The Chinese have been rather aggressive in the South China Sea of late. They have laid claims to virtually all of SCS and the many resource rich islands in it and have cited all kinds of reasons including some 13th century maps to claim lands in the area. The Chinese claim lands that belong to the Vietnam and have raised objections to Indian oil exploration activities in the region with rather harsh tones. They claim all of the Spratly and the Parcel Islands. These areas are thought to be resource rich especially oil and gas. These Islands are being claimed by multiple countries that include China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China and Philippines have been locked in a stand-off in disputed waters at the Scarborough Shoal since 8 April. Both sides accuse each other of intruding into territorial waters. The shoal itself, called Huangyan Island by China, is a series of rocks and reefs more than 100 miles (160km) from the Philippines and 500 miles from China. China claims sovereignty over a large U-shaped area of the South China Sea, bringing it into dispute with several neighbouring countries. In recent months it has grown more assertive over the issue. China uses maps dating back to the 13th century to further its claims.
One of China’s most popular newspapers has warned of a potential “small-scale war” between Beijing and Manila as a result of their standoff at Panatag Shoal, or Scarborough Shoal as the area is known internationally.
The Global Times, in an editorial published in its Chinese and English editions, said over the weekend that “China should be prepared to engage in a small-scale war at sea with the Philippines.”
India started oil exploration in Vietnam in an area which the Chinese claim as theirs. China has warned India on several occasions to not interfere in the region. India’s Foreign Minister has retorted back saying South China Sea is not “China’s Sea” and has vowed to continue with legitimate business in the region.
Indian ties to the region are historic. Going far back to the Chola Dynasty which ruled the southern part of the Indian Sub continent and also large areas of the countries in South East Asia. The Chola Empire existed between the 300 BC and 13th Century. It reached the peak during the reign on Raja Raja Chola.
The map below illustrates that.
I am sure the Indian government is not going to use this as a pretext to claim sovereignty over large parts of South East Asia. But what it does show is that India has historically had an interest in the region. Large parts of these areas have Hindu Temples that stand till today. As India grows economically and militarily, these areas will continue to grow in importance for India.
India will have to foresee a role of being a security guarantor in the region against the hegemonic ambitions of the Chinese. India has been following a look east policy for the last fifteen years as far as trade relations go. But now India has to look to establish strategic and military ties with the countries of the region. India already has military relations with Vietnam. India has trained Malaysian pilots to fly their Su 30 fighters. India and Indonesia have been developing a strategic partnership and relations between the two countries are historic. India should use its historic and cultural ties along with common ideals of democracy to build on these relations with these countries to counter the Chinese influence. That the entire region is wary of China is beyond doubt.
India should look to arm the countries of this region with some of its home-grown weapons. Primarily the Brahmos anti ship missile, to thwart any Chinese naval aggression in the region. India could also look to sell in the future its light combat aircraft, Arjun Tank and Akash Surface to Air Missiles. We can provide aid if need be.
The Indian Navy has been acquiring and will continue to acquire surface and sub surface combatants that will help India project power far away from its own shores. Along with the US with which it already has a naval agreement to protect sea lanes of communications and India has naval deployments to check piracy in the region. India has been developing military ties with Japan and South Korea which along with the US can form a significant alliance in the region to guarantee peace and security. India will have to work towards establishing a concrete security framework and leverage its growing economy and military to secure its vital interests in the region.