India's Involvement in South China Sea dispute has to be seen in the context of ‘Offensive-Defence Strategy’ in foreign policy that is covertly being pursued by New Delhi under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It serves national interest because India has legitimate security concerns with China in several areas; be it land boundary disputes, maritime time issues, trade and commerce, strategic perceptions, Chinese offensive postures has menacingly threatened India’s national interests.
While China has been pursuing such ‘offensive- defensive’ strategy against India for a long time through its policies like; 'string of pearls', one belt one road, developing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, increasing presence in Indian Ocean region, India so far has been reluctant to counter such challenges.
It is only recently that India has decided to act as a ‘game changer’ and adopted an ‘offensive defensive’ strategy and to counter China has got involved in the South China Sea dispute.
The South China Sea dispute involves island and maritime claims of several sovereign states of the region who contest China's claim over such territory. This includes’ Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam that are directly involved in the South China Sea dispute with China.
While, these countries question China’s claim of its sovereignty over the region, China does not recognize them and claims the islands and maritime lanes are within the nine-dash line (now ten-dash) and are a part of its own territory.
China is opposed to the internationalization of the South China Sea disputes and demand that such conflict should be resolved bilaterally without the intervention or mediation from any other nation or multilateral institutions.
There are two prime reasons why this dispute has become a global flash point. One, if China is allowed to control over the South China Sea, it can have direct impact on global maritime trade that passes through the South China Sea. Second, the entire Southeast Asian region will get destabilized and that will have chilling impact on the rest of the world.
India is not a direct party in the South China Sea dispute and in best of its interest it may like to have an amicable relationship both with China as well as ASEAN nations. As of now India’s official position is; South China Sea dispute should not be "internationalized" and all the parties concerned should resolve it bilaterally. However, it’s economic, maritime and strategic interest demands maintaining freedom of passage for maritime trade through the South China Seas. This compels India to get involved in South China Sea dispute.
South China Sea sees a heavy percentage of world trade that passes through Malacca Strait a part of South China Sea. India’s 55 % of trade passes through Strait of Malacca which opens into South China Sea. If China controls the region, it will upset the global trade practices and countries like India will directly get affected. Any belligerent action by China can hamper India’s foreign trade passing through that region. Therefore, India has a stake in ensuring freedom of navigation in the region. If China is successful in controlling the sea lanes, India would lose international trade route or pay extra to China to keep it restored. India does not want this to happen and thus it is compelled to get involved in South China Sea dispute to safeguard its economic interests.
India has legitimate strategic concerns because any military conflict in South China Sea will have ramification on the Indian Ocean region. It may hamper regional security situation and in such case India’s relationship with South East Asian countries may get disrupted. So South China Sea is very important to India from strategic point of view.
India though geographically far away from South China Sea overtly maintains a distance from any involvement in this dispute. However, the recent developments suggest that India's interest in the South China Sea dispute is over growing.
This is borne out from the announcement made by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at different platforms like ASEAN Summit and his joint statements made with several countries like USA, Japan Philippines and Vietnam also specifically mentions South China Sea dispute.
There are few other factors that compel India to play a major role in South China Sea dispute. One in wake of weakening American alliance in Asia, US want India to play a role in regional security issues such as South China Sea dispute.
Second, China’s over growing ambitions has chilling effect on India’s security architecture and New Delhi likes to counter China by getting involved in South China Sea dispute.
Third there is global maritime security interest involved in the region and many nations want India to balance the assertive and rising China and like it to get involved in the dispute to maintain peace and security in the region.
Fourth, India’s Act East policy necessitates economic and defense ties with Southeast Asian countries and many of them want India to play a major role in resolving the South China Sea dispute. It appears India is more willing to listen to its ASEAN friends by seeing its growing involvement in the dispute.
Fifth, India having a voice in a major regional security issue confers its prestige that commensurate with its regional power status. This has necessitated India to get involved in shaping the security architecture of the Indo-pacific region. In such context, India along with the U.S. and other powers is gearing to play major role as security provider in the region.
Last but not the least, India’s South China Sea policy is a test case of ‘offensive defensive; foreign policy pursued by New Delhi. It is used for deterring China to maintain its hands off policy towards India. As such this policy serves such limited reasons to maintain an even relationship with China.
Finally, even though India is not a party to the South China Sea dispute it has all the reasons to maintain peace in its backyard. This has compelled India to get involved in South China Sea dispute primarily for three reasons; one to maintain maritime security, second to develop close ties with ASEAN countries to fulfill its Act East policy and third to counter China in the Indian Ocean region.
Last, India as neutral observer can assert its weight on the region in partnership with several other nations to resolve the South China Sea dispute. In such endeavor India’s offensive defensive strategy appears to serve its purpose without souring India-China relationship.
-Syed Ali Mujtaba