- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

If a benevolent nuclear-armed democracy were to offer to help deter a not-so-friendly nuclear-armed power, should the United States object? No, instead, the U.S. should cheer when later this year India sends its navy into the South China Sea to affirm its interests in defending freedom of the seas and to stand up to the irredentism of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

In fact, it is about time India has decided to act to defend its vital economic and security interests that lay outside its immediate environs. India's decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998, and to build its own nuclear missile deterrent, was in large part a consequence of the PRC's giving nuclear weapons technology and ballistic missile technology to its rival Pakistan. But the decision to seek its own nuclear deterrent seems to have led to a wider realization in India that it must also seek partners to defend real economic-security interests beyond its region.

Even though the current BJP-led government of Prime Minister Vajpayee continues to express India's traditional foreign policy of non-alignment, in February his Defense Minister George Fernandez went to Tokyo to try to encourage Indian-Japanese naval defense cooperation. While Japanese defense officials are keen to proceed, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs thinks not so fast. Sad, as both India and Japan have a vital interest in securing the sea lanes that connect Persian Gulf energy to a Japanese economy that is a main Indian partner for investment and trade.

But whether the Japanese want to play or not, India does intend to send a small naval group into the South China Sea later this year to conduct exercises with Vietnamese Navy. Both India and Vietnam have reason to be wary of the PRC's maritime ambitions. To a country on India's border, Myanmar, the PRC has just sold attack ships armed with the C-801 or C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles. PRC construction of ports in Myanmar has long been seen a cover for building PRC intelligence-gathering facilities aimed at India.

Vietnam remembers its 1988 clash with the PRC, which saw about 70 Vietnamese soldiers killed as Chinese naval and marine forces took several islands from Vietnam in the disputed Spratly Island group. And since then Beijing has proceeded to implement its territorial claim to most of the South China Sea by gradually building up a military presence in the Paracel Island Group, which now hosts a significant air base, and in the Spratly group to the south. In Mischief Reef, which sits astride a critical sea-trade route called the Palawan Trench, and only about 150 miles from the Philippine islands of Palawan, there are now two large PRC structures, one of which can service military helicopters.

Despite enormous diplomatic activity, led by the members of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, the PRC will not budge from its absurd and threatening claims to nearly the entire South China Sea. This is analogous to the U.S. claiming the whole of the Gulf of Mexico and Cuba as its own. Mischief Reef is about 800 miles from the Chinese Mainland. And the Clinton administration has been disappointingly slow to recognize a U.S. interest in convincing China to stop its aggressive behavior and to negotiate in good faith with other claimants. So there should be little surprise when other states begin to act in their self-defense.

While it may appear that India's naval sortie into the South China Sea is destabilizing, it really is not. India is emerging from its cocoon of non-alignment, and in doing so, is encouraging Japan to assume a greater security burden. This potential cooperation is a consequence of the PRC's actions, and for sure, is directed against it. But it is also a result of a lackluster U.S. response to the PRC's efforts to surround India with client states, and to Washington's slow response to PRC ambitions in the South China Sea.

This author's attendance at a recent conference on U.S.-Indian relations at India's premier private university in Manipal, India, was most instructive. In the wake of President Clinton's successful yes, successful visit to India and Pakistan, it appears there is a real opportunity to clear away the fog caused by 50 years of U.S.-Indian mutual mistreatment. And while influential Indians continue to view the U.S. with mixed emotions, there appear to be plenty of Indians willing to work with Washington to build such a partnership.

It is time for the United States to exercise the leadership required to ensure that the world's two largest democracies forge a real and lasting partnership, perhaps even a strategic partnership. With or without U.S. help, India is going to emerge soon in this century as the world's most populous democratic superpower. With or without U.S. help, India also is going to defend its security even if it means standing up to a growing PRC challenge.

An enlightened American policy would help a billion Indians create a democratic superpower in Asia, so that at a minimum, they can show a billion Chinese that a dictatorship is not needed to achieve security and prosperity. This policy can start by thanking India for taking seriously the responsibility of defending the freedom of passage in the South China Sea.

Richard Fisher is a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation.

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