India’s approaches to the South China Sea

Balancing priorities and prioritising balance

Ulises Granados

International relations, South China Sea | East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

3 April 2018

India must play a careful game as it balances its security, economic development and relationship with China, writes Ulises Granados.

During the last four years, India has advanced its Act East Policy, an upgraded version of the 1990s Look East Policy. The new approach now encompasses a more robust political and security engagement with Asia, an area spanning from the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean.

As its economic and geopolitical importance has grown, India’s pursuit of economic security has moved beyond the country’s immediate geographic realm (the subcontinent and the IOR). New Delhi is now increasingly fostering economic, political and diplomatic bonds with selected East Asian states and the US.

India today is less constrained by its traditional non-aligned principles in international relations, more engaged in the realpolitik of the world, and as a more proactive actor in Asian security issues. Its security agenda has been particularly attentive to China’s recent activities in the South China Sea. India’s main security concern in the South China Sea is the guarantee of freedom of navigation – something that Indian diplomatic and military officials have consistently expressed to China in several fora.

By stipulating freedom of navigation as its most relevant security concern, India has promptly responded to recent Chinese activities in this maritime area via diplomacy in the region, by working with actors outside Southeast Asia – mainly the US and Japan – and through naval strategy.

More on this: India's expanding security sphere

And yet, the overall India-China bilateral relationship continues to reflect both cooperation and competition. From unresolved border issues to an increasing Chinese presence in the IOR itself, the competitive aspects of the bilateral relationship conceal the extent to which economic forces are moving the two countries towards cooperation.

India and China’s shared economic interests include community building in East Asia, economic integration through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and coordination within the ‘Brazil Russia India China and South Africa’ (BRICS) forum. However, China’s conciliatory economic policy towards India comes as Beijing is pushing its maritime consolidation in the South China Sea. This consolidation includes the upgrade of China’s facilities in the Spratly Islands and its dismissal of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling.

In its relations with China, India must carefully balance objectives and prioritise goals. Moreover, New Delhi’s responses to the recent events in the South China Sea – in the form of a greater naval presence, as well as modest energy exploration activities – are constrained by its fundamental objectives.

These objectives involve avoiding escalations that might have an impact on its security; maintaining growing levels of trade with its partners, especially China; and developing a naval strategy that is fully ‘Indo-Pacific’ in nature.

In fact, security threats continue to dominate the mindset of India’s policy circles, from terrorism and border instability on the subcontinent to China’s recent economic and naval advances in the IOR.

In the South China Sea, India might soon decide whether or not to project full naval power, even though this maritime region is still considered as a secondary area in its recent maritime strategies. India’s aspiration to become a major power in East Asia, among other policies to consolidate it as a proactive member of the maritime community, means the country needs to upgrade its naval strategy to fully address the importance of the South China Sea for its economic security.

More on this: India's challenge to China

India’s future policy towards the South China Sea might not necessarily involve the containment of China in tandem with the United States, Australia and Japan, as some are now suggesting. Nor need it involve freedom of navigation operations. Rather, New Delhi’s approach to the South China Sea may come in the form of upgraded security cooperation to face non-traditional threats such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Indian diplomacy seeks a delicate balance whereby it will continue to moderately develop cooperation with the navies of the US, Japan and ASEAN to address China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. But it will only do so to the extent that such regional coordination does not affect New Delhi’s core economic or other strategic interests, particularly in the IOR.

New Delhi’s long-term maritime development strategy should include more investment in Southeast Asian maritime infrastructure, efforts to improve port capacity with partners and allies alike, and the construction of a robust commercial fleet at home. Its short and mid-term priorities with China must include searching for mechanisms to foster maritime cooperation and guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. These are outcomes that are possible to devise and operationalise, as the first Maritime Affairs Dialogue proved in 2016.

At the end of the day, the relationship between India and China still encompasses relevant security priorities for India beyond the South China Sea. These may lead both countries onto the path of bilateral cooperation and serve the ultimate purpose of invigorating India’s Act East Policy for years to come.

This article is based on the authors’ paper in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies: ‘India’s approaches to the South China Sea: priorities and balances’. All papers in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies are free to read and download.

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