The Shangri-La Conference is hosted annually by the International Institute of Strategic Studies at Singapore; the most recent one was held just a few days ago. Almost all of these meets, at which people occupying high positions in countries around the world participate, throw up one or two issues which relate to potentially destabilising security scenarios. The 2016 gathering focused on the South China Sea.
Actually, the context is not too complex. A few years ago, China promulgated what has now become known as a 'nine dash line' on the map which placed much of the water space in this sea and the several islands, big and small, that are part of it, under Chinese sovereignty. It claimed legitimacy of the ownership as one that flowed from history. This assertive posture not only impinged on the exclusive economic zones and island territories seen to belong to some countries of the region, principally Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia, but also sought to place a large segment of the open sea and air space under Chinese control, thereby requiring those transiting through them to seek prior clearance from, yes, China.
This assertion challenged the fundamental premise of the right to navigation and freedom of the seas as spelt out in internationally accepted laws and conventions. The affected countries, both littorals of the region as well as those external to it, protested this action and one of them, Philippines, sought arbitration by the International Court of Justice. The decision of this court is likely to come soon and its verdict (expected to be adverse to China) will not be accepted by that country.
So, the areas of contention are two; one, the Chinese claims conflict with the territorial rights of other littorals and two, the rights of free passage at sea and of the related air space are affected. To this should be added the arbitrary actions of China to turn some otherwise small islets which it lays claim to into larger entities through reclamation; an airfield is under construction on one such.
The US has always been a major player in the waters of the Western Pacific, which include the South China Sea. Disturbed by the assertive Chinese actions, it first proclaimed a 'pivot' to the Asia-Pacific and strengthened the presence of maritime forces in the Philippines and Singapore; it already has a substantial presence in Japan and in South Korea. American strategy has been twofold: one, ask China to observe internationally accepted conventions for free navigation and movement at sea and two, it has refused to accept China's control over the area covered by their dotted line and, wherever it conflicts with unfettered movement, physically sent US warships through these waters, over Chinese objections. The fact that there has been no major confrontation between the two countries so far is no guarantee that there will be none in the future. The situation is, therefore, potentially destabilising.
India's position at the Shangri-La Conference, as articulated by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, is unchanged: It is not a party to different claims in the region but with half its seaborne trade passing through the South China Sea, it is anxious that freedom of movement and navigation consistent with the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) is respected; this was only possible if there was peace and tranquility in the region and rights of affected parties settled through mutual discourse or through international arbitration. Mr Parrikar went on to clarify that India's interests stretched from the Suez in the west to the western Pacific, an area some call the Indo-Pacific.
US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter spelt out the American stand - all disputes should be settled peacefully between the contesting parties and nothing should come in the way of freedom of navigation. American warships would continue to follow this tenet and move about consistent with the rights that this enjoined. Clearly, Mr Carter was hinting that China's claims were cause for concern, even going on to suggest that it could be internationally 'isolated'. But this did not deter the Chinese representative, China's Admiral Sun Jianguo, from asserting categorically that there could be no question of China compromising on its sovereignty over areas enclosed by the dotted line, which was based on historical evidence. The situation is therefore tailor-made for confrontational scenarios at sea, and a minor incident has already occurred in the air space, causing concern.
This brings us to the more fundamental question of what is causing China to make such assertive moves when they do not seem to be necessary or for the Americans to respond in the way they are. With growth in its global stature, China now sees maritime power as an essential adjunct of comprehensive national power to which it subscribes. Without it, matching the US as one of two super powers is not possible. On the other hand, America views itself as the unchallenged power in the Asia-Pacific, which implies setting limits to Chinese aspirations. The first and foremost need, therefore, is to deny the Chinese unhindered access to and domination over waters of the western Pacific. If this is ensured, China's desire to move into the larger Indo-Pacific domain, critical to maritime power, will be very difficult to achieve and will not be sufficiently credible. With Japan as a formidable ally at sea, and smaller littoral nations like Vietnam, Taiwan and Philippines on its side, America can be a formidable impediment to China's objectives.
For India, the battlefield is an interesting one. It is not a littoral of that region yet must remain interested as the major part of its trade passes through the South China Sea. This aside, geostrategic considerations dictate that China's growing power is contained and countries like the US become our natural partners, a position reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent visit to that country. This has led India to now be part of the trilateral Malabar exercises conducted annually, one year in the Indian Ocean region and the next in the western Pacific along with the navies of Japan and the US.
The strategy of being interested in what is going on while not being involved keeps us at a distance and yet, a player which cannot be quickly ignored by either side. Having good relations with a rising China is not just essential for the littoral countries and for the US and Japan, all of which have major economic linkages with that country, but also for India, though ours are still to become as meaningful as they should be. To keep these growing and at the same time seeing that the 'dragon' remains within acceptable boundaries is the strategic challenge that we face. This is the context in which the recent Shangri-La Dialogue should be seen.