An Important Punctuation
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An Important Punctuation


APLN member C. Uday Bhaskar argues that the ultimate outcome of the US-China contest will be influenced by the nature and substance of the bilateral relationships that both of these nations have with India. The upcoming 2+2 meeting leading to the Quad summit could play a crucial role in this regard. The original post can be accessed on the Indian Express website here.

India will host the next 2+2 ministerial dialogue with the US tomorrow (November 9) wherein the Indian Defence and External Affairs ministers Rajnath Singh and S Jaishankar will receive their American counterparts Lloyd J Austin and Antony J Blinken.

After arriving at a modus vivendi over the contentious nuclear issue in late 2008, the India-US partnership has acquired a strategic underpinning and become more robust in recent years. The agenda of the current meeting will seek to build on the progress already made in defence, diplomacy and technology.

While the wars in Gaza and Ukraine are urgent issues, the more abiding challenge for both the US and India relates to China and its revisionist orientation.

Recent developments in the South China Sea (SCS) that have pitted the Philippines against Chinese intimidation are illustrative. This is a matter of considerable relevance to ASEAN as also to the four Quad nations — Australia, India, Japan and the US.

If the proposed Quad summit is convened in Delhi in January 2024, the current 2+2 meeting will have to address a prickly nettle: When and how to pick up the gauntlet apropos China’s not so subtle creeping maritime assertiveness in east Asian waters.

In the current context, Manila accused Beijing (November 2) of “intruding” into its part of the SCS. This was in response to an earlier Chinese claim that a Philippine naval vessel had “illegally entered” the Scarborough Shoal — a water-body that China has unilaterally included in its ten-dash-line.

The trigger for the current tension is what is perceived to be a deliberate collision by a Chinese Coast guard vessel with a Philippine logistics boat on October 22 in those waters. Both nations accuse the other of transgression and violation of sovereignty. In unusually firm language, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs added that the Chinese assertion had “no legal basis and only serves to raise tensions” in water spaces over which both nations have staked their claim since 2012.

At that time, Manila took its case to international arbitration and when the Philippine claim was upheld in the Hague in 2016, Beijing brusquely rejected the verdict. Subsequently, it imposed de facto physical control over its claims in the SCS that include the disputed Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands. Claimants to different sectors of SCS include China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.

If the current situation were to escalate either by accident or pre-meditated design, the US could also be drawn into this dispute and thereby expand the scope of the conflict. This is an exigency that must be avoided — one more war would exacerbate an already bleak global security scenario and a US-China war would be very costly for the world.

Over the last decade, domestic politics in the Philippines have resulted in Manila, which was an ally of the USA during the Cold War, moving closer to China when President Duterte was in power. Consequently, Manila remained muted about its 2016 award and sought to downplay the Chinese claims and the creeping assertiveness in both the Scarborough Shoals and the Spratlys.

However, under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the Philippines is slowly distancing itself from China and has revived its military cooperation with the USA, including joint naval exercises. Japan has also increased its military engagement with the Philippines and has supplied 12 patrol vessels to Manila. In a symbolic visit, Japanese PM Fumio Kishida boarded a Japanese built vessel in Manila on November 4 and reiterated Tokyo’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

This normative reference to a FOIP and respect for international law has become a mantra but it remains rhetorical and an elusive aspiration in the face of China’s belligerence in the SCS. India also upholds this formulation but has been reticent about naming China explicitly. PM Modi, in his address to the US Congress in June noted, “The dark clouds of coercion and confrontation are casting a shadow in the Indo-Pacific.”

The dilemma for China’s interlocutors is the trade dependency on one hand and the security-strategic dissonance on the other. Australia, which pushed back against Chinese interference in its domestic politics, was subjected to a costly trade boycott by Beijing, forcing Canberra to repair its ties with China. The Philippines could face this dilemma.

India is in a similar conundrum and the Galwan setback has to be managed with the huge trade deficit in China’s favor ( $77 billion) — in both domains, Beijing remains intransigent. It is either the Chinese way or the highway.

The maritime domain provides alternate options to deal with Chinese bellicosity and the trilateral partnership between Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS) is one such nascent initiative. China’s “Malacca dilemma” may provide options to ensure compliance through compellence but these will have to be calibrated in a careful and collective manner.

While reaching for the scabbard is not a prudent option in dealing with China, the degree to which Beijing’s intimidation is to be either accommodated or appeased is problematic for policy makers. While the US has voiced its support for the Philippines and reaffirmed its “iron-clad” defence commitment, no other nation has been as forthcoming.

The US-China dyad has acquired a distinctive framework, combining trade dependency, technology competition and strategic discord, wherein both nations are jostling for global primacy. The US seeks to preserve the current status quo while China is on a revisionist path.

The ultimate denouement of this US-China contestation will be shaped by the contour and content of the bilateral relationship that both these nations have with India and the current 2 + 2  meeting leading to the Quad summit could be an important punctuation.

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