Reaffirming India’s South China Sea Credentials

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Reaffirming India’s South China Sea Credentials

India’s strategic relevance in Asia will be increasingly determined by its maritime role.

This week, India unveiled its first indigenously developed aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, just days after the reactor of the country’s first indigenous nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, achieved criticality. The milestones continue India’s rapid naval modernization, as its strategic relevance in Asia is increasingly determined by its maritime role.

“Maritime Asia” has emerged as a new geopolitical frame of reference in recent years as the nations of Asia evolve into major trading and resource-consuming powers with economic growth contingent on seaborne trade. India is no exception, with 95 percent of its total external trade by volume and 75 percent by value now conducted by sea, and with more than 70 percent of its oil imports transiting the maritime domain. To protect these burgeoning maritime interests, the Indian government has expressed lofty ambitions to establish “a brand new multi-dimensional Navy” with “reach and sustainability.” The country has the world’s fifth-largest navy with plans to build a 160-plus-ship navy, comprising three aircraft carrier battle groups by 2022.

Contested maritime role

However, India’s maritime ambitions are being challenged by the fact that the country’s maritime position is often regarded as contested. Take, for instance, the South China Sea: although almost 55 per cent of India’s trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, some countries continue to oppose allowing it to play a prominent role.

Notably, China has voiced displeasure at the growing Indian naval presence in the region. This was evidenced by reports in July 2011 that an Indian Navy vessel received radio contact from the Chinese Navy demanding that it depart disputed waters in the South China Sea after completing a port call in Vietnam. This was followed by the less belligerent but nonetheless provocative gesture of an Indian naval vessel receiving a Chinese naval escort while on its way from the Philippines to South Korea in June 2012. Beijing has also opposed Vietnam granting exploration rights to Indian company ONGC Videsh in offshore blocks located in disputed waters.

Well-entrenched maritime interests

Despite the fact that India does not share a contiguous maritime border with the South China Sea, its maritime interests in the region are well established. While not as vocal as the United States, which declared maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea a “national interest” in 2010, New Delhi has nonetheless echoed the U.S. position of calling for a peaceful resolution and continued freedom of navigation. India has also pursued deepening maritime relations with several claimant states, notably Vietnam, with the Indian Navy gaining permanent berthing rights at Nha Trang port and offering the Vietnamese training in submarine warfare.

Since its first deployment to the South China Sea in 2000, the Indian Navy has also been involved in several high-profile maritime operations in the region, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, joint naval exercises, and port calls. This includes its prominent role in relief operations following the Asian tsunami of 2004 and the cyclone that struck Myanmar (Burma) in 2008. The Indian Navy also escorted U.S. naval vessels transiting the Strait of Malacca as part of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in 2002.

Supporting India’s growing maritime interests in the South China Sea is the tri-services Andaman and Nicobar (Southern) Command, which was established at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca in 2001. The command was expanded with the establishment of Campbell Bay (INS Baaz), a deep-water maritime facility at the southernmost point in the Andaman Islands in July 2012. This complements the Eastern Command headquartered in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, which has received a growing proportion of the Navy’s resources, correcting for the Navy’s traditional bias in favor of the Indian Ocean and Gulf regions. Interestingly these facilities were initially developed and expanded to strengthen India’s sea-denial capabilities in response to the threat posed by the United States following its deployment of the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal during the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Now, however, they are increasingly relevant to maintaining the freedom of navigation in the region.

Preventing “spill-over” into the Indian Ocean

Beyond accessing offshore energy resources and ensuring the safe passage of its vessels through the Strait of Malacca, India also has broader interests in the South China Sea: ensuring that China’s increasingly assertive position over maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea China is not repeated in the Indian Ocean. Notably, recent events in the South China Sea could be a harbinger of China’s potential behavior in the Indian Ocean, especially if China elevates the protection of sea-lines of communication to a “core interest” (hexin liyi) on par with its sovereignty interests in resolving maritime and continental territorial disputes and reunification with Taiwan.

