after the 18th round of border talks on March 23. Doval and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi represented the two sides at the talks.
Doval succinctly summed up the situation when he said that though there were some unacceptable positions from India’s point of view “we are happy that the talks are going on, because if they were not, it would mean that we find that conflict is the only means of resolution. The very fact that we think there is a possibility of conflict resolution through engagement which is not conflictual is itself an important thing.” The stalemate on the border issue will continue because China knows that the India of 2015 is not the India of 1962 and in case a ‘conflictual’ situation arises, there would be no repeat of 1962.
However, India is not the only country that faces a potential threat from China. Following China’s unilateral claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea (SCS), other countries of the region – Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – are also feeling threatened. Recent satellite images have shown that China is rapidly constructing an airstrip for military use in the Spratly Islands on the reclaimed part of Fiery Cross Reef.
In a recent media interview, Philippines President Benigno Aquino Jr. has disclosed that Vietnam has proposed a ‘strategic partnership’ with his country to meet China’s claims in the SCS. Aquino also said that China’s moves in the SCS were ‘even more alarming’ than they were a year ago. China’s threat, therefore, has to be seen as a regional threat rather than a threat to a particular country that has to be countered on a regional basis rather than separately by each country.
The idea of a Regional Security Architecture for Asia with India as its centerpiece becomes relevant in this context. Of late, India has been upgrading and strengthening bilateral defence cooperation with her neighbours. Last September, Prime Minister Modi went on a five-day visit to Japan. At the end of his visit during which he held extensive talks with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, the Indian PM said: “We intend to give a new thrust and direction to our defence cooperation, including collaboration in defence technology and equipment.” During Modi’s stay, a Memorandum of Cooperation and Exchange in the field of defence was signed.
This was followed by the decision to promote military equipment collaboration and accelerating discussions on modalities for the sale of Japanese US-2 amphibian aircraft. Tokyo also lifted the ban on six Indian companies including the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) which was imposed after India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Similarly, Modi’s visit to Australia two months later in November culminated in the signing of the New Framework for Security Cooperation (NFSC). Both countries agreed to hold high-level meetings every year and also hold regular bilateral maritime exercises. Another fruitful result of Modi’s visit was the Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement (CNECA). It may be recalled that China reacted very sharply after India, Australia, Japan, Singapore and the US held a joint maritime exercise in 2007.
As noted by some foreign experts, the concern of the littoral countries with China’s incursions into the Indian Ocean has acted as an invisible ‘adhesive’ to cement defence relations between these countries. Chinese belligerence in South China Sea has been worrying Australia as well.
Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Delhi last October and held extensive talks with Modi. India announced a credit line of $100 million and agreed to deliver four offshore naval vessels to Vietnam for patrolling its coast and keeping an eye on its military bases around the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea. This was India’s first significant military delivery at a time when Hanoi was having trouble with Beijing on the South China Sea. India also agreed to modernise the Vietnamese defence forces. Modi said India’s defence cooperation with Vietnam ‘is among our most important, it will be expanded.’ This naturally angered China which is opposed to Indo-Vietnamese cooperation in exploring oil and gas in the South China Sea. Beijing has called such cooperation ‘illegal’.
India has to take a larger view of the security environment in the Indian Ocean Region. The country
has bilateral defence relations with several neighbours. The feasibility of integrating these bilateral ties into a permanent multilateral framework so as to put in place a regional security architecture with India at the centre needs to be considered. The US is taking an increasing interest in the Asia-Pacific region. Signing of a ten-year defence agreement between India and the United States in June is on the cards when the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visits India in June.
New Delhi must ensure that India retains its pre-eminent position in any collective effort at regional security.