Playing at sea

India’s policy towards the South China Sea should not be driven by fear.

India’s engagement with South East Asia since the inception of “Look East” has been driven by a dual desire to limit China’s growing influence in SE Asia as well as expand its own strategic space by reaching out to regional markets in an era of economic liberalisation.  Although successful to some extent in furthering trade and investment, India’s foreign policy with respect to the South China Sea (SCS) dispute has been sorely lacking in strategic coherence and devoid of definitive long-term objectives.


Zachary Keck, writing for The Diplomat points out the mismatch in recent Indian statements on the issue. Foreign Minister, Salman Khurshid, while talking to the South China Morning Post, said that India would not interfere in the SCS dispute. “We do believe that anything that is a bilateral issue between two nations must be settled by those two nations.” In sharp contrast, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at last month’s East Asia Summit assertively endorsed the efficacy of multilateral and regional institutions such as ASEAN & EAS in the resolution of the dispute.

In July 2012, retiring Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Verma commented  that an active Indian naval presence in the SCS was “not on the cards.” A few months later, the cards seemed to have been shuffled – The new Chief, Admiral Joshi made headlines when he announced that the Indian Navy was “prepared to intervene” in the SCS to protect its economic assets. The statement received a hostile reception in China. South Block was understandably caught off guard and subsequently blamed the “irresponsible media” for misinterpretation.

These are two simple examples of a lack of strategic connect between and within the military, political and bureaucratic establishments over what India’s long-term policy in the SCS really is.

India’s presence in the SCS has been gradually increasing. Since 2000, the Navy has been involved in extensive “military diplomacy” in the form of international naval exercises, friendly visits and port calls by naval ships etc. India’s emphasis on freedom of navigation, resolution of the conflict on the basis of international law and the ‘centrality’ of ASEAN has earned it the goodwill of many ASEAN nations; most of whom, with the possible exception of Malaysia, see India as a benign actor capable of playing a positive role in maintaining the balance of power and ensuring the security of the region.

China, on the other hand, has tried to avoid multilateralisation of the dispute in order to maximise the power advantage that it will enjoy bilaterally with any ASEAN nation. The growing political and economic might of China, has also made them increasingly assertive. Military stand-offs with Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, sabotaging Vietnamese oil exploration in the SCS and reports of the Chinese Navy confronting the INS Airavat in international waters are but a few examples of Chinese military adventurism in recent years. The de-facto annexations of Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef are disturbing indications of an aggressive China willing to use military right to dictate terms and normalise territorial acquisitions over time. It is a trend that has rung alarm bells in Tokyo and Delhi in light of their territorial disputes with China. Similar concerns over China’s military high handedness in asserting sovereignty over the SCS has drawn many SE Asian nations closer to the US and India in order to balance Chinese power.

As a result, India’s stakes in the SCS are now not just accepted, but enthusiastically welcomed. The United States of America, as a part of its Asia ‘pivot’ and ‘rebalance’ has actively promoted the idea of the “Indo-Pacific” as a single region; and encouraged India to play a greater diplomatic and security role in the region. Australia has also stressed that they see a vital need for regional and international powers like India to take an interest in the SCS in order to prevent misunderstanding and preserve freedom of navigation in the SCS. Japan, which has gradually begun to shed its military inhibitions under Shinzo Abe’s leadership, has taken an increasing interest in the SCS, following recent clashes over its disputes with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyou Islands. Openly looking for allies to counter China, PM Abe proposed his “security diamond” – a four-way maritime alliance between USA, Australia, India and Japan to safeguard the maritime commons. The constraints of non-alignment and expected Chinese responses have ensured that India’s response to such an initiative has been lukewarm.

