Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 19 April 2024

India’s nuanced approach in the South China Sea

News Excerpt:

There is a shift in New Delhi’s approach to the South China Sea (SCS). New Delhi’s strategic recalibration recognises the South China Sea’s critical importance to regional security and the global maritime order.

More About the News: 

  • In March 2024 during the Philippines visit, the Indian External Affairs Minister emphasized that India fully supports the nation in maintaining its sovereignty. 
    • This statement comes at a time when Manila and Beijing have witnessed the most volatile year in 2023 with frequent tensions on the sea and diplomatic front.
  • In 2023, a joint statement between New Delhi and Manila emphasized the importance of China adhering to maritime regulations and recognizing the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) 2016 ruling favouring Manila. 
  • These statements reflect a shifting approach by India, departing from its previous cautious and neutral stance on the South China Sea. 
    • India's evolving position mirrors its broader strategic and economic goals on the global stage, advocating for international maritime law, sovereignty, and sovereign rights in the SCS with clearer articulation.

Key Concepts:

  • Indo-Pacific Concept: The concept of the "Indo-Pacific" as a geo-strategic construct is more than just a geographical region reflecting the growing interconnectedness and strategic significance of the region spanning from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Geo-strategic Shift and US Engagement: The shift of the geo-economy from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific, along with China's rise, has increased its strategic significance in the region. The US aims to maintain its pre-eminence in the region, despite shifts in foreign policy under different administrations.
  • India's Role and Engagement: India's engagement with the Asia-Pacific, including initiatives like the "Act East" policy, reflects its rising power status. 
  • India's Stakes in the SCS: India has significant economic interests in the SCS, as it utilizes the waterways for a substantial portion of its trade with the Indo-Pacific region. 
    • India's engagement in oil exploration activities in partnership with Vietnam has drawn objections from China, indicating overlapping interests and tensions.
  • Strategic Importance: India views the SCS as a vital component of its maritime security and regional engagement strategy. It aims to ensure freedom of navigation and access to resources in the SCS, aligning with its broader Indo-Pacific vision and Act East policy.
  • Historical Approach: India has historically adopted a cautious and diplomatic stance in the SCS disputes, emphasizing maritime cooperation, peaceful settlement of disputes, and adherence to international law. However, recent geopolitical shifts, including the Galwan Valley clash with China in 2020, have prompted India to reassess its approach and become more vocal in its concerns.

A policy shift: 

  • Initially, New Delhi's involvement in the region was primarily driven by economic motives, aligned with its Look East Policy. 
    • This policy aimed at bolstering economic ties with Southeast Asia and securing energy resources crucial for its burgeoning economy. 
  • Indian state-owned enterprises, such as ONGC Videsh, engaging in oil and gas projects in Vietnam's exclusive economic zones underscored India's economic interests and its commitment to the freedom of exploration and exploitation of maritime resources within the framework of international law, notably UNCLOS. 
  • India's policy orientation transitioned from Look East to Act East, signalling a move towards a more proactive and strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific region. This evolution reflects India's recognition of the shifting geopolitical dynamics and the necessity for a comprehensive foreign policy strategy. 
  • The Act East Policy prioritizes economic integration and emphasizes strategic partnerships and enhanced security cooperation with Indo-Pacific nations, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. 
  • Simultaneously, India has bolstered its own capabilities through measures such as forward positioning, mission-based deployments, heightened maritime domain awareness, and the development of deep-water maritime facilities.

India's intricate relationship with China: 

  • China's assertiveness in the SCS and its incremental encroachment strategy in various maritime domains, including the Indian Ocean, has raised concerns for India. 
    • Chinese intelligence-gathering activities in the Eastern Indian Ocean have heightened India's vigilance, prompting a more proactive stance in response to perceived threats to its maritime security. 
  • Amid escalating geopolitical tensions in the SCS, largely fueled by China's assertive territorial claims and militarization efforts, India's stance has evolved into a more nuanced yet less cautious approach. 
  • This shift in India's position regarding the SCS is closely intertwined with its complex relationship with China. The two nations have a longstanding history of border disputes, which intensified following the Galwan Valley incident in 2020. China's periodic incursions into Indian territory and recent actions such as renaming Indian villages in Arunachal Pradesh further exacerbate these tensions. 
  • The Galwan Valley incident also prompted India to deploy a frontline warship to the SCS, showcasing India's asymmetric deterrence capabilities. 
    • China's assertive posture and territorial claims in both the South China Sea and along India's land border pose significant challenges to regional stability. 
  • India's strategic engagements, including regular naval exercises and enhanced military cooperation with Southeast Asian nations, serve dual purposes: reaffirm India's commitment to regional security and act as a counterbalance to China's unlawful assertions.

The ASEAN Dimension: 

  • New Delhi's strategic adjustment stems from recognizing the crucial significance of the SCS for regional security and the global maritime order. The disputes involving China and various ASEAN nations in the SCS impact the principles of freedom of navigation and overflight, which are vital not only for India's trade and energy transport but also for countries worldwide. 
  • As a responsible participant in the Indo-Pacific, India cannot avoid taking clear positions on such critical matters. 
    • Its pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific extends its sphere beyond the Indian Ocean to the broader maritime domain, where China's ascent challenges the established order in unforeseen ways. 
    • India's Indo-Pacific strategy emphasizes ASEAN centrality, despite internal differences within the regional grouping posing challenges. 
  • India's advocacy for a rule-based international maritime order, particularly its support for UNCLOS, opposes unilateral actions jeopardizing regional stability. 
    • This stance, rooted in India's principled foreign policy, indirectly challenges China's expansive territorial assertions and activities in the SCS, demonstrating India's commitment to regional stability and security as a responsible stakeholder.

Challenges and Options for India: 

  • India faces challenges in navigating the complexities of the SCS disputes, particularly given the diverse interests within ASEAN. 
    • While ASEAN countries vary in their approaches to the disputes, India seeks to maintain a balance between supporting regional partners and avoiding direct involvement in confrontational scenarios. 
    • India is exploring various options, including capacity-building initiatives, defence cooperation, infrastructure development, and advocacy for upholding international law in the SCS.


India's shift in approach to the SCS disputes is driven by a combination of strategic imperatives, geopolitical developments, and regional dynamics. India's nuanced approach to the South China Sea reflects its broader strategy to protect its interests while contributing to collective efforts aimed at preserving peace, stability, and adherence to international law in the Indo-Pacific region.

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