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India’s interest in South China Sea


Newsworldbd.com -11.02.2016

South-ChinaMd Toufiqul Islam , Adil Mahmood

Developments in the South China Sea have significant implications for India’s strategic interests and its role in the Indo-Pacific. Yet New Delhi has traditionally maintained a safe distance from direct commentary on issues like the South China Sea maritime disputes, and instead emphasised on the need for freedom of navigation.

However, India now appears to be picking up the pace. Under the Modi administration, New Delhi has turned the “Look East Policy” into the “Act East Policy,” made direct comments on the need to resolve the South China Sea dispute, signed a joint strategic vision with the US for the Asia–Pacific and the Indian Ocean region and is in talks with key regional countries to increase security collaboration, especially in the maritime domain.

Just on Wednesday, a US defence official said the US and India have held talks about conducting joint naval patrols that could include the disputed South China Sea. On the very next day, China came up with a strong response, warning both the countries that outside interference will threaten peace and stability of the region.

So, the question remains, why India seems so keen to meddle with the South China Sea matters. Observers say India is frustrated with China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region in the last few years. With the so-called “string of pearls” strategy, China has been actively occupying the Indian Ocean, surrounding India from the sea with a chain of its ports and monitoring stations in the neighbouring countries (Pakistan, Sri Lanka and
Myanmar).

India is giving an “asymmetric response” to these actions of China and actively develops relations with the countries of the South China Sea basin, primaring place with Vietnam and the Philippines, i.e. the countries that have the most burning problems in their relations with China.

For example, India last month struck a deal with Vietnam to set up a Data Reception and Tracking and Telemetry Station at Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam. Through this, experts say India will get a strategic toehold in the South China Sea region as its new satellite monitoring station in Vietnam is expected to be activated soon and linked to another existing facility in neighbouring Indonesia, amid China’s growing ambitions in the area.

India’s strategic interest
It is a surprising fact that the South China Sea has been classified as within India’s extended neighbourhood at the government level for over a decade (Chang 2015). When formulated in the mid-1990s, India’s “Look East Policy” originally focused on economic cooperation in Southeast Asia channelled through Asean. However, a Look East-2 focus in the 2000s cast India’s horizons more widely across the South China Sea into the Western Pacific/East Asia, with more overt security consideration. Accordingly, the Indian Navy’s 2007 doctrine statement India’s Maritime Military Strategy defined the South China Sea as an area of “strategic interest” to India (Baruah, 2015). This leaves India with interests to be gained, maintained and if necessary defended – primarily through the Indian Navy’s unilateral presence and bilateral security arrangements. India’s Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Joshi made that clear in December 2012 when he announced that the Indian Navy could and would be deployed to the South China Sea to defend Indian energy security interests there.

By 2013, the increasing adoption of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic framework for India gave the South China Sea closer geopolitical relevance for India. Narendra Modi’s arrival in power in May 2014 saw his Act East readiness to strengthen India’s military and economic position in the South China Sea cutting across China’s own drive across the South China Sea (Chang 2015).

Vietnam: India’s main partner
With Vietnam, India’s “diamond on the South China Sea” (Brewster 2009), India’s Cooperation Framework agreement of 2003 and strategic partnership proclaimed in 2007 has become strengthened in its military side, in the wake of China’s growing strength in the South China Sea. This partnership has been given teeth in recent years through military supplies, especially maritime, from India to Vietnam, which has attracted Chinese criticism (Bagchi 2014). Port facilities have also been extended by Vietnam to India at Cam Ranh Bay. The pace of India-Vietnam relations have quickened under the Modi administration (Thayer 2014), with a “pivot” (Karnad 2014) to Vietnam on the part of India, leaving an “axis” (Patil 2014) that is now implicitly China-centric. A significant development under the Modi administration is how the South China Sea has featured in their Joint Statements drawn up in President Pranab Mukherjee’s trip to Vietnam in September 2014 and the visit by Vietnam’s prime minister to India in October 2014. These Joint Statements’ formulaic reiteration of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and adherence to international law, are an implicit criticism of China. The October 2014 visit also saw a slew of increased military assistance programmes by India to the Vietnamese navy.

References
Bagchi, Indrani. (2014) ‘India ignores China’s frown, offers defence boost to Vietnam’, Times of India, October 29.

Baruah, Darshana. (2015) ‘Asia’s Nightmare: Could India and China Clash over the South China Sea?’, July 14, National Interest.

Brewster, David. (2009) ‘India’s strategic partnership with Vietnam: The search for a diamond on the South China Sea?’, Asian Security, 5(1): 24-44.

Chang, Gordon. (2015) ‘Clash of titans: India’s “Act East” Policy meets China’s “Maritime Silk Road” in the South China Sea’, Journal of Political Risk, 3(7), June.

Karnad, Bharat. (2014) ‘Vietnam as India’s pivot’, New Indian Express, October 31.

Patil, Kapil. (2014) ‘India-Vietnam Axis: energy and geopolitical imperatives’, NAPSNet Policy Forum, December 8.

Thayer, Carl. (2014) ‘India and Vietnam advance their strategic partnership’, The Diplomat, December 11.




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