India appears to be playing something of a double game on the South China Sea dispute as it tries to balance its competing interests of expanding its influence in Southeast Asia without unduly upsetting China.
This week Delhi’s delicate balancing act was put to the test as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China coincided with External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s trip to the Philippines.
The South China Sea doesn’t appear to have figured prominently into Singh’s trip to Beijing, which focused instead of dialing back tensions along the Sino-Indo border as well as rebalancing economic ties. However, ahead of Singh’s arrival in China, Khurshid gave a lengthy interview to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in which he appeared to take a more conciliatory position towards China on the issue of the South China Sea dispute.
“We don't interfere” in the South China Sea dispute Khurshid told the Hong Kong daily. He added, “We do believe that anything that is a bilateral issue between two nations must be settled by those two nations.”
This position was consistent with China’s demands that the disputes in the South China Sea be handled on a bilateral basis without any interference from non-parties to the dispute. Previously, China has harshly criticized India for the latter’s joint activities with Vietnam in waters that both Hanoi and Beijing claim. As recently as earlier this month PM Singh forcefully backed regional institutions playing an active role in managing the South China Sea row, the exact contingency that Beijing has strenuously tried to avoid. Khurshid’s endorsement of bilateral mechanisms seemed to contradict Singh’s statements at the East Asia Summit this month.
On the other hand, during his trip to the Philippines this week, Khurshid at times went farther than India previously has in challenging China’s claims to the South China Sea. To begin with, the main purpose of Khurshid’s trip was to work towards upgrading the Indo-Filipino bilateral relationship to a comprehensive partnership in time for Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the Philippines next year. Khurshid and his Filipino counterpart, Albert del Rosario, also agreed to expand defense cooperation between the two sides. Philippine news outlets this week even reported that Manila may purchase two naval frigates from Delhi.
Perhaps most notably, the joint statement that Khurshid signed onto calls the South China Sea the West Philippines Sea, the name Manila uses to refer to the disputed waters. According to Indian media outlets, this broke with India’s usual policy of referring to the waters as the South China Sea to avoid upsetting Beijing.
At other times during his visit to the Philippines, Khurshid offered ringing endorsements of the positions taken by the Southeast Asian parties to the disputes, which Beijing strongly opposes. For example, in response to a question from reporters following a speech he gave, Khurshid “clearly stated” India’s support for using the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the basis for resolving any disputes in the South China Sea. To that end, Khurshid also offered support for the Philippines decision to seek international arbitration to settle its dispute with China.
“[A]rbitration is one answer. I hope it works,” Khurshid said. China has refused to appear before the international court and a decision in the case is still pending.
Finally, Khurshid directly linked the dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea with India’s own border dispute with Beijing. Although he did so in the context of suggesting that the Philippines has much to gain from engaging in a direct dialogue with China over the dispute, Beijing opposes having its various territorial disputes tied together. Its opponents in these disputes, most notably Japan, have tried to do just exactly that.