Neelam Mathews New Delhi
As two Asian giants jostle for regional power and influence, India, traditionally the silent one, is now working to diffuse tensions with its largest trading partner, China.
The two locked horns over numerous issues in 2011, including an alleged confrontation between an Indian navy ship—INS Airawat—and a Chinese vessel in the South China Sea near Vietnam in July. Tensions rose further in November following a row over a speech in New Delhi by the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, causing talks on border management to be postponed. They were subsequently scheduled for a later date.
“India’s position on Tibet is clear,” says R.N. Das, senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. “It follows the one-China policy and recognizes the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader only. India did not buckle under pressure from China to cancel the event. Instead it ensured that neither the prime minister nor president attended.”
China has been asserting claims in the South China Sea, where it shares maritime borders with Vietnam and the Philippines. In recent years, actions by China with regard to Pakistan relating to river issues have caused anxiety in India, as India’s growing relationship with Vietnam have prompted concern in China.
“Delhi has taken a calibrated stance in rejecting China’s diplomatic demarches on the Vietnam issue,” writes Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation. “There is an unstated geopolitical dimension in the Vietnam standoff and related security sensitivity. The Chinese endorsement of Pakistani-occupied Kashmir as an integral part of Pakistan is as much of an issue for Delhi as Taiwan and Tibet are for Beijing.”
Indian navy chief Adm. Nirmal Verma said at a seminar on national security that “the South China Sea is an area of significant concern.” Aiming at avoiding conflict with China in the strategically vital Indian Ocean, New Delhi is considering a bilateral protocol that may help defuse maritime tension between the countries. India may also set up hot lines between the two navies, which are expanding their footprint in the Indian Ocean, through which most of the world’s oil and cargo moves, Verma said.