By Kristopher Klein
Perhaps the central theme of the 21st century is the rise of Asia. Asian countries have undergone rapid economic growth since the 1980s, bringing tremendous benefits to their people. Millions have risen out of poverty, freedoms have expanded and the standard of living has risen considerably. But such a fast pace almost craves misdirection. Just as the rapid growth of European powers in the twentieth century led to war on a massive scale, so too can growth in Asia. The way rising Asian powers conduct themselves not only toward more traditional powers, but perhaps more importantly between themselves will determine what the next century holds.
As tensions over territorial disputes continue to rise in the South China Sea, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the cordial relations of the nearby Indian Ocean. How a regional power like China interacts with smaller countries surrounding it can be greatly informed by studying India and how it interacts with its neighbors in the Indian Ocean.
A Developing Crisis
A growing concern for peace and security in Asia is the maritime dispute in the South China Sea. The People’s Republic of China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines all have overlapping claims in the region that have not been delineated by an international court. These claims are in clear violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The lack of international legitimacy for such claims could spark conflict. A report conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses, a non-profit research organization funded by the United States government, lists claims from each of these countries as being potential flash points for “uses [of] force to expel rival claimants.”
China’s role is particularly worrisome because it is the most powerful actor involved and its claims easily exceed those of the other claimants as delineated by its controversial nine-dash line. A 2014 report by the U.S. Department of State concludes that Chinese claims have no foundation in international law. In recent years, China has become increasingly assertive in regard to its claims in the South China Sea, leading to rising tensions that could spark future conflict.
An Alternatively Worthy Engagement
The Indian Ocean, like the South China Sea, is surrounded by rising economic and military powers. However in comparison, there is a relative absence of maritime disputes characteristic of its neighbor to the east.
In arrant contrast to the disputes in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean relations seem to be filled with feel-good expressions of mutual dependence and cooperation. At the Indo-Pacific Oration in New Delhi, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said “we are fortunate that the Indian Ocean waters we share remain largely free of the kinds of territorial disputes that we’ve seen on the other side of the Malacca Straits.” In her address, Bishop lauded the Indian Ocean’s peaceful characteristics relative to East Asian disputes and offered an optimistic view of Indian relations with regional powers. The notably cordial address also featured broad strokes of eagerness to cooperate with India, such as Bishop’s overture that “a changing India undoubtedly means a changing region – and it’s a change that Australia welcomes.”
India is the most populous nation and the largest economy on the Indian Ocean, which is traversed by almost half of the world’s seaborne trade every year. How India conducts foreign policy will be instrumental in determining the tone of security diplomacy in a network vital to global trade.
Compromising to Improve Relations with Neighboring States
India’s partiality towards compromise can be aptly demonstrated in its bilateral land border agreements with neighboring Bangladesh. In 1974 India agreed to redraw the border separating it from Bangladesh. At the time, more than a hundred cross-border enclaves existed that left parts of India and Bangladesh within the confines of the other. After a long but peaceful negotiation process, the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, finally ratified the agreement last month.
A comparison of the growth of the economies of India and Bangladesh from 1974 and 2013 provides some perspective into just how surprising this deal was. In 1974, India’s GDP was $160.2846 billion in 2000 U.S. dollars. In comparison, Bangladesh’s was $17.0657 billion in 2000 U.S. dollars. Fast forward to 2013, India’s GDP in 2000 U.S. dollars had grown to $1.4587 trillion while Bangladesh’s grew to $97.262 billion. If we run these numbers, Bangladesh’s economy was 10.65 percent the size of India’s in 1974, but only 6.67 percent the size of India’s in 2013.
The changing size of India’s economy relative to Bangladesh means that India could have used its greater economic influence to push for greater concessions from Bangladesh as China has done in the South China Sea. However, rather than attempting to take advantage of India’s changing status relative to its smaller neighbor, India has decided to honor the same border agreement that was reached in 1974. India’s great compromise on foreign policy has been to conduct itself in a manner that promotes equitable ties and mutual development rather than full exploitation of its growing power in matters that ultimately have little effect on growth.
India has embraced multilateralism by participating in and recognizing the rulings of international arbitration in its maritime disputes with Bangladesh. For the last 30 years India and Bangladesh have been locked in a dispute over maritime rights in a section of the Bay of Bengal. Last year, a United Nations tribunal ruled on the dispute, granting Bangladesh almost 80 percent of the disputed territory.
India has also been a major underwriter of efforts to build multilateral institutions with states around the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is a forum in which countries bordering the Indian Ocean can discuss issues of strategic importance with member-states and begin the process of peaceful settlement in the event of conflicting interests. The IORA has also begun research into a preferential trade agreement with the aim of liberalizing trade between member states. The IORA operates alongside the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, an institution designed to weave cooperation and interoperability between the littoral combat forces of the region.
Contrast with the South China Sea
India’s active engagement in forming multilateral institutions and allowing these institutions to effectively negotiate codes of conduct and form interoperability among the littoral forces of members goes far beyond China’s multilateral engagements in the South China Sea.
In February at a preparatory meeting for Defense Ministers from across East Asia, China rejected discussion over codes of conduct for the South China Sea. China has also maintained the position that all territorial disputes with its much smaller neighbors should be resolved on a bilateral basis. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei has demanded that all parties to territorial disputes in the South China Sea “stay committed to resolving maritime disputes through bilateral consultation.”
The Philippines rejected China’s vision of strictly bilateral dispute settlement when it asked the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration to hear a case regarding the South China Sea territorial disputes. China has rejected UN arbitration of its territorial disputes, claiming the court has no jurisdiction.For its part, India has urged the use of international arbitration to resolve disputes in the South China Sea.
Lessons for Future
Without multilateral institutions or international arbitration, territorial disputes in the South China Sea are liable to produce military conflict that could be destabilizing for the entire region if not the entire world. In order to safeguard all of the economic progress that has been made since its economic development began, the People’s Republic of China should take a more compromising view of its regional disputes. If China really means what it says when it urges a ‘new type of great power relationship’ then it has something to learn from India in how it approaches its neighbors and the international system.
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