Originally Published 2013-05-04 00:00:00 Published on May 04, 2013
New Delhi must stand committed to its rhetoric on the Freedom of Navigation (FON) and to defend its interests should the need arise. This in turn would involve deepening naval cooperation with the key countries of the ASEAN and major powers sharing India's interest in defending the principle of FON.
India's interest in the South China Sea: Freedom of Navigation
The South China Sea (SCS) is major Sea Line of Communication (SLOC) and an important trade route. Conflict in the area concerns all Asian nations including India. Though India is not a claimant in the territorial disputes in the region, it holds an interest in the Freedom of Navigation (FON). China treats the SCS as its internal waters which invariable affects India’s interest. New Delhi has reiterated its stance on the "Freedom of Navigation" underlining the necessity for uninterrupted access to international waters. India must stand committed to its rhetoric on the FON and to defend its interests should the need arise. This in turn would involve deepening naval cooperation with the key countries of the ASEAN and major powers sharing India’s interest in defending the principle of FON. This article looks at India’s primary interest in the SCS in the context of growing Chinese assertiveness. Six nations (China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia) have competing territorial claims over areas in the South China Sea (SCS). China lays claim on almost the entire SCS using a "U-shaped" or a "nine dotted line" in its map and regards the waters as its territorial sea. Recent tensions in the area have garnered global attention on the issue and it could emerge as a military flashpoint. This in turn has antagonised China, which has vigorously opposed internationalisation of the issue. China has refused any multilateral approach and has urged extra regional countries to stay out of its disputes with the neighbours. India, though a passive observer to the incidents so far, has its own stakes in the region. This article looks at India’s proclaimed interest in the ’Freedom of Navigation’ (FON) in the South China Sea. . The Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) running through the South China Sea are of vital importance to all Asian nations including India. The Indian Navy has recognised the protection of the SLOC as one of its missions in the military role. The Indian Maritime Doctrine states that "In view of the nation’s heavy dependence on the seas for trade, protection of own SLOCs is an important mission of the IN"1. Political trouble in the South China Sea inevitably draws India’s attention as this affects its interest in the freedom of navigation. India has always maintained its stand on uninterrupted access to international waters and major SLOCs. It is in India’s national interest that the SLOCs in the SCS remain secure and stable given that 55 per cent of India’s trade transits through this route. India also has economic assets in Vietnam for which access to the SCS is vital. New Delhi’s growing concern toward maintaining peace and stability around SLOCs was voiced recently at the India-ASEAN commemorative summit in December 2012. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his opening statement at the 2012 Summit stated that "As maritime nations, India and ASEAN nations should intensify their engagement for maritime security and safety, for freedom of navigation and for peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law." Although the dispute concerns only 6 nations, the fact that the area is in international waters draws global attention. Expressing concern, India’s former External Affairs Minister, S. M. Krishna stated India’s position thus: "India maintains that South China Sea is the property of the world". Krishna’s comment was met with strong opposition from Beijing. A commentary published in the Global Times newspaper opined that calling the "South China Sea a global property was a mistake" and that "other countries cannot describe one country’s territory as global property". Beijing has maintained that FON is fully guaranteed on the SCS. However, this is in conflict with Beijing’s actions and laws which treat the SCS as its territorial waters. In accordance with international law, the limit of the territorial sea is set at 12 nautical miles2. China claims sovereignty over most of the islands in the SCS as its territory. As such, its adjacent waters up to 12 nautical miles will be considered as China’s territorial sea. According to article 6 of China’s 1992 territorial law: "Foreign ships for non-military purposes shall enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China in accordance with the law" and that "Foreign ships for military purposes shall be subject to approval by the Government of the People’s Republic of China for entering the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China." In November 2012, it was reported that China has enabled its police to board and search ships which illegally enter what China considers its territory in the disputed waters. The move was heavily critised and caused consternation in the international community as it concerned the busy lanes of the South China Sea. There were two incidents with Indian vessels in the South China Sea hinting at Chinese assertiveness in claiming the SCS as its internal waters. The first was in July 2011, when INS Airavat was contacted on radio saying that it was "entering Chinese waters" while sailing on the South China Sea. Responding to the reports, the Ministry of External Affairs (India) released a statement on September 2011 explaining the incident. The statement read The Indian Naval vessel, INS Airavat paid a friendly visit to Vietnam between 19 to 28 July 2011. On July 22, INS Airavat sailed from the Vietnamese port of Nha Trang towards Hai Phong, where it was to make a port call. At a distance of 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea, it was contacted on open radio channel by a caller identifying himself as the "Chinese Navy" stating that "you are entering Chinese waters. The second incident was in June 2012, when the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) provided an unwelcomed escort to the Indian naval squadron led by INS Shivalik in the waters of the South China Sea. As reported, "Although the Indian ships were in international waters, a Chinese frigate sent a message "welcoming" the contingent to the South China Sea and sailed along for the next 12 hours". Analysing the situation, strategic expert Dr. C. Raja Mohan explained: "The message is this: "nice to see you here, but you are in our territorial waters and within them there is no right to ’freedom of navigation’ for military vessels. You are here at our sufferance." China’s attempt to levy its national laws on international waters is alarming to the international community. It is essential that all nations’ observer international laws and norms for free passage of vessels in international waters. India’s Defence Minister A.K Antony underlined the need to abide by international laws at the 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue. He emphasised that "Like individual freedoms, the fullness of maritime freedoms can be realised only when all states, big and small, are willing to abide by universally agreed laws and principles". S.M. Krishna, India’s then External Affairs Minister expressed similar views at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Observing the vitality of SLOCs, the minister stated that "We have been following developments in respect to the South China Sea. As we had stated earlier, India supports freedom of navigation and access to resources in accordance with principles of international law. These principles should be respected by all." Tensions in the region have heightened due to assertive and aggressive claims on the disputed islands. It is imperative that all nations follow the norms of international law to avoid conflict. India is keen to make its presence felt in the region and is willing to cooperate with the Southeast Asian countries to ensure maritime freedom. The Indian Navy plans periodic deployments in the South China Sea to mark its presence. It also engages in exercises with the navies of the Southeast Asian nations. India’s cooperation with the Southeast Asian nations is in keeping with its Look East Policy. India and ASEAN in December 2012 commemorated the 20th anniversary of the ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations. The Summit saw the adoption of the vision statement, an important development in the India-ASEAN relations. The vision statement marked India and the ASEAN nations’ commitment to ensure FON. The statement read "We are committed to strengthening cooperation to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation, and safety of sea lanes of communication for unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS". India’s stance in the South China Sea is clear: there should be no obstruction of FON in international waters. Overriding international norms in these waters will further escalate the disputes adversely affecting the FON. New Delhi must stand committed to its rhetoric on the FON and to defend its interests should the need arise. This in turn would involve deepening naval cooperation with the key countries of the ASEAN and major powers sharing India’s interest in defending the principle of FON. Endnotes: 1 Indian Navy, Indian Maritime Doctrine (Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2009. 2 See Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the limit of the territorial sea. (Darshana M. Baruah is an Editorial Associate, South China Sea Monitor, published by Observer Research Foundation, Delhi). Courtesy: ORF South China Sea Monitor  
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