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Why India’s South China Sea Stand Matters

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 19, 2016

    During his visit to New Delhi last week, Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, held wide-ranging talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. The agenda for discussion is said to have included a number of sticky bilateral issues – China’s perceived opposition to India’s membership of the NSG, Beijing’s opposition to UN sanctions on Jaish-e-Mohammed Chief, Masood Azhar, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Missing from the list of issues, however, was the South China Sea (SCS) – a subject Beijing had apparently debarred from discussion in any context or form.

    Oddly, a day after Wang returned to Beijing, the Chinese media hailed India for being “neutral on the South China Sea” – as if the Chinese foreign minister has secured an assurance from India that if the matter ever came up for discussion in an international forum, New Delhi has promised not to take sides. Meanwhile, Indian newspapers pointed out that, despite never mentioning the South China Sea in his official discussions, the Chinese foreign minister did bring up the issue informally with the media. In response to a question by a journalist, Wang had observed solemnly that India needed to decide "where it stood on the matter of the South China Sea" – a clear indication that support on the vexed territorial disputes in Southeast Asia may have been the real purpose of his visit.

    Interestingly, in the run up to Wang’s departure for India, The Global Times, a tabloid widely seen as the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, warned New Delhi that its seemingly inimical posture on the South China Sea was potentially damaging for bilateral ties and could create obstacles for Indian businesses in China. "Instead of unnecessary entanglements with China over the South China Sea debate during Wang's visit," an editorial in the newspaper declared, "India must create a good atmosphere for economic cooperation, including the reduction of tariffs…amid the ongoing free trade talks."

    Clearly, China remains worried that India could join other countries in raising the controversial issue during the G-20 summit to be held in Hangzhou next month. With the United States certain to rake up the UN tribunal’s rejection of Chinese claims within the "nine-dash line", Beijing is determined to muster support for its own position on the matter. Wang’s India visit was widely seen as part of a Chinese lobbying effort to ensure that New Delhi does not join Washington and its supporters in pushing Beijing on the defensive by bringing up the SCS.

    Chinese leaders might claim that by avoiding a mention of the South China Sea during discussions with Wang, Beijing can safely conclude that New Delhi is in agreement with its stand on that matter. The Chinese political leadership must, however, know that while New Delhi respects China’s viewpoint, it chooses to take a principled position on the disputes in the SCS. For three reasons, Southeast Asia and its contested littorals matter to Indian interests.

    First, Indian trade and economic linkages in the Pacific are becoming stronger and deeper. Not only are ASEAN and the far-eastern Pacific key target areas of the "Act East" policy, Asia’s Eastern commons are increasingly a vital facilitator of India’s economic development. With growing dependence on the Malacca Strait for the flow of goods and services, economics is increasingly a factor in India’s Pacific policy. China must know that territorial conflicts in the SCS threaten the future trajectory of India’s economic development, creating an unacceptable hindrance for regional trade and commerce.

    Secondly, India believes that the disputes in the Southeast Asian littorals are a litmus test for international maritime law. In the aftermath of the Hague Tribunal’s verdict on the South China Sea, New Delhi feels obligated to take a principled stand on the issue of freedom of navigation and commercial access as enshrined in the UNCLOS. Beijing must know that regardless of the guarantees it seeks from India about staying neutral on the SCS, New Delhi cannot be seen to be condoning the aggression of armed Chinese naval ships, aircraft and submarines in the region.

    Regardless then of the concessions Beijing is willing to offer India on the NSG and bilateral issues, New Delhi has reason to continue viewing China’s maritime manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with suspicion. For all the geniality on display during Wang’s visit, Beijing still hasn’t explained its rapidly growing undersea presence in littoral South Asia. The flimsy pretext of anti-piracy operations to justify the deployment of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean makes many Indian maritime analysts believe that China is preparing for a larger strategic thrust in the Indian Ocean.

    Lastly, Beijing must know that New Delhi recognizes the threat that Chinese aggression poses for the wider Asian commons – in particular the exacerbation of existing power asymmetries. In order to contribute to a fair and equitable regional maritime order, New Delhi will take a stand that restores strategic balance in maritime-Asia.

    There are, of course, things that New Delhi isn’t in a position to officially communicate to Beijing. For instance, the correlation that Indian maritime analysts discern between aggressive Chinese patrolling in the SCS and its growing deployments in the Indian Ocean Region; or the suspicion in Indian strategic circles that China might use its SCS bases as a springboard for active projection of power in the Indian Ocean.

    Beijing might be surprised to learn that many Indian analysts and policymakers view China’s aggressive response to the UN Arbitral Tribunal’s verdict as part of a broader strategy to project power in Asia’s critical littoral spaces. Indian experts, however, recognize that China operates from a position of strength in the SCS, wherein it has physical possession over some critical islands.

    What New Delhi really worries about is China’s reclamation and militarisation of features in its possession – particularly the deployment of missiles, fighters and surveillance equipment in its Spratly group of islands, allowing the PLAN effective control over the entire range of maritime operations in the SCS. Indian experts also recognize the important role Beijing’s militia forces play in achieving its regional objectives. India knows well that the main threat to maritime security in Asia isn’t so much the PLA Navy, but China’s irregular forces. Chinese surveillance ships, coast guard vessels and fishing fleets are the real force behind Beijing’s dominance of the littoral spaces.

    With the expansion of Chinese maritime activities in the IOR, New Delhi fears a rise in non-grey hull presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean. Already, China’s distant water fishing fleet is now the world’s largest, and is a heavily subsidised maritime commercial entity. While an increase in the presence of such ships doesn’t always pose a security threat, India remains wary of Chinese non-military maritime activity in the Eastern Indian Ocean.

    That said, nothing lays bare Indian anxieties as much as the prospect of Chinese naval bases in the IOR. India’s China sceptics are convinced Beijing’s blueprint for maritime operations in the Indian Ocean involves the construction of multiple logistical facilities. China’s 10-year agreement with Djibouti in 2015 for the setting up of a naval replenishment facility in the northern Obock region is widely seen by Indian experts as proof of the PLA Navy’s strategic ambitions in the IOR.

    This does not mean that New Delhi is going to team up with the United States in an effort to contain China. On the contrary, Indian policymakers clearly recognize that naval manoeuvres in the SCS emphasising "freedom of navigation" are a risky proposition. While India would like to see all parties act in accordance with the law, New Delhi will not take sides on the territorial disputes. Even so, the possibility that China might eclipse India in its own "backyard" will continue to drive a security response in New Delhi, even as it seeks to strengthen the Indian naval presence in its near and extended waters.

    Of course, Indian leaders cannot articulate the full extent of their anxieties over Chinese maritime operations in Asia. Regardless of the concessions on offer to New Delhi, Beijing must know that India will not agree to a compromise deal with China on the South China Sea.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.