Late last year, during a state visit to the US, Chinese President Xi Jinping had asserted that his country had no intention of militarising the disputed region in the South China Sea. However, latest satellite images suggest exactly the opposite. Seen in the backdrop of its aggressive rhetoric following the international tribunal verdict on its ‘illegal’ activities in the South China Sea, it appears Beijing is playing a dangerous game of one-upmanship. But what exactly does it intend to do? If one looks at the issue from a Chinese perspective, Beijing is merely fortifying its ‘just’ claims as a ‘defensive’ measure.
The view from the other side is rather bleak. The territorial claims of Vietnam, the Philippines and other littoral countries are just as strong, if not stronger, than China’s in the mineral-rich region. As such, any militarisation is bound to raise tensions and provoke all the claimants to adopt a confrontational approach. China, with its words and deeds, is stretching things a bit too far. In response to China’s build up — the satellite images have confirmed that Chinese military fighter jets could now be based on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs — Vietnam is reportedly shipping rocket launchers to protect its islands. The scale and speed of China’s island-building activities apart, its recent war games, aimed at preparing itself for a ‘short and cruel war’ have spooked the other countries.
The Chinese power projection is of concern to the world at large too, given that over $5 trillion trade passes through the region annually. If this ‘throat’ of western pacific and Indian oceans is choked, it would have not only geopolitical but also devastating economic implications. China may not be so foolish as to do that. But it is boxing itself into a corner from where use of force might be its only face-saver. The risks of such a course are many since losing won’t be an option. In this context, it’s not a good idea for India to get too involved.