Recently, the Indian government has spoken out on the South China Sea issue many times, one after another. At the recent online Summit of the Prime Ministers of India and Vietnam, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that the South China Sea Code of Conduct “should not harm the interests of other countries or third parties in the region”. The two Prime Ministers also emphasized the importance of so-called “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. Last month, at the East Asia Summit, Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jaishankar, also articulated India’s position on the South China Sea issue expressing concern over actions and incidents that had allegedly “eroded trust”.
For India, the South China Sea is indeed an important commercial route, and India’s trade with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia all pass through the South China Sea. But India’s claim of “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea is a false proposition, as merchant ships enjoy complete freedom of movement in the South China Sea. In the South China Sea, India’s so-called “freedom of navigation” is actually the same as the “freedom of navigation” demanded by the United States. What the Americans call “freedom of navigation” does not distinguish between commercial and military, and places special emphasis on the military, i.e., U.S. warships should be able to cruise freely in the South China Sea. In this regard, India is in line with the United States. But in the Indian Ocean, the Indian definition of “freedom of navigation” and the U.S. definition of “freedom of navigation” are not the same. U.S. warships often violate India’s exclusive economic zone and even approach Indian territorial waters. India is opposed to this. So India pursues a double standard on the issue of so-called freedom of navigation.
At present, the border confrontation between India and China is still going on, and India is facing serious challenges in maintaining logistical support in the Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake. India hopes to use the South China Sea issue to put pressure on China and force it to make concessions on the border standoff. India has long sought (such) leverage to counter China on land border issues. This is an important reason for the strategic “cooperation” between India and Vietnam in the South China Sea and the exploration of oil and gas resources in the waters disputed by China and Vietnam.
For India, its involvement in the South China Sea does not stop at building momentum and pressurising China. Actually, India wants to counterbalance China on the seas. India believes it enjoys maritime advantages, especially in the Indian Ocean. Because the British and French colonizers invasions of India in recent times were from the seas, India has wanted to become a maritime power since its independence. Panikkar, the founder of India’s maritime strategy, particularly emphasized the importance of the oceans for India. For this reason, since the 1990s, India has been making strategic adjustments to shift its strategic focus from the northern border to the Indian Ocean, but it has not been able to do so.
After the Obama administration proposed the “Asia-Pacific Rebalance” strategy, Obama visited India in January 2015 and the two countries issued the “Joint U.S.-India Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions”. To achieve the docking of policies in this document and the US’ “Asia-Pacific Rebalance” strategy and India’s “Act East” policy, the two countries particularly emphasized the importance of maintaining maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. After the Trump administration proposed the “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, India’s position in the U.S. Asia-Pacific policy has been further enhanced. For the United States, the focus of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” is on the Western Pacific, especially the South China Sea, rather than the Indian Ocean. However, the United States is particularly interested in further Indian involvement in the South China Sea.
In recent years, India has strengthened its strategic military cooperation with countries around the South China Sea, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, and built military facilities in the area near the Malacca Strait. One of the most important purposes of that is to guard against China, even to choke China’s throat. Since Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister in 2019, the Indian government significantly accelerated the pace of strategic and security cooperation with the United States, and took the initiative to promote the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India quadrilateral security dialogue. The dialogue has escalated. This year, with India formally inviting Australia to join the Malabar naval exercises, the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India quadrilateral maritime military alliance system has basically taken shape. The U.S.-Japan-Australia-India Security Dialogue is a so-called “like-minded alliance” with a clear goal: China.
China is the guardian of international order and regional security, and has always abided by international law and international rules. The South China Sea issue is very special case, involving many historical disputes. Western countries use their right to speak and interpret international rules to deny China’s historical rights and interests. China has been trying to solve the South China Sea issue with ASEAN countries through peaceful negotiations. And some extraterritorial countries like the United States and India are concerned that the code of conduct in the South China Sea agreed between China and ASEAN countries is not conducive to their use of military means to check and balance China in the region. These countries will continue to make trouble on the South China Sea issue, and India also hopes to use the South China Sea issue to continue to hold China in check. But with India’s strength, it seems to be unable to make much of a splash!
(The author is the Secretary General of the Center for China-South Asia Cooperation, Shanghai Institute of International Studies)