By Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
For India, there was much to be happy about in what came out of the Shangri-La Dialogue. Given its rhetorical obsession with laughable concepts like ‘strategic autonomy’ and ‘non-alignment’, this conference saw the formulation of ‘Salience’ and ‘Substance’ as Huntington called it. The ‘substance’ (essentially what binds us together) being built was one of prosperity dependant on maritime order. China of course would agree with this completely since its entire new found wealth rests on maritime transit. The ‘salience’ (or what separates ‘us’ from ‘them’) built up therefore was that the US supports the status quo while China is the revisionist that rocks the boat. The inescapable conclusion is that like it or not India has found the perfect synthesis of rhetoric and cause to enter the American orbit.
The ‘Salience’ started in Defence Minister A K Antony’s speech on maritime security which summarized the Indian dilemma in a nutshell. On the one hand it articulated concerns about freedom of the seas in unusually sharp language claiming ‘Unlike in previous centuries, maritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few. Large parts of the common seas cannot be declared exclusive to any one country or group’. While this can be seen as a reference to India’s struggle against colonialism, in the current context it applies – especially given the location of the conference to China’s – whose claims after all are based on maps from ‘previous centuries’. This was all the more pointed given that the South China Sea and its periphery, the Moluccas, while not critical to India is central to China in every sense of that word. Couched therefore in India’s traditional rhetoric of fashionable anti-colonialism, was perhaps one of the sharpest rebukes China could face – in effect being labelled a colonizer.
If India couched its concerns, Japan hardly minced words basing the speech on the notion that ‘…. any challenge to freedom of navigation is tantamount to a rejection of the maritime order and prosperity based on maritime security’ and ominously throwing in ‘I am afraid that the security environment in the Asia-Pacific region is becoming increasingly uncertain and unpredictable’. Japanese Vice Minister for Defence – Shu Watanabe’s speech was perhaps the clearest indicator of the evolving maritime containment of China that seems to be emerging. His exact words were ‘Japan is now strengthening bilateral security cooperation with such countries as Australia, the Republic of Korea, ASEAN countries and India. We are also engaged in confidence-building vis-à-vis China and Russia’. This implied a trust in the former 4 blocks while betraying a fundamental lack of extant trust in Russia and China.
The creation of ‘substance’ lay in India’s perception of itself being accepted by the US and its major allies in the region – Australia and Japan. What was missing though in A K Antony’s speech was any mention of the US, though both the Australians and Japanese were clear in their view of the centrality of the US to this scheme. Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith contextualized this bilaterally claiming ‘The Australia-United States Alliance is the indispensable, enduring feature of Australia’s strategic and security arrangements’ while both spoke of their belief in the concept of the US as the benign hegemon central to their prosperity. While Stephen Smith said ‘In Australia’s view, the US has underwritten stability in the Asia-Pacific for the past half century and will continue to be the single most important strategic actor in our region for the foreseeable future, both in its own right and through its network of alliances and security relationships, including with Australia’.
Shu Watanabe’s remark though similar was laconically laced with an underlying menace – ‘The US presence, as we understand it, is not something that is targeted against a specific country. Rather it can be seen as an international public good’. The message being sent to China was that the US was going to stay, and following Kissinger’s words to the effect that it is ‘not directed against anyone specific’ means that one has thrown the gauntlet, but has the capability to do far worse should one so choose. While one can fall into the trap of overanalyzing rhetoric – this is an indication of how powerful rhetoric and smart power can be when used in conjunction with hard power. China has been trapped into the self-fulfilling prophecy of a ‘Wilhelmine China’. The lines are being drawn and to a large extent China has no one to blame but itself. On one hand agreeing to UNCLOS would mean a significant loss of prestige at home not to mention access to resources, while not agreeing to UNCLOS means a decisive shift to ‘containment’ within the ‘congagement’ matrix, while the US has a decisive hold on the ‘engagement’ jugular. It was perhaps no surprise therefore that the Chinese decided to ignore this meet in its entirety.
Research Officer, IPCS
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