Author : Abhijit Singh

Originally Published 2019-09-16 11:16:31 Published on Sep 16, 2019
India’s back-to-back moves to boost relations with Japan and Russia, particularly in security matters, appear to indicate it wants a bigger naval role in the contested South China Sea to counter a rising China. The reality is far different
India’s South China Sea policy has not changed. Now, as before, there’s no appetite to challenge China

Two developments in recent days have given rise to speculation that India’s South China Sea policy could be shifting. First, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited Tokyo last week, where the two countries reviewed their security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and reportedly even discussed developments in the South China Sea.

In a visit to Vladivostok soon after, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a memorandum of agreement to open a fully fledged maritime route between Russia’s eastern port city and Chennai on India’s eastern seaboard, signalling rising Indian interest in the Western Pacific.

For many, these developments are an indication that New Delhi is willing to expand its military footprint in littoral Southeast Asia, a space where India has traditionally avoided playing a strong security role. As some analysts see it, India’s outreach to Russia and other regional powers suggests a readiness to challenge China’s influence in the South China Sea.

However, for three reasons, New Delhi is unlikely to abandon its policy of non-intervention in the security affairs of Southeast Asia. First, India is not party to the maritime territorial disputes in the region and is unlikely to want to meddle in a matter that does not directly concern it.

Second, Indian policymakers know Beijing operates from a position of strength, where it has physical control over critical islands in the South China Sea. Possession of these features gives Beijing the ability to exert strategic authority over the disputed territory, regardless of the rights and interests of other regional states.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, India is keen to preserve its “Wuhan consensus” with China. It hopes Beijing will respect India’s sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean in the same way that Delhi will respect Beijing’s in Southeast Asia.

Even if China has not acted in good faith recently – calling for an informal meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the Kashmir issue – the Indian government is unwilling to violate its goodwill pact with Beijing (especially with Chinese President Xi Jinping due to visit India next month).

New Delhi is not impervious to the threat China poses to trade flows in the region, or to the significant challenges to Indian energy and strategic interests.

Access to the major waterways in Southeast Asia is an important consideration for Indian policymakers, as is the need to build capacity in member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation. Both are central to New Delhi’s developing Indo-Pacific vision.

Yet, when it comes to South China Sea security issues, India chooses to play it safe. Notwithstanding the security establishment’s deep misgivings about Chinese expansionism in littoral Asia – including in the eastern Indian Ocean – Indian diplomats and spokespeople almost never make public their reservations about China’s maritime assertiveness.

By contrast, India is relatively open about its disagreements with the US in the interpretation of maritime law and the freedoms enjoyed by foreign warships in a coastal state’s exclusive economic zones.

Indian officials do not concur with US claims that warships have a right to uninterrupted passage in coastal zones, without prior notification and approval of the coastal state.

New Delhi’s position on navigation in the South China Sea in fact seems closer to Beijing’s, especially on the matter of naval operations in another country’s territorial waters claiming innocent passage.

The references to India’s energy stakes in the South China Sea in media reports can also be misleading. India does have commercial interests in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zones, but its stakes are not significant.

If there is a constant in India’s South China Sea policy, it is deference to Chinese sensitivities. Far from expanding naval operations in the South China Sea, New Delhi even avoids language in its joint statements with partner states that might upset China.

At the third Quad meeting in Singapore late last year, India chose only to highlight “connectivity” in the Indo-Pacific, unlike Japan, Australia and the US, which emphasised the need for a regional “rules-based order”.

In Bangkok, during the fourth meeting of the grouping, India seemed to have moved marginally forward, with a joint press release simply noting “the participants desired to work with like-minded partners and allies to promote a transparent, rules-based approach to trans-boundary challenges”.

Yet, it did not in any way represent a hardening of India’s stand vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea.

Therefore, while it may appear that India is moving to raise its strategic presence in the South China Sea – teaming up with Vietnam, Japan and other regional powers – the reality is different. Not only is Delhi unwilling to push the envelope on naval operations in the Pacific, it is wary even of using language that may be deemed provocative by Beijing.

Notwithstanding the Modi government’s efforts to implement the “Act East” policy, and a general improvement in connectivity initiatives and economic diplomacy, India has yet to muster the political gumption to take a strong stand against Chinese aggression in the regional commons.

This commentary originally appeared in South China Morning Post.

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Abhijit Singh

Abhijit Singh

A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. A maritime professional with specialist and command experience in front-line ...

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