India Wades Into South China Sea Dispute
Image Credit: Office of India's Prime Minister

India Wades Into South China Sea Dispute

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Recent remarks by ASEAN and Indian officials suggest that Delhi is looking to deepen its involvement in the South China Sea issue.

Most notable are the remarks Shri Anil Wadhwa, Secretary (East) of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, made last week at the Delhi Dialogue VI, an annual ASEAN-India dialogue. Speaking to the journalists at the conference, Wadhwa said:

“We advocate that the lines, the channels of trade and communication should be kept open and of course the sea, which, according to UN (United Nations) international law of the sea, is common to all the countries that use it. Definitely we are concerned.”

Later, he added, “Our position has always been India stands for freedom of navigation on high seas. We would like to ensure that all countries in the region adhere to the international conventions on the law of the sea in this issue.” He also stressed the centrality of ASEAN and urged restraint among all the parties, according to reports in the Philippine media.

In his opening address to the Delhi Dialogue last week, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, espoused a similar if in direct theme. Noting that an important dimension of the ASEAN-India “strategic partnership is its increasing relevance to the political-security space in East Asia,” Khurshid said that Delhi supports, “the ASEAN view which calls for greater ASEAN India collaboration on political-security issues.”

Khurshid also emphasized the importance of upholding existing international law on maritime security, and stated: “India’s naval footprint is essentially that of a net security provider even as it is set to expand. There is also potential for greater engagement between ASEAN and India in the ARF, ADMM+ and ASEAN Maritime Forum.”

These remarks follow ones made earlier this month by National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, who said, “What happens in the South China Sea or the East China Sea concerns and affects the entire region…Conflict would roll back the gains to each of our countries of 40 years of stability and peace.”

Similarly, at the East Asia Summit last October, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated, ““A stable maritime environment is essential to realize our collective regional aspirations.”

He later added:

“We welcome the collective commitment by the concerned countries to abide by and implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and to work towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus. We also welcome the establishment of the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum for developing maritime norms that would reinforce existing international law relating to maritime security.”

India has long been involved on the margins of the South China Sea issue. Most notably, it has been pursuing joint energy development opportunities with Vietnam in waters that both Hanoi and China claim. Altogether, some 55 percent of India’s trade passes through the Strait of Malacca.

However, Delhi has always tried to balance these very real interests with its predilection to not offend China by wading too deeply into South China Sea affairs, mostly out of the fear that such a move could prompt Beijing to deepen its own naval operations in the Indian Ocean.

Nonetheless, the Indian Navy first deployed to the South China Sea in 2000, and, in a pointed message to China, it has at times threatened to send naval assets to the region to protect its energy investments in the waters near Vietnam.

For their own part, ASEAN nations have long called on India to deepen its involvement in the South China Sea issue. Laura Q. Del Rosario, the Philippines’ deputy minister for international economic relations, recently insisted that “India should go East, and not just Look East.”

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