Pirates and politics

Published : Feb 13, 2009 00:00 IST

in Singapore

MARITIME security, defined as protection against piracy and terrorism, is not often seen as the gift of pristine military prowess. Yet, when China recently dispatched its naval ships to the relevant waters off Somalia in Africa and in the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy operations, East Asia went agog with stories of a historic Chinese military outreach. And, an earnest political debate began in Japan, another major East Asian power, over the ways to revise its pacifist Constitution to facilitate the dispatch of naval ships to the same waters for collective defence.

Another geopolitical angle, too, came into focus in East Asia. Chinas decisive move and Japans new thinking were seen as follow-up developments in the specific context of Indias earlier naval actions near the Gulf of Aden to tame the ubiquitous pirates there. Inevitable perceptions of a competitive military showmanship between these three Asian powers came into reckoning even as the imperative of anti-piracy operations on a global scale was not at all discounted.

For most among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the primary zone of trade-related maritime security is the Straits of Malacca in their subregion itself. In addition, mercantile safety along the high seas across the world is no less important to them in the present wave of globalisation. For North-East Asian powers such as China, Japan and South Korea though, the prime theatres of maritime security extend beyond the Malacca Straits. The waterway between China and the non-sovereign territory of Taiwan, often called the Taiwan Straits, and the Somalia-Aden Gulf theatre are equally important, besides the high seas anywhere across the world. For Australia and New Zealand, which along with India make up the remaining segment of the East Asia Summit (EAS) forum, the prime theatres of maritime security coincide with those of the North-East Asian powers. This is because of the trade links between these powers on the one side and India and Australia on the other.

Unsurprisingly, such a network of marine geography is seriously viewed as a geopolitical zone of competition among the three major EAS powers India, China and Japan. After all, it is tempting to see the naval deployments, even for the limited and explicit purpose of maritime security, as competitive power projection because warships, different from the typical coast-guard vessels, are often deployed for maritime security operations in areas beyond the coastal stretches of the proactive country concerned.

On balance, Asia-Pacific diplomats and experts do not reckon that China has signalled, as this is written, any intent to challenge Indias blue-water naval capabilities, especially in the maritime security domain. In fact, by mid-January, the Chinese Foreign Office found itself being quizzed in an altogether different light in regard to the Somalia-Aden Gulf operations.

Far from any China-India angle, the question was about Chinas view on the move by non-sovereign Taiwan to protect its merchant vessels on the high seas by dispatching its warships to the Somalia-Aden Gulf zone. Without referring to the likely or actual presence of Taiwanese warships in that theatre, China emphasised that it was already engaged in protecting all Chinese merchant vessels, including those of Taiwan compatriots. The question itself was by no means a matter of political innocence, given Taiwans real status as a non-state economic actor on the international stage. So, any purported sovereign role by Taiwan, as exemplified by its deployment of its own warships in a blue-water naval scenario, is simply unacceptable to China.

While the China-Taiwan issue had no fallout in the Somalia-Aden Gulf theatre by mid-January, different strands of opinion have been heard in East Asia over the strategic competition between Beijing and New Delhi. One view was that Chinas initial naval deployment in that blue-water naval zone was not formidable enough to take the wind out of the false sails of all international pirates there. The counter-argument, as of early January, was that Chinas original objectives appeared centred mainly on the steps needed to protect its own merchant vessels during their transit through that theatre. To this extent, it was not clear whether China would have wanted to project itself, in the first instance, as a full-fledged blue-water navy with capabilities for large-scale maritime security operations. The caveat, so ran the counter-argument, did not preclude the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) Navy from seeking to protect the merchant vessels of other countries in those troubled waters.

In some contrast, before the Chinese deployment, Indian naval personnel had hit the international headlines through their high-profile anti-piracy actions in the Somalia-Aden Gulf zone. Indias blue-water naval capabilities are often talked about in East Asia, more so after India associated itself with the United States, Japan and Australia in forming a core group that helped Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. More importantly, however, Indias clear association with those countries with the Western or West-oriented tag has not gone unnoticed in East Asia. This aspect is of particular relevance, if not of serious concern always, to one or two littoral states along the Malacca Straits, notably Malaysia, in the overall context of Chinas identity as the big native East Asian power.

