India and the South China Sea

By Brian Stoddart - 01 July 2014

Brian Stoddart suggests that India’s interest in the South China Sea holds greater lessons for how Asian powers may engage each other in years to come.

As dispute temperatures rose over South China Sea issues recently, interest naturally focused on the key litigants this time around, China and Japan. These issues have simmered for years with a myriad of shoals and atolls and small islands claimed and counterclaimed by one or other of China’s warring partners in all of this.

In the wings, though, a potentially far more significant spat is developing steadily, as India starts to become interested in the South China Sea. At first sight that might seem odd, given India’s physical distance from the area, but there is no doubt China sees this as a test case in India’s potential emergence as a so-called super power

From India’s viewpoint, there are really two interlinking reasons for this interest that in themselves have some different aspects as well.

First, there is India’s rapidly growing focus on ASEAN as part of a “look east” strategy that began some time ago, and seems unlikely to decline under the new Narendra Modi leadership in New Delhi.

Dialogue with ASEAN is extensive and growing. Over recent years, India has been developing as a major partner with ASEAN as a collective and with several of the ASEAN members bilaterally. Its close connections with Vietnam, for example, provided the catalysts for the most recent exchange of strong South China Sea views between China and India – India’s state-owned oil and gas agency took up a Vietnamese invitation to explore drilling leases in areas of the South China Sea that Vietnam claims but China contests. Those on/off proposals led to rising tensions and talk of respective naval demonstrations by both China and India, even while planning for joint naval exercises were still in order.

This is significant because it inserts India into the niceties of ASEAN relationships that themselves have been complicated by China’s escalating aid and development largesse in the region. Cambodia, for example, a prime beneficiary, effectively protected and promoted India’s South China Sea interests when it chaired the major ASEAN forum back in 2012, causing considerable difficulty.

When that is put together with India’s rising trade and other economic links with countries like Japan and South Korea in addition to all the others, then this rising push into the South China Sea is understandable. As India becomes a more evident trading partner and foreign direct investor in ASEAN states, its collective interests there vis a vis China will become more rather than less significant. A not insignificant factor, too, is the presence of a large and influential Indian diaspora in many sections of the Southeast Asian region, especially but not exclusively in the South China Sea sphere.

The second major consideration for India here is really a counterpoint: China’s own rising interest and investment in the Indian Ocean. If China considers the South China Sea as “its” maritime home, then India feels exactly the same about the Indian Ocean. In some respects, then India’s rising interest in the South China Sea may be considered as a response to what it sees as a challenge to supremacy in its own region.

This is a very big issue for India, because its primacy in the Indian Ocean is, in many ways, its big “marker” as a rising power. For that reason there has been considerable emphasis on a naval presence and command, so any hints of Chinese naval incursions are seen as potential threats. Over the course of 2014, for example, there has been considerable commentary about a rising presence of Chinese submarines in the area, and on-going discussion about the appearance of Chinese naval bases.

Some commentators see China as a reluctant presence in the Indian Ocean. It is unlikely that such a view is shared widely in New Delhi where, among other things, China’s rising presence in and funding of several African states is regarded with some concern.

What is appearing here, then, is a condition in which a bolder statement about India’s interest and involvement in the South China Sea is best seen as a statement also about how China sees the Indian status in a much broader context, and as India’s own demonstration of how it sees its wider role evolving. And as a sidebar in both locations, of course, there is the question of what the USA really does in relation to its imagined “pivot”, of how it balances interests between India and China, and what it does about its own presence. For those reasons, both of these major maritime spheres carry significance well beyond localised skirmishes. Given that, it is likely that we will see a lot more developments in and twists to events both in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

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