NEW DELHI – Nowadays, many people seem to be more relaxed than ever about nationality, with the Internet enabling them to forge close connections with distant cultures and people. But states remain extremely sensitive about their borders’ inviolability. After all, territory – including land, oceans, air space, rivers, and seabeds – is central to a country’s identity, and shapes its security and foreign policy.
States can respond to territorial disputes either by surrendering some aspects of sovereignty, thus weakening their power and influence, or by adopting a more robust national-defense strategy aimed at fending off current challenges and precluding future threats. Today, many Asian countries are choosing the latter option.
Consider the territorial disputes roiling the Indian Ocean and other East Asian regions, sparked by China’s repeated – and increasingly assertive – efforts to claim sovereignty over vast maritime areas. As China’s incursions reignite long-smoldering disagreements and threaten to destabilize the regional status quo, countries throughout Asia are reconsidering their strategic positions.
For example, the Philippines is revamping its security strategy by enhancing cooperation with the United States – China’s counterweight in the region – only two decades after it closed two major American military installations, the naval base at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. Vietnam, too, has strengthened its ties with the US. And, after decades of absence, America has resumed training programs for Indonesia’s military.
More significant, Japan’s leaders are now openly debating ways to transform the country’s post-World War II pacifism into a much more assertive nationalism. In fact, in August, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force unveiled the helicopter destroyer Izumo, whose structure and capabilities resemble those of an aircraft carrier, with possible offensive applications. This emerging strategic shift will likely have far-reaching consequences, raising the stakes of Sino-Japanese sparring over islands in the East China Sea.
But, while Japan’s tense relationship with China dominates headlines worldwide, the strategic rivalry between China and India is more likely to shape Asian power dynamics in the coming decades. And recent events suggest that China knows it.
In April, a platoon of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) border-security personnel crossed the so-called “line of actual control” into India’s Depsang Valley in Ladakh to erect an encampment, where they remained for almost three weeks. China’s leaders have yet to explain what prompted the incursion – but there is no shortage of speculation.
Some claim that the local PLA commander initiated the “stand-off,” while others contend that China’s new president, Xi Jinping, was using the transgression to assert his authority over the PLA. The incursion has even been linked to the scandal surrounding Chongqing’s disgraced former Communist Party chief, Bo Xilai, who had close ties with high-ranking PLA and security-services officers. But the most likely explanation is the simplest one: China was deliberately asserting its authority over the disputed border.
As it stands, India and China are openly competing for influence in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bangladesh. So far, they have largely relied on economic and commercial mechanisms – especially rival port and pipeline projects – to secure their positions.
China is not allowing its economic slowdown to derail its efforts to enlarge and modernize its navy and expand its commercial interests around Eurasia’s southern rim. It has been investing or demonstrating interest in deep-water port projects in Kenya, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, and it has been directly involved in financing and constructing Indian Ocean ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.
Just as China is helping to develop Pakistan’s port of Gwadar, India is helping to develop Iran’s Chabahar port 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) away. Chabahar is not useful only to counter China; it will serve as a vital link for India to transport goods to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond. India could even develop a major communication hub with the port as its nexus.
Moreover, India is working to safeguard its naval superiority over China. In August, the reactor aboard India’s first indigenously built nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, was activated, bringing the country one step closer to realizing its long-sought goal of a “nuclear triad” – the capability to launch nuclear weapons from land, air, and sea. Just three days later, India launched the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.
But, as The Economist observed, “rarely does nemesis follow hubris so quickly.” Indeed, just two days after the Vikrant’s launch, explosions at the naval dockyard in Mumbai sank INS Sindhurakshak – one of the ten Kilo-class submarines that form the backbone of India’s aging conventional-submarine fleet – killing 18 crew members.
Perhaps China’s apparent economic, strategic, and military advantages will prove less significant than many believe – especially given continuing uncertainty over the terms of America’s strategic “pivot” toward Asia. Indeed, with the US on their side, either Japan or India could conceivably tip the scales in its own favor. But one thing is clear: a great game is beginning among Asia’s great powers, and there are scant rules in place to manage how it will be played.