Event ReportsPublished on Jun 02, 2018
'Deterrence' India's approach in South China Sea, says ex-Navy officer
“The South China Sea conflict must be understood through a multi-faceted approach,” said Commodore Amar Mahadevan (Retd), ex-Naval Officer-in-Charge (NOIC), Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. “There are many dimensions to the conflict, both political and economic. Due to the significance of this region for global trade, instability here impacts other countries beyond the regional claimant,” he said, initiating a discussion titled “South China Sea: India’s Reactive Assertiveness”, at the Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation on 26 May 2018. In this context, Cmdre Mahadevan said it was important to ask questions that are relevant to India: “Where does India figure in this region? How does the conflict affect India?  What should be India’s reactive assertiveness?” While it is widely seen as a territorial dispute and a conflict over sovereignty, Cmdre Amar Mahadevan felt that to really understand the issue, one had to pay attention to the importance of the region in terms of economic security and trade. The South China Sea has huge reserves of both natural gas and oil. It is also home to lucrative fisheries. More significantly, it is a cross-road for trade, with 80 percent of global trade by volume and 70 percent by value gets transported through the South China Sea.  This makes these waters particularly critical for not only China, Taiwan and other regional countries, but also Japan, South Korea as well as India.

Impact on ‘Act East’

Focussing on India in the South China Sea, Cmdre Mahadevan said this was a vital trade route for the country.  India and ASEAN recently celebrated 25 years of their ‘Dialogue Partnership’, 15 years of ‘Summit -level Interaction’ and five years of ‘Strategic Partnership’. India’s ‘Act East Policy’ has become a core foreign policy goal and India is seeking across- the-board engagement with the ASEAN countries. Promoting trade has become a top priority. He pointed out that a crucial part of promoting trade was to ensure “international waters are kept free”. The South China Sea is therefore integral to India in terms of its ‘Blue Economy’ goals. With $200 bn of the nation’s trading passing through the South China Sea, the potential threat to trade is an important aspect to consider for India, particularly since trade with ASEAN was steadily growing. An escalation of the conflict could be seen as a serious threat to the ‘Act East Policy’, he said.

Maritime initiatives

Cmdre Amar Mahadevan elucidated that while he chose the term ‘reactive assertiveness’ for India’s role in the South China Sea, this was more wishful thinking than the reality of the situation. He felt that India should be doing more to engage the ASEAN countries. He insisted that India was not trying and also should not try to compete with China, militarily or economically, in the region. Instead, he felt, India should pursue its own diplomatic goals to ensure that these waters were kept safe and in the light of this goal -- deepen operations with the US, Japan and Australia. Cmdre Mahadevan was critical of the decision to keep Australia out the ‘Malabar Exercises’. He suggested that India enhance maritime initiatives such as the ’Trilateral Dialogue’. While the major disputes related to the Spratly and Paracel Islands involving China, Vietnam and Taiwan, there were also other issues of the kind in this region, involving China on the one hand, and Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia as well as Brunei. A unique aspect of this region was also that there were no indigenous people who inhabit these islands, Cmdre Mahadevan said.

Global flash-point

Tracing the conflict in the region, Cmdre Mahadevan discussed the main flash-points over the years -- Taiwan claiming the entire subsoil sea bed and waters of the Paracel and Spratly Islands in 1999, Vietnam and Taiwan butting heads over anti-Vietnam exercises by Taiwan in 2012-13, multiple incidents over Chinese oil-rigs in Paracel, between China and Vietnam in 2014 and the international tribunal’s ruling in favour of Philippines in The Hague in 2016. With escalation of tensions and Chinese military exercises in the currently scenario, he  said India needed to consider whether this could turn into the next global flash-point. Cmdre Mahadevan also analysed China’s position in the region.  China claims that its activities are not aimed at any country and feels it is entitled to strengthen its defences on what it sees as its islands. However, the recent incident of Chinese strategic bombers landing on Woody Islands led to the US ‘disinviting’ the nation for what they saw as ‘non- constructive behaviour’. The Chinese strategic bomber H-6K is designed for long-range attacks and was capable of targeting US carrier battle groups and priority targets in Asia. He said China’s position must be understood also in the light of its ‘Malacca Dilemma’, focusing on its choke-points. China’s position, he said, has been demonstrative and declarative, hence.

Poor R&D investments

Responding to a question during the Q&A session that followed, on India’s not-so-an-impressive record in building indigenous naval destroyers, Cmdre Mahadevan attributed the same to lack of resources for R&D and lack of technical skills. To the second issue, he added that it was not so much as lack of talent, but it owed to the nation’s inability to hold back talent. The Government should pay attention to these factors, he said adding that at times it was sometimes more sensible and efficient to buy, integrate and augment destroyers than trying to develop them, from the drawing-board stage. In conclusion, Cmdre Mahadevan said, India’s approach in the South China Sea must focus on accelerating and deepening across-the-board engagement with ASEAN countries, with the major goal of promoting trade. Such engagement should be seen as deterrence. Along with the US, India should also aim at establishing truly open markets, based on international rules. In this regard, Australia and Japan are important partners for India, he added.
This report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Research Associate at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter
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