India in the South China Sea: Need for counterweight to China in the region

India’s current policy reorientation suggests that for it to overcome its continental and regional challenges vis-à-vis China’s increasing assertion, it must also involve itself in Beijing’s geographic neighborhood, writes Don McLain Gill for South Asia Monitor

Don McLain Gill Aug 07, 2020
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On July 2, 2020, the Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that India has expressed its intent to carry out navigation activities in the South China Sea (SCS). In an online forum, Lorenzana affirmed that navigation in the SCS is open to all states. "We do not prevent other countries from passing through or doing things there in the South China Sea. The British do pass through the South China Sea. The French, all other countries. We do not invite them to come," he said.  The announcement came amid the telephone conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Rodrigo Duterte. India’s interest to increase its strategic presence in the SCS serves as a recalibration of its China strategy to address the latter’s increasing assertive maneuvers in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the South Asian region.

New Delhi has often tried to engage with China under the context of appeasement. India was one of the first countries to recognize the One-China policy and it also supported China’s permanent membership into the United Nations Security Council. Moreover, this support did not change even when India offered asylum to the Tibetan government. Furthermore, India has also avoided commenting on China’s controversial policies on Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. However, even after all that, India’s strategy has not yielded any substantial and positive results.

China building capabilities in South Asia 

The Chinese response has often been that of belligerence which could be seen through the capturing of Aksai Chin, calling Jammu and Kashmir a dispute, and laying claim to more territories, including the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The most recent of these acts involve the intrusion of Chinese troops into the Indian territory in Eastern Ladakh which resulted in a fatal clash between both the troops. This goes to show that China follows no rules in its expansionist interests, particularly at the expense of India.  Deception, concealment, and surprise often accompany China’s use of force. Chinese leaders have maintained a strategy claiming that military preemption is a defensive and not an offensive measure. Moreover, China’s latest assault on India – whom the former claims to be the “actual aggressor” – is a page taken from that very book.

Beyond the border, China has also been building its capabilities in South Asia through port development and infrastructure projects in strategically located states that form a noose around India’s neck. Moreover, Beijing’s involvement in the affairs of the region states often comes at the expense of India’s national and regional interests. The deepening presence of China in South Asia serves as a way for it to exercise its power projection capabilities beyond its geographical neighborhood. As a result, New Delhi must recalibrate its approach towards China if it wishes to safeguard its strategic interests in the region.

Positive and calculated steps have been taken in this direction with India showing its willingness to play a bigger and more active role in areas beyond its geographical region, particularly, the SCS. Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava told a weekly press briefing that India stands for the freedom of navigation and lawful commerce in the international waterways. “South China Sea is a part of global commons. India has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the region,” Srivastava said. “We firmly stand for the freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in these international waterways, in accordance with international law, notably UNCLOS,” he added.

India's presence in SCS

India’s current policy reorientation suggests that for it to overcome its continental and regional challenges vis-à-vis China’s increasing assertion, it must also involve itself in Beijing’s geographic neighborhood. The underlying logic stems from the idea of horizontal escalation where asymmetry in one theatre can seek to be overcome by escalating the conflict to a wider geographical domain. If China continues to strategically involve itself along the border and the greater South Asian region, India can respond in kind by increasing its presence in the SCS.

China’s expansive claims of sovereignty over the SCS - and its estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - have provoked competing claimants in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.  Moreover, China maintains that foreign militaries are not able to conduct intelligence-gathering activities in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  By involving itself into the disputed geographical space, India not only challenges China’s assertion directly but also serves as a counterweight in the region along with other extra-regional powers such as Australia and the United States who have also increased their presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, Southeast Asian states have positively welcomed India’s role in the maritime territory.

The only entity that could impede India from treading continuously towards this path vis-à-vis China is itself. India has been known to take a more neutral stance on several international issues. Experts have argued that despite India’s striking rise in material capabilities, its foreign policy has been characterized by a chronic ambivalence and failure to institutionalize the design and implementation of a great power strategy. If it wishes to achieve its strategic interests and inch closer to achieving major power status, New Delhi will have to make and take decisions that may not necessarily reflect its previous policy orientations. India must carefully go beyond appeasement in engaging with China in order to gain strategically.

(The writer is pursuing his master’s degree in International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. The views expressed are personal)