Thursday, September 1, 2016

India's options in the South China Sea


With a string of summits lined up in the upcoming months – G-20 in China, ASEAN in Laos and BRICS in India – Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent New Delhi visit came at an opportune moment.

China has suffered a major global backlash ever since it rejected last month’s United Nations court ruling on one of the busiest commercial shipping routes in the world – the South China Sea.
In experts’ opinion, that a suspicion that India might join other countries in raising the controversial South China Sea dispute during these summits, especially the G-20 summit to be held in Hangzhou (China) next month, is a source of constant worry for the Asian giant that wishes to portray itself as a ‘responsible power’.
All this despite India’s balanced and guarded stance on the issue which asks all parties involved to resolve their disputes through peaceful means “without threat or use of force” and show “utmost respect” to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which establishes the global legal order of the seas and oceans.
India’s crucial commercial and strategic stakes has kept its interest alive in the disputed waters despite it being not a party to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. India’s involvement in the issue serves it economically, helps it to counter China and maintain good relations with the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Nations).
India’s dilemma
However, a more proactive role by India may incur the dragon’s wrath and a neutral stance may not go down well with its allies like the US, Japan and ASEAN littorals.
Global Times, a state-run Chinese daily widely seen as the government’s mouthpiece, has clearly stated that India’s focus in the South China Sea will harm bilateral ties.
Broadly, this would translate as more skirmishes along the LAC and a greater bonhomie with India’s arch-rival, Pakistan. Also, our bilateral trade with China worth USD 100 billion will take a sure-shot hit.
Incurring US wrath means endangering the nuclear deal, losing upper hand over Kashmir vis-à-vis Pakistan and a severe blow to the Indo-US trade.
Joint naval exercises and friendly port calls to other claimant countries apart from China – Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Philippines, and Vietnam – bring the Indian Navy into these disputed waters, and trade with these nations also matters.
Also to meet its energy needs, India has been searching for hydrocarbons in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam, in which case, it can neither antagonise China, nor Vietnam. It is also selling patrol vessels to Vietnam and considering sale of the BrahMos missiles.
Way forward
So far, India has deftly handled the issue and displayed a competitive degree of diplomatic acumen, which it must continue with. The implications of Asia’s evolving maritime order have to be rightly assessed, along with engaging cautiously with Beijing. Frequent bilateral visits by Indian and Chinese diplomats are imperative to bring down trust deficit.
India scored a plus with China by refusing to US proposal of Joint Navy Patrols in the South China Sea, and on the other hand, it stood by the US stance of freedom of navigation. India also takes part in the Malabar exercises – a trilateral naval drill involving US, India and Japan. India’s effort to placate both these behemoths in tandem with its own interest is a masterstroke in foreign policy.
“The stakes of what happens in the waters around South China Sea are as high for India as they are for the regional states,” says Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College, London.
Keeping this in mind, New Delhi has to play up the ASEAN card to keep Beijing in check. Owing to China’s aggressive foreign policy, its relation with the ASEAN is not exactly on good terms. On the other hand, ASEAN nations, particularly Singapore and Vietnam, see India as an influential nation that can counter China and can help in peaceful negotiations.
Herein is India’s chance to build up strong ties with the ASEAN nations, and also Japan, which wants to counter Chinese hegemony in the Asian region. More than anything, these nations will stand by when China creates troubles for India.
India’s next course of action depends on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam and Hangzhou next month for the G-20 meet, particularly after China’s recent refusal to discuss the South China Sea row at the summit.
As an aspiring superpower, India must take a “well calculated” stand, not sides, because India is neither a claimant nor an ‘external’ power in the conflict.

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