As The Diplomat reported earlier on Monday, this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was one of the more productive multilateral meetings in the Asia-Pacific region in recent memory. Although no progress was made towards resolving the South China Sea disputes that have become the region’s main flashpoint, diplomats interacted cordially at the ministerial-level meeting, which included the ASEAN states, the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and India (among others). For India, this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum represented an important opportunity to assert its interests in the Southeast Asian region. The Indian delegation, led by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, affirmed its commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes and the freedom of navigation in the region.
Since having acquired a new government in May, India has been keen to restore its regional leadership within South Asia and revive its “Look-East” Policy, which prioritized the country’s partnerships with ASEAN states. Although the Indian presence at this year’s ARF was somewhat overshadowed by some high-level diplomatic progress between China and Japan, and the ASEAN foreign ministers’ joint statement, India made its position in Southeast Asia known. In her speech at this year’s forum in Napyidaw, Myanmar, Swaraj noted that recent disputes in the South China Sea, particularly the crisis involving China and Vietnam over oil rig HYSY-981, highlight “the need to resolve sovereignty issues peacefully by the countries concerned in accordance with international law.” The Indian position is thus consistent with the position taken by the two major regional disputants with China: Vietnam and the Philippines — both countries have threatened to take Beijing to international courts over their territorial disputes. China sees no room for international arbitration and would prefer to resolve the disputes on a bilateral basis.
Swaraj’s rhetoric also closely matched the United States’ position on South China Sea disputes. She declared India’s commitment to the freedom of navigation as per the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines submitted a memorandum seeking a ruling on China’s dashed-line claim in the South China Sea earlier this year under UNCLOS. Swaraj also threw Indian support behind ASEAN’s 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea and expressed her support for the swift adoption of a Code of Conduct. According to certain reports, Swaraj did not explicitly back a U.S.-backed proposal for a freeze on all construction activities in the region.
India recently resolved a maritime dispute of its own with Bangladesh via international arbitration. It ceded territory in accordance with the verdict of a United Nations tribunal. By throwing its support behind international arbitration as a means of resolving disputes in the South China Sea, India will likely continue to endear itself to ASEAN states that have disputes with China. India’s support for international law in the region is also tied to its national interest. For example, Vietnam awarded an Indian firm, ONGC Videsh Limited, exploration rights to oil blocks just prior to China moving its oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in early May.