Our naval manoeuvres in these waters annoy China but such bold signalling plays a role in safeguarding national interests
by Harsh V Pant
Signalling is important international relations. How a nation is perceived by its friends and adversaries, in large measure, shapes its role in strategic spaces. For a long time, India, through its actions, had given an impression that it remains reluctant to challenge China, while China, through its actions, had been categorical in challenging India’s vital national interests. This asymmetry had given rise to perceptions of India as a nation that is diffident when it comes to taking on China. Of course, the capability differential between the two nations limits New Delhi’s space for strategic manoeuvres, but perceptions of India walking on eggshells not to antagonize Beijing did not do New Delhi any favours. While the rest of the world saw India as a country unwilling to challenge the status quo, Beijing itself could not be appeased.
Yet, structural challenges like the one India faces with China have a way of resolving themselves. The shock of last year’s border clash and continuing tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has upended most assumptions underlying India’s China policy. One by one, all aspects of India’s approach towards China have been found wanting and New Delhi has had to recalibrate it. In a major message to Beijing, the Indian Navy made its presence felt in the waters of the South China Sea this month when a task force of four warships sailed on a two-month deployment that included last week’s Malabar 2021 naval exercises with India’s Quad partners, the United States, Japan and Australia, but also bilateral exercises with naval forces from South China Sea littoral states, including Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.
While New Delhi has claimed that these maritime initiatives are aimed at enhancing synergy and coordination between the Indian Navy and friendly countries, based on common maritime interests and a commitment towards freedom of navigation at sea, there is no doubt which country the Indian presence in South China Sea is aimed at. At a time when tensions with China are high along the LAC, India is signalling that it is not willing to take Chinese aggression lying down and is indeed willing to challenge China in the maritime sphere with other like-minded nations.
The South China Sea is claimed by Beijing as its sovereign territory almost in its entirety, and those claims have been buttressed by its construction of artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapon systems. However, several ASEAN member countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, have counterclaims, which have been rebuffed by Beijing, ignoring all maritime norms. Not surprisingly, amid a sharpening of contestation between China and the West, the waters of South China Sea are roiling. In recent weeks, a British aircraft carrier strike group and an American surface action group have marked their presence, and forces from China’s People’s Liberation Army have been staging exercises in it.
India has wider stakes in South China Sea as nearly 55% of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region passes through these waters. New Delhi’s interest is primarily to keep the region’s trade routes safe and secure, thereby helping uphold regional stability and freedom of navigation. India’s own economic prosperity and that of the region depend on a stable maritime order with sea lanes kept open. The idea of the Indo-Pacific as a single maritime zone makes it impossible for India or any other state to ignore Chinese manoeuvres in the South China Sea. Indian strategic thinking can no longer afford to ignore this sea. Towards that end, India has been pushing for a rules-based order in the region, including by means of upholding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The fiasco in Afghanistan notwithstanding, America’s Joe Biden administration is also seeking a greater role for US partners and allies in the region as it challenges China’s drive for regional hegemony. In July, Washington underlined that “nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea”. “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway,” added the US. And last month, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin underscored the importance of greater regional cooperation when he stated that the United States was “encouraged to see our friends building stronger security ties with one another, further reinforcing the array of partnerships that keeps aggression at bay.”
New Delhi is willing to reciprocate and play its role, as seen in its recent deployment of Indian Navy vessels. India has sought to highlight its “operational reach, peaceful presence and solidarity with friendly countries” towards “ensuring good order in the maritime domain and to strengthen existing bonds between India and countries of the Indo Pacific.”
With China gaining greater operational control over the disputed territories in the South China Sea, the challenge for India is rising by the day, especially in the eastern Indian Ocean. Ignoring this is not a sustainable option. Greater activism, both diplomatic and military, is needed and is beginning to shape up. In a virtual address at a meeting of the East Asia Summit recently, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar stressed that any Code of Conduct in the South China Sea should be fully consistent with the relevant UN convention and that negotiations on it should not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of nations that are not party to these discussions.
As China’s presence continues to grow in the Indian Ocean region, much to India’s discomfiture, New Delhi is waking up to the challenge by trying to increase its presence and influence in China’s backyard—the western Pacific. This will annoy Beijing, but rattling China is necessary if India is to suitably protect its interests from the Himalayas to the maritime domain.
Harsh V Pant is professor of international relations, King’s College London