What New Delhi needs to raise with Wang Yi about South China Sea

The Chinese foreign minister must know that territorial conflicts in the SCS threaten the future trajectory of India’s economic development.

 |  6-minute read |   13-08-2016
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Just as he arrived in Goa, en route to New Delhi, for an official interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, made the real purpose for his visit clear.

India, he announced to the media, needed to decide "where it stood on the matter of the South China Sea" – a clear indication that support on the vexed territorial disputes in Southeast Asia is what Beijing wants from India.

Indeed, days before Yi’s departure for India, The Global Times, a tabloid widely seen as the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, warned New Delhi that its seemingly inimical posture on the South China Sea (SCS) was potentially damaging for bilateral ties and could create obstacles for Indian businesses in China.

"Instead of unnecessary entanglements with China over the South China Sea debate during Wang's visit," an editorial in the newspaper declared, "India must create a good atmosphere for economic cooperation, including the reduction of tariffs…amid the ongoing free trade talks."

Also read: Wrong to criticise India over South China Sea stance

Indian observers say China is worried that India could join other countries in raising the controversial issue of SCS in the G20 summit to be held in Hangzhou next month (September).

With the United States certain to rake up the UN tribunal’s rejection of Chinese claims within the "nine-dash line", China is taking pre-emptive measures to ensure it has adequate support for its own position on the matter. Lobbying New Delhi seems part of a broader Chinese plan to counter moves by Washington and its supporters to push Beijing on the defensive.

Wang’s sharp opening salvo, however, mustn’t prevent Modi and Swaraj from speaking their mind. For three reasons, India’s political elite must make it clear that New Delhi feels compelled to take a principled stand on the disputes in the SCS.

First, Indian trade and economic linkages in the Pacific are becoming stronger and deeper. Not only are ASEAN and the far-eastern Pacific key target areas of the "Act East" policy, the Southeast Asian commons are increasingly a vital facilitator of India’s economic development.

With growing dependence on the Malacca Strait for the flow of goods and services, and a tenfold increase in India-ASEAN trade during the past decade, economics is increasingly a factor in India’s Pacific policy.

Wang must know that territorial conflicts in the SCS threaten the future trajectory of India’s economic development, creating an unacceptable impediment for regional trade and commerce.

Second, China’s foreign minister must be apprised of New Delhi’s view that the disputes in the Southeast Asian littorals are a litmus test for international maritime law. With its growing stature in the league of maritime states, India has an obligation to take a principled stand on the issue of freedom of navigation and commercial access as enshrined in the UNCLOS.

Also read: China doesn't want ties with India and US doesn't want to get involved


The presence of armed Chinese naval ships, aircraft and submarines in key littoral spaces in the SCS, New Delhi must say plainly, is a transgression that India cannot be seen to be condoning.

Lastly, India must question China’s maritime intentions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Since 2013, China’s undersea presence in the South Asian littorals has been a cause of growing strategic concern in India. With Beijing deploying Chinese submarines under the flimsy pretext of anti-piracy operations, New Delhi believes the PLAN (People's Liberation Army navy) is preparing for a larger strategic thrust in the Indian Ocean.

Also read: While Beijing builds in South China Sea, India dithers over its own

Wang must be sensitised of the possibility that Chinese aggression in the SCS might destabilise the wider Asian littorals by exacerbating existing power asymmetries. By taking a principled stand on the territorial disputes, China’s foreign minister must be assured that India only hopes to contribute to the restoration of a fair and equitable maritime order.

There are, of course, things that New Delhi cannot officially tell Beijing. For instance, the correlation that Indian maritime analysts discern between aggressive Chinese patrolling in the SCS and its growing deployments in the IOR; or the suspicion in Indian strategic circles that China might use its SCS bases as a springboard for active projection of power in the Indian Ocean.

Many Indian analysts, in fact, view China’s aggressive response to the UN Arbitral Tribunal’s verdict as part of a broader strategy to project power in Asia’s critical littoral spaces.

Two aspects about India’s view of the SCS dispute, however, might interest Wang.

First, irrespective of the claims and counter-claims by China and its neighbours, Indian observers believe Beijing operates from a position of strength in the SCS, wherein it has physical possession over critical islands.

New Delhi’s strategic calculus, however, is bound to be impacted by China’s militarisation of its islands – particularly the deployment of missiles, fighters and surveillance equipment, allowing the PLAN effective control over the entire range of maritime operations in the SCS.

Secondly, India’s maritime observers realise that the central implement of Chinese maritime tactics in the SCS are its militia forces. China’s surveillance ships, coast guard vessels and fishing fleets are the real force behind its dominance of the littoral spaces.

Also read: How South China Sea dispute affects India

With the expansion of Chinese maritime activities in the IOR, there is a possibility that the presence of “non-grey” hulls in the Eastern Indian Ocean might gradually rise.

Already, China’s distant water fishing fleet is now the world’s largest, and is a heavily subsidised maritime commercial entity. While an increase in the presence of such ships doesn’t always pose a security threat, India remains wary of Chinese non-military maritime activity in the Eastern Indian Ocean.

That said, nothing lays bare Indian anxieties, as much as the prospect of Chinese naval bases in the IOR. India’s China sceptics are convinced Beijing’s blueprint for maritime operations in the Indian Ocean involves the construction of multiple logistical facilities.

A ten-year agreement with Djibouti in 2015 for the setting up of a naval replenishment facility in the northern Obock region is widely seen by Indian experts as proof of Beijing’s strategic ambitions in the IOR.

This does not mean New Delhi is going to bandwagon with the United States in an effort to contain China. To the contrary, Indian policymakers are clear that naval manoeuvres in the SCS emphasising "freedom of navigation" are a risky proposition. While India would like to see all parties act in accordance with the law, Wang must be reassured that New Delhi will not take sides on the territorial disputes.

Even so, the possibility that China might eclipse India in its own "backyard" will continue to drive a security response in New Delhi, even as it seeks to strengthen Indian naval presence in its near and extended waters.

Of course, Indian leaders will not articulate the entire range of Indian anxieties over Chinese maritime operations in Asia. But Wang must be told that a compromise deal with India on the South China Sea is a non-starter.


Abhijit Singh Abhijit Singh @abhijit227

The writer is senior fellow and head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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