Tensions in South China Sea and what it means for India
Tension in the South China Sea region reached an all time high soon after the meeting between US President Barack Obama with leaders of Southeast Asian nations in California in February. China deployed two batteries of eight missile launchers and a radar system on Woody, also known as Yongxing Island in the Paracel Islands.
While Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi attempted to justify the move, saying the deployment of the missiles had been done in self-defence, other littoral countries staking their claims in the South China Sea, along with external powers like the US and Japan, accused China of threatening peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation and flight in the region.
In fact, sections of analysts have begun to argue that the South China Sea might emerge as a theatre of war in the 21st century, if collective efforts were not taken to address the issue.
Historically, the South China Sea has been a cause for dispute between China and eight other countries of this region, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, and Brunei. However, the situation in the South China Sea has never been so alarming as it has become in recent times.
There are many reasons for this change. First, ever since China emerged as a major Asian economic and military power, it has focused on strengthening its military capabilities in this region with the aim of asserting its sovereignty over the waters of the South China Sea.
Second, Beijing has purposefully followed the policy of not allowing other regional littoral countries to have free movement in the South China Sea. In turn, clashes between China and other countries of this region have significantly increased.
Third, as the South China Sea has huge oil and gas reservoirs and also serves as the most critical shipping route between Pacific and Indian Ocean, China desires to establish itself as the indisputable power in this region.
This is precisely the reason that Beijing also frequently questions the presence of external powers like the US and others in this region, stating that the South China Sea is its “core interest”. On the other hand, mindful of ill-desire of Beijing in the South China Sea, the US has taken calibrated efforts to protect this region from being dominated by China.
In fact, one of the motives behind Obama’s policy of pivot to Asia is to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This further became more apparent when in the two-day summit between US and Southeast Asian leaders in California in February, the US president reaffirmed that Washington would help its allies strengthen their maritime capabilities in the region to counter China’s expanding claims.
At the same time, Washington is also seeking help from Asian military powers like Japan and India in maintaining peace and security in the South China Sea.
Certainly, the recent unrest in the South China Sea has not gone unnoticed in India for various reasons. First, as about 50 per cent of Indian trade transits through the South China Sea, it is very important for India to ensure that there is an absolute freedom of navigation.
Secondly, while India’s relations with ASEAN have improved significantly since 1990s, it has assumed added significance under the Modi government’s “Act East” policy in view of the fact that India views ASEAN countries, some of them are engrailed in the South China dispute, as playing a crucial role in India’s economic development.
Thirdly, India has become one of the few external forces which have been involved in oil and gas exploration in the region. Indian companies have invested in oil and gas, steel, spices, pharmaceuticals, edible oil, steel furniture and other sectors.
Thus, New Delhi wishes to see prevalence of peace and security in this region so that it can meet its energy needs with South China Sea oil and gas considerably.
Fourthly, India, in the past, chose to remain inactive on the South China issue. However, China’s aggressive posturing against the activities of the Indian state-owned oil company ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) in the South China Sea, calling theses activities illegal has forced New Delhi to rethink its stand on this issue.
Also, as China is trying to encircle India by deepening its foothold in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean, the unrest in the South China Sea has provided India an opportunity to enlarge its presence in this region as well.
It is in light of these above-mentioned factors that in the ASEAN Regional Forum Summit in Phnom Penh in 2012, India emphasised its strong support for freedom of navigation and access to resources such as fisheries and gas in accordance with principles of international law.
India’s 2015 Maritime Security Strategy document has also declared the South China Sea as a “secondary zone of interest” for the Indian Navy.
India has also joined hands with the US on this issue.
During Barack Obama’s visit in 2015, he and Prime Minister Modi affirmed the importance of freedom of navigation. India and the US unveiled a “joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region” in January 2015 to ensure “freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”
India has also launched a trilateral dialogue with Japan, Australia and the US. News reports have also suggested that India and the US are seriously mulling over the possibility of jointly conducting patrols in the South China Sea.
The joint statement issued on Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe’s visit last December also stated that the two prime ministers called upon all states to avoid unilateral actions that could lead to tensions in the South China Sea.
Indeed, simmering standoff in the South China Sea has made one thing clear, despite China’s claim, its rise is not going to be peaceful. It is therefore necessary for regional and external powers to build balance of power to contain Beijing making the regional as its exclusive area of dominance.
Undoubtedly, India visualises a special role for itself in the South China Sea not necessarily as a part of containing China, but because of its own national interests and deepening ties with many of South China Sea countries.