Moreover, an expanded Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean could result in a role reversal of its position in the South China Sea; whereas China is the coastal state and India the external maritime power in the South China Sea, the tables are turned in the Indian Ocean. This could entail China intervening in disputes over the demarcation of maritime boundaries that India has with its neighbors (namely Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), and intelligence gathering and exploitation of maritime resources close to India’s coastline. The fact that China secured a permit to engage in deep seabed mining in the southwest Indian Ocean in July 2011 demonstrates the potential for such a scenario.

In this context, China’s nascent naval presence in the Indian Ocean, including the PLA Navy’s ongoing anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean, have been viewed by some with suspicion. Reports that an Indian submarine and Chinese naval unit were “locked in a tense stand-off” near the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the Gulf of Aden in January 2009 illustrates the potential for the Indian Ocean Region to emerge as a new theater of competition between China and India. This strengthens the case for India to engage in the South China Sea so as to deter China’s increasingly aggressive maritime behavior from repeating itself in the Indian Ocean.

Toward a new regional architecture

Finally, India’s growing interest in the South China Sea comes amid the United States’ “forward-deployed diplomacy” towards the Indo-Pacific region. However, the United States is both “pivoting” towards the region and “re-balancing” within it. In other words, Washington is both reiterating its commitment towards the region, as well as calling on its allies to share the burdens of regional security. Evidence of this is seen in Japan’s increasingly proactive role in forging bilateral and multilateral regional security partnerships, such as Prime Minister Shinto Abe’s proposal for a “security diamond,” which would “safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific.”

While the United States may not yet be following in the footsteps of the British withdrawal East of Suez in the middle of the last century, it nonetheless is reducing its global military footprint amid the operational fatigue of two consecutive land wars and the pressures of fiscal austerity. Further, the U.S. quest for energy independence fuelled by its own shale gas revolution and energy efficiency gains across OECD countries could act as a further catalyst for a loss of interest in protecting global energy transit corridors, including vital sea-lines of communication. In 2011, the United States imported 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil from the Middle East, accounting for 26 per cent of its global imports. This is projected to fall to 100,000 bpd or 3 per cent of its oil imports by 2035.

In this context, the Asian maritime domain is likely to emerge as an increasingly active theater of inter-state rivalries, given concerns of a strategic void created by a more “hands-off” approach by the U.S., as well as the growing interest of major regional powers to protect their burgeoning seaborne trade and access offshore energy resources. This is already evident in the shifting focal point of regional conflict from the continental to maritime domain, as noted by the contrast between the land wars that dominated Asia during the Cold War – the Korean War (1950-53), Sino-Indian War (1962), Vietnam War (1968-75), Sino-Russian border conflict (1969) and Sino-Vietnamese border conflict (1979)) – and the plethora of maritime territorial disputes that have flared in the post-Cold War period. These include the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and China’s claim to the “nine-dash line” around the South China Sea, which conflicts with Vietnam’s claim to the Paracel Islands and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei’s claims to portions of the Spratly Islands.

This demonstrates the need for a new maritime architecture led by the region’s major powers. For instance, Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon has proposed a “Maritime Concert” in which the region’s major maritime powers would have collective responsibility to protect the domain. There have already been several demonstrations of this kind of cooperation, including China, India and Japan coordinating their anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean within the framework of the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) mechanism, and the establishment of an Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) in 2012.

An expanded maritime role for India is prudent if it is to defend its growing maritime interests amid the country’s emergence as a major trading and resource-consuming power. However, it is also pivotal for protecting the global commons from the growth of inter-state security threats rooted in concerns over China’s rise as a maritime power and an erosion of the United States’ role as the region’s “sea-based balancer,” as well as the proliferation of transnational security threats, including maritime piracy, illicit trafficking, and the latent threat of maritime terrorism. As evidenced by its maritime behavior in the South China Sea, India’s strategic significance in East Asia will be increasingly contingent on its ability to play a constructive maritime role in the region.

Chietigj Bajpaee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and a visiting fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi-based public policy think-tank.