In recent years, India has started to become increasingly more vocal about what it feels is the correct way for the five main territorial disputants in the South China Sea to resolve their differences. What’s particularly interesting is that the rhetoric coming out of New Delhi seems to be growing more specific and pointed as time goes on. Early on Wednesday, the Manila Times reported that that Indian ambassador to the Philippines, Shri Lalduhthlana Ralte, said that India explicitly supported international law and arbitration in resolving these disputes. “Our view with that such kind of disputes [is that], the claimant countries should observe international law and norms that disputes are to be settled peacefully. We should allow ourselves to be subjected to international law,” Ralte said, according to the report.
The ambassador’s comments bookend a string of policy statements by New Delhi that mostly began in 2013. Back then, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking at the East Asia Summit, noted that “A stable maritime environment is essential to realize our collective regional aspirations.” Keen to make his approval known for multilateral processes in Southeast Asia (which I recently expressed some skepticism about), Singh 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.”
Those statements failed to draw much attention. Beijing probably raised its eyebrows at New Delhi’s interest in the South China Sea, but there was little in the prime minister’s statements that suggested a firm backing for a specific resolution mechanism. In early 2014, Shri Anil Wadhwa, Secretary (East) of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, pushed the Indian position a bit further into the realm of clarity. “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,” he told journalists at the annual ASEAN-India dialogue in New Delhi. “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 clarified.
Enter UNCLOS and “freedom of navigation” into India’s South China Sea vocabulary. Wadhwa’s rhetoric survived India’s change of government in May 2014. When Narendra Modi came into office and eventually traveled to the United States, the United States and India, for the first time, included language on the South China Sea in their joint declaration. In October’s declaration, after Modi’s whirlwind tour of the United States, the South China Sea was an explicit point of focus. As I wrote then, “Under Modi, India is sticking to its guns in terms of repeatedly emphasizing its commitment to the principle of the freedom of navigation and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Just prior to that visit, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee had visited Vietnam, signing a joint statement with his counterpart there including similar language. Additionally, after U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, the U.S.-India joint declaration again included similar language.
Coming back to the Indian Ambassador to the Philippines’ statement, we may finally catch a glimpse of India’s ultimate position on the South China Sea issue: international arbitration. This shouldn’t come as a major unveiling or Shakespearean denouement — after all, ever since India and Bangladesh resolved a mutual maritime territorial dispute in the summer of 2014 with the intermediation of an international court (a ruling that, incidentally, went in Bangladesh’s favor), observers have noted India’s preference for arbitration. What’s interesting is Ralte’s follow-up comment: “Even if we are [the] stronger country, politically or economically, we should abide by internationally accepted principles.” The implication of that statement should be clear for observers in China.
Still, the ambassador’s statements will mean little until they are repeated by the Indian prime minister in East and Southeast Asian capitals. India’s at the point where it’s expressed a clear preference for how it would like to see events resolved in the South China Sea, joining a chorus of mostly democratic, mostly U.S.-aligned states in opposing Chinese irredentism. I’m not optimistic that, in practice, international arbitration will solve these difficult disputes, but having Asia’s largest democracy back the idea will impose additional costs on Beijing for defecting from what seems to be a widespread regional preference.