Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appeared to side with ASEAN and rebuke China on the South China Sea dispute during the East Asian Summit in Brunei this week.
The sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea predictably commanded much attention during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and East Asia Summits this past week.
During his otherwise conciliatory speech at the latter event, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang forcefully made the case for China’s long-standing preference of trying to resolve the disputes bilaterally with only the parties directly involved.
“Territorial and maritime disputes between countries in this region should be resolved by the countries concerned through friendly consultation,” Li said during the speech, according to state-run media outlets in China.
Speaking shortly after Li at the same forum, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seemed to directly refute China’s position, although with some diplomatic subtlety.
“A stable maritime environment is essential to realize our collective regional aspirations,” Singh said according to an official transcript of the speech.
“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.”
When asked by an Indonesian newspaper how rivalries in Asian powers could best be managed, Singh continued advocating the use of multilateral institutions to solve disputes.
“Regional forums can play a useful role in this process,” Singh said in response. “We, therefore, see immense value in the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, ADMM+ and other cooperative mechanisms in the region.”
India has periodically inserted itself into the South China Sea dispute in the past on the side of ASEAN countries, much to China's displeasure. Notably, after Chinese fishing vessels sought to disrupt India’s joint oil and gas exploration with Vietnam in disputed parts of the South China Sea last year, Indian Navy Chief Admiral D.K Joshi said that Delhi was prepared to send naval ships into the South China Sea to protect the country’s interests.
Speaking of the South China Sea in December of last year, Joshi said: “Not that we expect to be in those waters very frequently, but when the requirement is there for situations where the country's interests are involved, for example ONGC Videsh, we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that.”
India has also dismissed Chinese criticism of its willingness to engage in joint oil and gas explorations with Vietnam in waters that China also claims. Delhi has to walk a fine line in the South China Sea, lest it provoke Beijing into increasing pressure on India’s Navy closer to home in the Indian Ocean.
Following the regional conferences this week, Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met with Singh in Jakarta on Friday where the two sides pledged to expand their strategic cooperation. In addition to attending APEC this week, Singh was also given a state visit by Indonesia.
Later this month Singh is expected to travel to China and Russia.