Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2016-08-02 11:56:25 Published on Aug 02, 2016
ASEAN nations looking for greater Indian role

With the dust uneasily settling down following the stunning verdict on the South China Sea (SCS) arbitration, questions are being asked about what New Delhi’s stakes are in the outcome.

The SCS issue does not impact directly on India’s security. However, it is an important waterway for Indian trade and commerce with South-East Asia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China. New Delhi has routinely signalled its world order concerns by strongly urging the importance of safeguarding the freedom of navigation of the seas, the right of overflight and the importance of peaceful settlement of disputes within the ambit of international law — read United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). These have come out in several joint statements with countries like Vietnam, Japan and the US. New Delhi’s position has been further burnished by the fact that it has accepted a negative ruling by an UNCLOS tribunal relating to its maritime boundary with Bangladesh.

India’s stand has been sufficiently ambiguous for China to declare on the eve of the Tribunal verdict that New Delhi was supporting its case when it agreed during the Russia-India-China trilateral meeting in April 2016 that even while the UNCLOS formed the basis of the legal order of the seas, “all related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned.” This was with reference to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which the Chinese claim had committed the Philippines to direct negotiations, instead of which it went in for arbitration.

Yet, India’s position is more nuanced. Over the years, it has built up an important relationship with Vietnam, both because of an identity of interests, as well as a kind of pay-off for the Chinese activities in South Asia. Since 1988, India has been involved in oil exploration in the seas off Vietnam and has developed a low key, but important, defence relationship that is mainly focused on capacity building, training and maintenance of equipment. Indian war ships routinely visit Vietnamese ports and conduct exercises with their counterparts. India has also offered Vietnam a $100 million loan to purchase Indian-made defence equipment.

The Indian Navy had a brush with the South China Sea issue when, in 2011, its warship INS Airavat was warned over the radio to stay off ‘Chinese waters’ by a voice claiming to speak for the Chinese Navy, just 45 nautical miles from Vietnamese coast. No vessel was actually visible and the Indian ship continued on its path unhindered.

ONGC Videsh has several deals for exploring blocks in the Phu Khanh, Nam Con and Lan Tay basins. In September 2014, India and Vietnam agreed to expand their cooperation in oil and gas exploration, overriding objections by China. The Indian view was that they had been exploring some of the blocks well before the Chinese decided to place them on their list of blocks for bidding.

Since 2013, India has made its concerns over the issue of freedom of navigation explicit through Joint Statements in summits with Japan, Vietnam and the United States. The India-Japan Joint Statement of 2013 first spoke of the commitment of the two to the freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce “based on the principles of international law, including the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

The Modi government went a step further in 2014, when, in an Indo-US Joint Statement during the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington, it was noted that the two sides “expressed concern about rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes” and affirmed the importance of “ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” This formulation, adding the South China Sea, was repeated during President Obama’s January 2015 visit, but has since been dropped.

Countries of the ASEAN have privately expressed their desire for India to play a greater (read balancing) role vis-à-vis China in the region. But just how India should do so is not clear. ASEAN itself is a house divided and, in any case, its constituent nations have much more important economic ties with China than with India. They are therefore cautious in their outreach to India and their policy is often one of hedging, rather than seeking any deeper relationship with us.

But, as part of its ‘Act East’ policy, India needs to boost economic ties with the region and can do so it if it can participate in the global production chain into which ASEAN countries are deeply enmeshed and which are controlled by companies in the US, EU, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. At the same time, India needs to build up strategic networks that do not quite have the status of alliance, with a host of countries like Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Japan and the US with a view of advancing our political interests in checking overbearing Chinese behaviour, and shoring up our world order concerns relating to the freedom of navigation and overflight.

This commentary originally appeared in Mid-day.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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