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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 51 New Delhi December 10, 2016

India and the South China Sea Dispute

Sunday 11 December 2016

by Supriya Sharma

The Hague’s Arbitration Tribunal on July 12 clearly backed the Philippines on the issue of the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. It also declared large parts of the South China Sea as international waters and a few as other countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). India stood in support of The Hague’s ruling as it believed that the international law should always be abided.

Apart from being a member of the UNCLOS, there are three large reasons why India needs to play a role in the South China Sea. Though India is not a direct claimant in the South China Sea, it has 55 per cent of its economic stakes in the South China Sea. Secondly, to uphold its strong “Act East Policy”, it is seemingly expected to take a stand. Thirdly, it is answerable to its ASEAN colleagues. Hence, silence would not work in favour of India. Exemplifying this further, India had recently dismissed a picture printed in a state-run Chinese newspaper that stated that India was standing in support of China over the issue of the South China Sea.

At the 14th ASEAN meeting at Laos, Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh stated: “As State Party to the UNCLOS, India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans.”

Hence, India clearly supports freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of inter-national law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS. India’s stand on taking sides with the claimant countries is neutral as it wants the involved parties to directly resolve it. It also believes that the involved states should resolve it without any use of threat and force which would unwillingly lead to complications and affect the peace and stability of the region.

The South China Debate can either have opportunistic or paradoxical outcomes in various ways.

India has already offered military support to Vietnam, which is a direct and important claimant in the South China Sea. India has signed two major naval projects with Vietnam and discussions on installing the ‘Brahmos Missile system’ and ‘Varunastra’ in Vietnam is also underway. India has also offered a hand on modernising and upgrading their military equipment along with training the Vietnamese submariners. The Philippines’ military equip-ment are second hand and aged and that country has also already expressed its interest in purchasing cruise missiles and other military systems from India.

India, therefore, can be seen to be emerging as an important military partner in East Asia, especially with countries which are in dispute with the Chinese. The South China Sea dispute can be viewed as an important opportunity for India to improve its relationships with its East Asian neighbours. China has defiled its relationship with the countries of East Asia by declining the verdict and this could be an important fortuity for India to further augment its stature in the region.

India could play a crucial role in America’s “Asia re-balancing” theory, thereby also giving it an opportunity to enhance its relationship with the US. The US has been significantly looking up to the economically growing, nuclear India as a counter to Chinese hegemony in the region. India, along with the US, could help the regional states develop their capabilities. India could be an important strategic partner in counter-balancing China’s growing offensive role in the region.

The opportunities could also be paradoxical. Many scholars have argued that the US’ rebalancing strategy in Asia is largely to serve its own interests. The US’ rebalancing strategy has four main elements: first, to ensure the US’ leadership position; second, to reinforce alliances and partnerships; third, to strengthen multi-culturalism; and fourth, to strengthen economic structures through initiatives like free trade agreements (FTAs). Apart from these four elements, there is a debatable additional element of a constructive cooperative partnership between the US and China. Thence, the US’ rebalancing strategy is more in favour of the US interests and it cannot be termed as a containment policy per se. However, India needs to carefully understand the American instinct and ensure that it does not become a gambit in the hands of America’s Asian strategy. China wants to be the Asian leader and closer Indo-US ties could be consequential for Sino-India relations. India should not blind itself and maintain its own strategic self-determination.

In June 2016, China blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) apparently on a technical basis. Though China has mentioned that it is not against India’s entry into the NSG and talks will again take place, India’s growing and active support to countries involved in the South China Sea dispute may lead the Chinese to stand against India’s NSG dream. Apart from the NSG retaliation, the Chinese have also expressed their objection to the selling of ‘Brahmos’ to Vietnam recently.

India will have to be diplomatically clever, and that too simultaneously, in order to be in the good books of China to avoid economic and political harm to the East Asian countries, especially the ones involved in the SCS dispute, in order to become a robust power in the region, and the US, in order to benefit from its Asian strategy. Various upcoming events and trends will further unfold what the SCS dispute actually means for India, an opportunity or a misfortune.

Supriya Sharma is the East Asia Researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.