India and the South China Sea
According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, the risk of conflict in the South China Sea is significant. While the six countries – Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan claim some parts of land in the sea, China claims the entire region. As a result, disputes between China and the six countries have cropped up. In fact, 51% of the Vietnamese and 61% of Filipinos fear that this regional conflict with China can escalate into a military one. The six countries have begun to rapidly expand their military capabilities and form partnerships among themselves.
However, a conflict between China and Vietnam or Philippines will certainly not just be limited to these countries. The United States (US) and Japan are bound to get pulled into it. Not to mention, the impact of this conflict can be massive as some of the world’s largest and most advanced militaries will fight against each other. The US can be heavily involved in the conflict because of its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. If it fails to protect the Philippines, it will lose its credibility in this region and among its other allies. Other non-participant countries are also bound to feel the burn of this war.
Apart from China and Japan, India is the only other major power in the region to be affected by the ongoing conflict. It can either get pulled into this directly if its sovereignty is threatened or indirectly by helping the US and Japan. While it has always preferred not taking any position in this conflict, if India gets involved, the extent of this involvement is what needs to be seen.
The region is abundant in oil, natural gas and other resources. India has an interest in two oil blocks off the coast of Vietnam and has invested in oil and gas exploration in this region. Additionally, one-third of the world’s shipping and more than half of India’s trade passes through these waters. Absolute freedom of navigation is thus crucial not only to India but to other countries as well.
India also shares good economic and diplomatic relation with all the countries in this region. Since the 1990s, its relations with the ASEAN countries have constantly improved especially after Prime Minister Modi came to power. India strongly believes that the concerned countries should solve the issues through peaceful means. However, China’s pugnacious behavior in the past few years has been such that India can no longer refuse to stay out of this.
China is trying to strengthen its position in South Asia. While Pakistan is already China’s closest ally, a close friendship is blooming between China and Sri Lanka as well. China’s “string of pearls” policy may well be only for commercial purposes, but it cannot be ignored by India.
According to India’s 2015 Maritime Security Strategy, India considers the region of South China Sea as a “secondary zone of interest.” Taking all this into account, when the time comes, India should take a strong position against China in the South China Sea.
India and the US have been carrying out bilateral naval exercise since 1992. In 2015, Japan became a permanent partner of this exercise called Exercise Malabar. In 2016, the three countries will be conducting the exercise in Okinawa water near the disputed Senkaku Islands. This exercise is a way to show China the growing cooperation, strength and friendship among these three countries. It is high time, China needs to feel the heat.
Moreover, India’s new allies, Japan and the US can turn to it for assistance. The US wants India’s naval forces to be such that they act as a counterbalance to Chinese forces both in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. This is indeed how it should be. If India wants to reinforce its image as a regional power alongside China and a rising superpower in the world then it needs to make its presence felt through stronger military actions.
Most importantly, if China is not deterred at this point then it soon could start a similar policy of building islands/annexing the existing ones in the Indian Ocean. As unrealistic as this may sound, it is not completely impossible. History is replete with incidents when China annexed small parts of mainland Indian in Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. Thus, maintaining the balance of power in this region is extremely necessary for India.