- India’s Strategic Stakes in the South China Sea
In the wake of the U.S. Navy’s recent freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea in November 2015, maritime stability in Southeast Asia has been a hot topic of discussion in Asian strategic circles. The passage of USS Lassen within twelve nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands group was followed with a fly-by over the same area by U.S. B-52 bombers, leading to fears of an escalation in tensions between the United States and China.
Despite some commentary that deemed the naval patrols as a needless provocation,1 many regional analysts saw the patrols as an essential undertaking—important to highlight an issue of maritime principle to China.2 Washington, proponents held, was well within its right to warn Beijing of the illegality of its reclamation in the South China Sea, as well as to underscore the invalidity of its territorial claims in the vicinity of artificially constructed islands. Unsurprisingly, many regional states came out in support of the U.S. decision to challenge China’s island building. Notwithstanding its vastly improved strategic relations with Washington, New Delhi, however, surprised regional watchers by maintaining a studious silence. This essay examines India’s understanding of the South China Sea disputes and assesses the implications of instability in this critical region for Indian interests and the Indo-Pacific more broadly.
India’s Perspective on the South China Sea
India’s reluctance to endorse a maneuver meant expressly to emphasize access to the maritime commons appeared odd since it lately has been vocal about the need to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, even raising pointed concerns over the growing state of insecurity in [End Page 14] the region.3 New Delhi, however, remains acutely conscious of its official position of neither being party to the disputes nor taking sides.4 Regardless of the magnitude of nautical developments in the region, India’s security establishment fears that the perception of abandonment of its neutrality might be construed as strategic support for the United States—still the principal source of resistance to Chinese unilateralism in the South China Sea, but whose deterrence strategy, Indian analysts suspect, could spark an intense reaction from Beijing.
Yet there is no mistaking a sense of exasperation in New Delhi with China’s maritime practices in East Asia, which many officials privately regard as being arbitrary and unreasonable. The aggressiveness with which China has sought to protect its turf in the South China Sea has led Indian strategists to believe that, unless sustained pressure is brought to bear upon China, a negotiated solution to the dispute is unattainable.5 Not surprisingly, in at least three ASEAN-centric forums since the U.S. naval patrols, Indian leaders have emphasized the need for freedom of navigation, the right to passage and overflight, and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
In November 2015, Prime Minister Narenda Modi made a reference to the South China Sea conflict in two successive events—at the thirteenth ASEAN-India summit and during a public lecture in Singapore—suggesting the need for a mechanism that could enhance cooperation in maritime security, counterpiracy, and humanitarian and disaster relief.6 India also was widely reported to have snubbed China during the third meeting of the India-Philippines Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation in New Delhi [End Page 15] in October, when a joint statement referred to the South China Sea as the “West Philippines Sea,” a term to which Beijing is averse.7
India has also increased its maritime deployments in the South China Sea, signaling a desire for an expanded security role in the western Pacific. After a contingent of four Indian naval ships completed a two-month tour of Southeast Asia in June, the stealth frigate INS Sahyadri was sent to the Philippines for an operational deployment in November. Concurrently, the Indian Navy has been conducting high-intensity operational exchanges with the United States—raising the complexity of Exercise Malabar by also inviting Japan to participate for the latest iteration...