30 March 2016

Against a sea of troubles - India's concerns about the South China Sea

Kanwal Sibal 

The South China Sea has become a source of serious regional tensions because China has become increasingly assertive in the area, backed by its growing economic and military strength. It has already forcibly occupied the Scarborough Shoal claimed by the Philippines and refused arbitration by the International Court. It has begun massive reclamation work on reefs in the South China Sea, creating artificial islands and building dual use air strips on them. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea does not recognize territorial and economic zones attached to such islands, though the logic of China's actions would imply such claims, substantiated by its protest at the right of "innocent passage" exercised by American naval ships through the 12 nautical mile zone around Mischief Reef. China has now positioned air defence missiles in the Paracels, although during his visit to the United States of America last year President Xi Jinping had generally affirmed that China had no intention to militarize the islands in the South China Sea.

The countries affected by South China Sea tensions have over the years tried to establish certain mechanisms to lower them. The first significant initiative was the "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea" signed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China in November, 2002. Asean-China discussions on the Code of Conduct began in 2013. The 2015 Asean-China meeting to discuss the implementation of the 2002 DOC and to make progress toward a more binding Code of Conduct in the wake of China's artificial island-building and construction of features in the Spratly Islands produced little result. China has taken advantage of divisions within Asean on how far to confront China on the South China Sea issue. Only four Asean nations - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - are involved in territorial disputes, with Indonesia, too, questioning the implications of China's nine-dash line for its Natuna Islands. Most Asean members want to maintain their productive relations with China. China claims "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea, and insists that these disputes be settled bilaterally by the countries directly concerned.

India has concerns about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and has called for observance of the international conventions on the law of the sea. In this connection, Chinese objections to oil exploration blocks offered by Vietnam to India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited are pertinent. Besides this, over 50 per cent of our external trade passes through these waters.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, has called for a stable maritime environment in the region and has welcomed "the collective commitment by the concerned countries to abide by and implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and to work towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus." We have emphasized the importance of upholding the existing international law on maritime security.

In a significant advance in its strategic thinking, India has recognized the link between the security of the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific and has endorsed Japan's Indo-Pacific concept. In Asia's geopolitical chessboard, the increasing convergence of Indian and US thinking on Asia-Pacific issues is important. During Modi's visit to the US in September 2014, India showed strategic boldness in accepting a commitment to work more closely with other Asia-Pacific countries, including through joint exercises, which pointed implicitly to Japan and Australia, and even Vietnam. During Barack Obama's India visit in January 2015, the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region that was signed affirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. It foresaw that over the next five years, the two countries would strengthen their regional dialogues, invest in making trilateral consultations with third countries in the region more robust and deepen regional integration. Noting India's "Act-East" policy and the US's rebalance to Asia, the leaders committed to work more closely with other Asia Pacific countries through consultations, dialogues, and joint exercises.

The underlying reality of the US pivot towards Asia can, however, be doubted. The intensive trade and finance relationship that the US has with China impairs its willingness and capacity to circumscribe the latter's rise. China can take advantage of its rising strengthvis-à-vis the US by challenging it strategically in the western Pacific incrementally, staying always below the level of open confrontation and avoiding crossing a threshold that would oblige the US to react. The US will always counsel restraint and moderation to China and recall its defence obligations to countries in the region, in the hope that the Chinese will listen and limit their geo-strategic ambitions. But if in the future the US finds its power in the region being effectively challenged, will the US settle for a G-2, which is the underlying sense of President Xi's concept of a new great power relationship between the two countries? India and others would have problems with that eventuality.

China's land threat to India and the strengthening of the China-Pakistan axis are much more serious for us than its maritime claims that impinge on the US and Asean interests. Unlike in the case of these countries that can collectively counter China's expansive claims under US wings, India is alone in dealing with the Chinese threat. The US is not geo-politically involved in India's territorial differences with China. India also notes that the US wants to rope India into its rebalancing policy focused on the western Pacific, ignoring security threats to India from Tibet and through Pakistan, not to mention China's maritime Silk Road strategy in the Indian Ocean involving Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan.

Alongside the improved strategic understanding between India and the US, the India-Japan relationship is becoming increasingly important. Disregarding Chinese sensitivities on the subject we underscored quite robustly during Shinzo Abe's visit to India in December 2015 that peace, stability and development in the Indo-Pacific region are indispensable to our national security and prosperity, and that close cooperation between Japan and India is the key to achieving peace and stability in the region. Noting the critical importance of the sea lanes of communications in the South China Sea for regional energy, security and trade and commerce, the two called upon all States to avoid unilateral actions that could lead to tensions in the region. As part of expanding the India-Japan defence association, Japan will now participate regularly in the India-US Malabar exercises in order to "help create stronger capabilities to deal with maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific region".

All in all, India has a major interest in freedom of navigation and unimpeded trade flows in the South China Sea. However, any talk of the US and India doing joint patrolling in the South China Sea would be excessive. We may have a joint strategic vision with the US on the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions, but that can be pursued without India seeking to intervene in this area way beyond what the Asean and Japan are ready to do militarily.

The author is former foreign secretary of India sibalkanwal@gmail.com 

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