Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington has had media outlets abuzz about cybertheft and sandcastles rising out of the South China Sea. But in many ways, these issues are side plots to a larger story: the New Great Game for influence in the Indo-Pacific, which has arisen at the confluence of three strategies, China’s Maritime Silk Road, India’s Act East Policy, and the United States’ Rebalance to Asia. It is possible for all three strategies to work together, but it won’t be easy—particularly for the United States.
India and China might struggle for political and commercial influence in the Indo-Pacific region, but both would do better to coordinate their policies, since as neighbors, their economic and political success depends on deepening engagement with each other and other countries in the region. At the moment, both recognize that there is little to be gained from proxy wars and have instead favored soft power diplomacy.
Huge stakes are involved. Trade, energy, and geostrategic imperatives are driving both Chinese and Indian ambitions. Between the Indian and Pacific Oceans lies the main choke point of world commerce, the Malacca Strait. Today, more than half of the world’s container traffic and one-third of all maritime traffic crosses the Indian Ocean and passes through this point and into the South China Sea. To understand the scale, consider that roughly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s energy supplies, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports arrive over this maritime route. Meanwhile, 75 percent of India’s energy supplies cross the Indian Ocean.
China has long felt trapped by what national strategists have termed the “Malacca Dilemma”—that China’s access to the greater Indo-Pacific is limited to one main pass and that, to reach that pass, its ships have to travel over the South China Sea, which is a mess of overlapping territorial claims from countries in the region. And so over the creating artificial islands with airfields in the South China Sea and declaring an expansive and novel Exclusive Economic Zone—one that is far larger and includes far more prerogatives than permitted under The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—over the area. From this perspective, Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai’s recent, and rather incendiary, declaration that the South China Sea “belongs to China” makes strategic sense: It is after all their path to the greater Indo-Pacific.
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