ASEAN nations have similar approaches. India has a solid defence partnership with Singapore, a crucial partner forming a natural window to East Asia and another supporter of India’s security role in the region. Vietnam and Philippines have been the two most vocal ASEAN countries with respect to their maritime disputes with China. Both countries have been at the receiving end of Chinese military assertiveness in the recent past and view China’s rise and hegemonic tendencies with trepidation. Yet at the same time, their economic dependence on China tempers their response. Vietnam, with whom India has cultivated a “strategic partnership”, has actively sought an Indian role in the South China Sea. General Secretary Nugyen Phu Trong, in his ongoing state visit to Delhi, has rolled out the red carpet – stressing repeatedly on the strong historical, cultural and time-tested ties on the two nations, effusively noted India’s contribution to Vietnam’s growth and development, inviting India to invest in oil and gas resources in the SCS and praising India’s role in managing South China Sea tensions. Despite such overtures, India’s security and defence relationship with Vietnam has blown hot and cold over the years primarily out of deference to China. Although a $100 million line of credit for defence procurement is expected to be approved, India seems unlikely to approve Vietnam’s request for BrahMos missiles.  Meanwhile, Philippines has taken the decision to refer Chinese claims to the SCS to an international tribunal; irking China while strengthening relations with the US and Japan. The VP of Philippines welcomed Admiral Joshi’s statement of intent last year, adding that the SCS was a “problem that India could not turn its back to.”

Even Indonesia, which is far less vocal about its “China fear”, has welcomed an Indian security presence in the Malacca Strait. The development of a broad based defence relationship with Indonesia, the largest and most important ASEAN nation, could be a game changer in the region. However, domestic constraints and a lack of political will have rendered the potential unfulfilled so far. Malaysia too, despite a healthy Chinese influence, has expressed concern about growing Chinese dominance in the region.

It is a testament to Chinese diplomacy that China has managed disputes with both Vietnam and Philippines over the same issue (SCS) without letting a united front emerge against it or deeply straining bilateral ties with either nation. China has divided ASEAN, resisted US pressure and normalised its occupation of shoals and reefs, while capturing territory that it claims on irrelevant historical grounds that have no basis in international law. China’s diplomatic success stands in stark contrast to that of India. As a rising power contending with a more powerful China, the South China Sea is an ideal arena for India to assert itself and gain strategic space – As depicted above, almost every single stakeholder in the region is concerned by China’s rise and is advocating a greater role for India and the US. There are few situations in international affairs as ripe for greater engagement. Although there seems to be a broad consensus among ASEAN states that India must play an active security role in SE Asia, there is no concrete understanding or definition of that role by either India or ASEAN nations. This represents a manifest failure on the part of the Indian diplomatic corps in designing a coherent and comprehensive strategic engagement with ASEAN as a whole. The only thing that is limiting India from realising its potential is India itself.

This lack of strategic thought has many driving factors: a proclivity to analyse any and all international issues through an anti-colonial lens, an inexplicable and anachronistic orthodoxy when it comes to ‘non-alignment’ and to some extent, even a tentativeness to take up the reigns of Great Power politics. But one of the most important factors is deference to Chinese sensitivities. India has greatly constrained its foreign policy space in SE Asia and beyond to accommodate Chinese concerns. Parallels can be drawn to Indian readiness to be sensitive to Pakistan’s most ridiculous concerns in our Afghanistan policy as well. Raja Mohan remarks that “India’s self-induced fear of provoking China has restricted its pursuit of beneficial engagement with major powers…and is hardly consistent with its proclamations of strategic autonomy.” After all, how often does China accommodate Indian concerns on its activities in POK?

India has several advantages, which it can leverage in its favour. As noted above, the strategic environment beckons for an increased Indian presence. Indian soft power has the potential to make great strides if utilised and harnessed effectively – India does not evoke memories of an imperialistic past while presenting a congruence of common interests with most ASEAN nations. A robust defence relationship with countries such as Vietnam, Japan and Philippines and greater economic and political engagement with the rest will give us a foothold in the larger Indo-Pacific, help secure our trade and energy interests, reinforce global norms on maritime traffic and increase our sphere of influence. Most importantly, we must first convince ourselves (rather than China) that broadening the spectrum of our international engagement, actually exercising our much vaunted ‘strategic autonomy’ and expanding our diplomatic horizons is beneficial to India irrespective of China’s displeasure.

Great Power politics in the South China Sea has but begun. And India must not be scared to play it.

Photo: Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT)