By Byron Chong*
The ongoing disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have been regarded as one of the most enduring and complicated regional conflicts in the Asia-Pacific. The disputes involve China along with several states in the region and encompass issues such as overlapping territorial claims and access to critical resources like energy and fisheries. Within this turbulent environment, India has been expanding its influence through implementing its Look East Policy (LEP). This has not been taken well by China, who has for years tried to curb New Delhi’s growing involvement in the SCS. India’s decision to involve itself in such a complex environment, even at the risk of provoking its giant neighbor, demonstrates the significance it places on the region and its sea lanes.
The SCS is located in a region of great strategic interest for India. Geographically, it connects the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea via the Malacca Straits, which is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. This important waterway serves as a vital economic artery for the South Asian state. Up to 97 percent of India’s total international trade volume is sea-borne, half of which, passes through the straits. In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) constitutes one of India’s largest trade partners, with total trade valued at $71 billion in 2016/2017.
Energy is another component of India’s interest in the SCS. In 2015, India became the third largest oil consumer in the world, with industry experts predicting that its energy consumption would continue to grow by 4.2 percent annually. Already importing up to 80 percent of its total oil requirements, India will likely need to secure new energy sources as domestic demand rises. The potential energy deposits in the SCS have thus drawn New Delhi’s attention. In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated the region to contain up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserves. As such, India has been continually involved in offshore energy development projects in the SCS since the early 1990s, bidding for new oil and gas blocks and conducting oil exploration in the region.
The region’s economic importance translates into national security interests for New Delhi. With half of its maritime trade passing through the Malacca Straits, any instability in the SCS would adversely affect the shipping lanes and have a knock-on effect on India’s economy. Similarly, should a potentially hostile power come to control this region, it could threaten India’s access to this vital waterway. New Delhi’s involvement in the SCS thus, focuses on three objectives. First, to ensure peace and stability in the region and keep the vital sea lanes open; second, to maintain cordial relations with regional powers; and third, to ensure that no potentially aggressive external power comes to dominate the region.
Through the LEP, New Delhi has pursued these objectives by seeking to intensify its engagement with ASEAN states. Besides increased economic engagement, strategic cooperation was expanded through joint naval exercises, generous lines of credit, military training, and sales of military hardware with regional states. Moreover, the enhanced presence of Indian military assets in the area not only served to protect the sea lanes, but also provided ‘domain awareness’ of potential regional developments.
Engagement also served to counter China’s growing influence in the region. India’s relationship with its giant neighbor has been difficult and tenuous. Both sides have been embroiled in a long, ongoing border dispute that resulted in a war in 1962 and till today remains a source of tension that has resulted in occasional crises. This has perpetuated the sense of suspicion and mistrust between the two. As the Doklam standoff in 2017 shows, conflict between the two sides remains a very real prospect. Hence, from New Delhi’s perspective, it is imperative that the SCS does not turn into a ‘Chinese lake.’
Managing the region’s competing territorial disputes has required shrewd diplomatic awareness and delicate balancing from India. On one hand, the South Asian state wants to maintain friendly relations with the various SCS claimants; on the other, it has to avoid excessively provoking its Chinese neighbor. In New Delhi’s view, while activities such as energy exploration and weapon sales to the region would incur Beijing’s disapproval, such ventures are unlikely to instigate anything more than a verbal response from the Chinese. Taking a stand on the territorial disputes is another matter. China has repeatedly described the SCS as a “core interest”, indicating its willingness to use force to protect its claims. Thus, India’s stand on the issue has been one of deliberate ambiguity – not favoring any one side, but instead advocating freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On the South China Sea Arbitration ruling in 2016, India, which had not taken sides in the dispute, urged all parties to respect and uphold the verdict of the UNCLOS-based tribunal.
Recent developments in the SCS, however, have been a source of concern for New Delhi. China, which lays claim to 85 percent of the contested region, has been reclaiming and militarizing features in its possession. Between 2013 and 2016, China was reported to have reclaimed seven islands and built military installations including airfields, radar systems and missile bases on its reclaimed possessions in the area. Furthermore, Chinese vessels in the area have been known to act aggressively, harassing and intimidating vessels of other nations into steering clear of islands they claim. In response, other SCS claimants have also begun augmenting their deterrence capabilities on their islands with infrastructure such as coastal defenses, airfields and surveillance systems. Rather than peace, such actions have generated tension and destabilized the region.
Even the United States (US), once a strong proponent for ‘freedom of navigation’ in the region, has been of little help to India. During his first year in office, President Trump failed to show any willingness to challenge Beijing over its behavior in the SCS. The new administration seemed to lack a clear policy towards the SCS, choosing to focus its attention instead on North Korea. More recently however, there are signs that change may be on the horizon. In late 2017, the once dormant Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a defense partnership involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia – made a sudden comeback, indicating the growing unease over China’s rise. The recently unveiled U.S. military strategy also indicates a shift in focus back towards China and Russia. While it is too early to tell how well this plan will be carried out under this administration, the U.S. is likely to seek closer ties with India as a counterweight to China’s regional dominance. Furthermore, it may also signal Washington’s renewed interest to check Beijing’s behavior in the SCS.
What does the future hold for the SCS? New Delhi’s decision to recently host all ten ASEAN heads of state shows its intention to buckle down on its policy of strengthening ties with the region. Beijing’s policy in the SCS also seems unlikely to change. It has already swung the opinion of states like Malaysia and the Philippines, who have since softened their stances, and chosen to focus on cooperation with the Asian giant. With or without the U.S., India will have to continue to strengthen its ties with the region and play a part in managing its turbulent waters.
* Byron Chong is a Research Assistant at the Centre on Asia & Globalisation in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He graduated from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies with a Masters in Strategic Studies. His research interests focus on Sino-Indian relations and international security in Asia.
The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.
Featured Image: As part of the ongoing sea trials, the first indigenously built, Scorpene class submarine Kalvari undertook it’s first torpedo firing on 26 May 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)