Lack of cooperation between India and the West has given China what seems to be a clear field to strengthen its control on the region.
Beijing's ambitious 'Hu Doctrine' claims the South China Sea
For the quarter-century after the People's Republic of China began its high-growth trajectory in 1982, Deng Xiaoping's maxim of "speaking softly" was obeyed. Unlike the US and its Nato allies, China has not been involved in a shooting war since the brief conflict with Vietnam in 1979. The huge land border with Russia has been settled, although less urgency has been shown in the case of the Sino-Indian border. Indeed, more than two dozen rounds of negotiations since 2001 have yet to register any substantive progress.
On other bilateral issues of concern to India, such as UN action against Pakistani agents blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, New Delhi has received no comfort from Beijing. Meanwhile, China has displaced India as the primary partner of both Nepal and Sri Lanka, just as it already had with Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Since Hu Jintao took over the Chinese Communist Party in 2002, Beijing has shed its earlier reticence and these days is open about its interests, as are the Nato powers. In the East and South China Seas, in particular, Mr Hu has - in effect - embraced a version of the Monroe Doctrine that gives not just primacy but dominance to the PRC's perceived interests in these regions over any other claimants.
Since 2009, the definition of China's "core interests" (those for which it would go to war) has expanded from the first island chain in the China seas to the second, thus bringing the Philippines into the "core" zone, and potentially embracing Malaysia, Indonesia and of course Vietnam. Given such an expansive definition of "core interests", it was no surprise when the Chinese navy recently challenged an Indian naval vessel as it was steaming away from a Vietnamese port, as was reported last week. Indeed, 2011 has seen increasing incidents of the PRC asserting its privileged position in the South China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines have both had their navies challenged by the vastly superior Chinese navy on many occasions.
Mr Hu at least deserves credit for transparency in his actions. On his watch, China has formally told the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (the UN body monitoring oceanic boundaries) that the entire South China Sea is part of China and that Beijing has "complete sovereignty" over South China Sea islands. By framing it as a domestic Chinese issue, Beijing has prevented the new doctrine from being formally discussed at forums such as the Asean defence ministers meetings.
All of this is being watched with increasing alarm by India, which sees itself being steadily pushed aside because of the Chinese military's rapid increase in capabilities. But the reality is that the Chinese military, particularly the navy, is not focused on India as much as the United States. The PRC is expanding its naval power, including the recent launch of a secondhand aircraft carrier, to protect its access to the sea routes linking China with Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Chinese interest in aircraft carriers began in 1980, when the military strategist Liu Huaquing toured the USS Kitty Hawk. Impressed with the carrier's capabilities, Mr Liu told the Chinese military's general staff that "carriers were preferable to land-based platforms because of the mobility of the former". Since then, China has bought four decommissioned carriers, the latest of which (the Soviet Varyag) has metamorphosed into the Chinese navy's first operational aircraft carrier.
Once an adequate number of flight personnel and other crew are trained on the carrier, the navy is expected to introduce three more carriers into service by 2020 if not earlier. China has already mastered the manufacture of ship-borne aircraft, which India has not. Indeed, the steady increase in the indigenous capabilities of the Chinese military is in contrast to the situation in India, where the navy, air force and, to a lesser extent, army still rely on foreign technology and materiel.
Given the number of missile batteries targeting Taiwan, it seems clear that the role of these Chinese carriers would not be to join action across the Taiwan Strait - the role will be to enforce China's claims in the South China Sea as mandated by Mr Hu in 2003 when he called for "strengthening the defence of sea rights and interests" of China.
Although there is much being made about increased military spending in China, the fact remains that the US outspends China by a factor of more than 10, while the overall Nato budget far exceeds China's spending. But the difference is that Nato fields a very expensive military.
It costs an estimated $1 million (Dh3.7 million) a year to sustain a single Nato soldier in combat operations. For that price, the Chinese could field at least nine times as many soldiers, even if they were supplied with top-end equipment. Fielding more poorly equipped units would of course be even cheaper. A war would drain Nato treasuries far faster than China's.
It is here where India comes in. The other Asian giant has economies of scale similar to those enjoyed by China; an alliance between Nato and India would significantly boost overall capabilities. But that partnership does not seem to be visible on the horizon. China, therefore, seems to have as clear a field for the Hu Doctrine as James Monroe and the US enjoyed in 1823.
MD Nalapat holds the Unesco peace chair at Manipal University and is a former editor of The Times of India