Phantom Incident Dangers

A supposed naval encounter between China and India likely never happened. It may be dangerous assuming it did.

Last July’s supposed encounter between Indian and Chinese naval units—an encounter that in all likelihood never occurred—has seemingly calcified into fact among Indian commentators. Writing for Project Syndicate, former Indian finance, foreign, and defence minister Jaswant Singh maintains that ‘an Indian naval ship was “hailed” on open radio and advised to “lay off” the South China Sea’. Singh speculates darkly that ‘something more malevolent (was) afoot’ during the incident than China’s routine but ‘unwarranted assertions of sovereignty over the whole South China Sea’. He goes on to ask whether the diplomatic feud between New Delhi and Beijing is really about oil and gas exploration in disputed waters. Or is the region witnessing ‘the beginning of a struggle for spheres of influence?’ Heimplies the latter.

There’s a danger here. Few would confuse me with a reflexive defender of Chinese foreign policy, but the evidence is with Beijing this time. Yet Singh drains all ambiguity from a situation fraught with it. Then, having assumed what happened to INS Airavat last summer, he uses this suspect assumption to cast Chinese motives and actions in the worst possible light. For their part, Chinese commentators construe analyses such as Singh’s as part of a concerted Indian strategy to portray China as a malign actor in the South China Sea. Having discredited China, India and its allies mean to outflank, encircle, and contain it—frustrating its rightful aspirations. Each contender, then, tends to interpret the evidence as confirming its misgivings about the other. Mutual suspicions give rise to a competitive cycle that leads…who knows where.

It’s entirely possible, as Singh writes, that the two nations will compete for geopolitical dominance in Southeast Asia. China entertains naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean; turnabout is fair play for India in the South China Sea. But one hopes phantom incidents on the high seas won’t goad them into actions both may regret.

James Holmes is an associate professor at the US Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.