New Delhis Look East policy was enunciated by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s, but the Indian Navys prowess was noticed in East Asia only in the wake of the 9/11 terror tragedy in the U.S. The relevant event was a one-off escorting of some high-value U.S. vessels by a few Indian warships along the Malacca Straits. The U.S. move in choosing the Indian Navy for this purpose and Indias positive response on that occasion, as also the acquiescence of the littoral states along the Malacca Straits, acquired the overtones of a naval tale.

The tale, the core group and a series of Indian naval exercises, in various combinations including bilateral ones, with East Asian powers, such as Japan and China, have led to a lot of strategic analysis.

Add to this the other strategic story of how the U.S., under an outgoing President, walked the extra mile to help India gain concessions from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

In this overall ambience, Zhang Yunling, a Beijing-based Chinese expert on international affairs, told this correspondent in Singapore that there existed a certain degree of strategic distrust between India and China. This, in his view, can be addressed through regular dialogue between India, China and the U.S., at the non-official Track-II level for a start. And, Zhang himself has taken the initiative for such confidence-building talks at the non-official level.

On the maritime security front itself in this big picture, two other issues are relevant to the independent anti-piracy efforts of India and China in the Somalia-Aden Gulf theatre. First, China will be keen to avoid the kind of collateral damage that an action by the Indian Navy caused last December. Some 15 Thai nationals lost their lives in the retaliatory action by an Indian naval vessel as it sought to subdue a pirate ship. This led to some dismay, especially in Thailand, whose nationals concerned had apparently nothing to do with the pirates themselves.

However, as a South-East Asian diplomat emphasised, the Indian action should be viewed in the context of the reality that the sunken vessel was indeed in the hands of the pirates who had hijacked it. The Indian action, meant to subdue those pirates, was therefore understandable, it was further pointed out.

The second relevant issue has to do with the concerns of some Indians that China has already embarked on a strategy of seeking to encircle India through naval arrangements with its neighbours. Chinas latest deployment in the Somalia-Aden Gulf theatre is seen by these Indians as another proof of this strategy. A Singapore-based Western specialist in matters relating to the Indian Navy does not, however, see definitive signs of such an encirclement strategy by China, known in strategic slang as a garland of pearls. Moreover, according to this expert, India has already acquired considerable blue-water naval capabilities.

Many other experts on East Asian affairs, especially from the West, tend to view the Japan-China equation as an issue of greater primacy to the Asia-Pacific region than the ties between Beijing and New Delhi. Particularly relevant to this scenario is the view of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso that his countrys anti-war statute, fashioned by the U.S. after the Second World War, might need to be revised even for limited purposes.

In his reckoning, these include the possible deployment of Japanese naval vessels on an anti-piracy mission of global relevance in the Somalia-Aden Gulf region. The pacifist document, seen by many Japanese as a treatise on military taboos, forbids participation by Japans self-defence forces in any collective defence operations in association with other countries. And, the relevant concern is that the operations against international pirates might necessitate such military collaboration with other countries.

In a larger regional perspective, Richard J. Samuels, an international affairs expert with a Japan focus, makes a telling comment in an elaborate security study: Tokyos defence specialists are convinced that China intends to establish itself as the worlds second superpower and are concerned that domination of Japan will be part of the process.

With China, unlike the old Soviet Union, being seen determined to be rich as well as strong, Samuels points out that Japanese leaders tend to view the Japan-China economic complementarities as a temporary phenomenon. These complementarities currently constitute a key foundational element of the Japan-China relationship. These perceptions, regardless of the extent of their hold on the Japanese political psyche at any given time, are as much a pointer to Tokyos anti-piracy aspirations as maritime security is to Japans well-being.

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