South China Sea is one of the most difficult and contentious maritime conflicts in the Asia Pacific. Several scholars have echoed the sentiments that the South China Sea conflict would be worst case threat to peace and stability in the region. The concerns are further strengthened with China’s continued military build up, despite the 2002 Joint Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea. China’s assertive posture in the South China Sea is of great concern especially with India unfolding its Act East Asia Policy.
The Modi Government has realised the importance of the South China Sea both in terms of its geo-economic and strategic interests. To further strengthen the relationship with South East Asian countries, India pledges to be a credible security provider. At the 2014 East Asian Summit, India along with the United States and Vietnam affirmed its support to safeguard maritime security and freedom of navigation. Further, India has been very vocal in the settling the dispute through peaceful means and in a accordance with the UNCLOS.
Several reasons have been attributed to India’s interest in the South China Sea (SCS) (1) The increased trade with East Asia and the sense for recognition on the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) from the Indian side beyond its geographical expanse and the importance of the Indo-Pacific region (2) Reducing dependency on the major powers for India’s avowed maritime needs (3) India’s fear of growing China’s assertiveness in the Indian Ocean region (4) The importance of forward maritime presence and naval partnership is seen critical to deter India’s adversaries in the region (5) Securing the trade-transit route which passes through the South China Sea all vital to India’s growing trade, energy and security interests ( Raja C Mohan, Samudra Manthan).
As India unfolds its maritime security posture and interest, there is a strong commitment from the Indian side to realign with several South East Asian countries. India is seen as a a vital player in the region, and Southeast Asian countries are keen to partner with India both economically and strategically. India’s inertia to expand towards to East unfolds, this is also a step to contain China’s expanding maritime interest. India’s participation in several East Asian forums is seen as a counter balance move initiated by the Southeast Asian countries. Thus India is welcomed as an external balancer along with the Untied States.
Indian Navy 2007 Doctrine defined “South China Sea as an area of strategic interest” for India and the recent Act East Asia strategy has further reiterated India’s commitment to move beyond the Indian Ocean into the South China Sea. At several occasions India stated that it could or would deploy India Navy to the South China Sea to defends its energy interests.
With India’s maritime discourse expanding and 55% of India’s trade passing through this region, it is imperative that India pursues its interest in the region. The Indo-Pacific trilateral with India, Japan and United States further revitalises India’s presence in the region. Thus the adoption of the Indo-Pacific region into the strategic framework has cumulatively summed up the relevance of South China Sea for India.
Priya Suresh is a Research Scholar@Takshashila. Priya tweets @priyamanassa.