Two days ago, in Moscow, the foreign ministers of India, Russia, and China released a joint communique outlining areas of trilateral agreement between the three countries. As I discussed in The Diplomat, the three countries have met annually since 2002 to discuss issues of regional and global importance. While the trilateral hasn’t addressed the issue in the past, this year, the three foreign ministers included the South China Sea disputes in their joint communique. Specifically, the portion of the communique on the maritime disputes there said the following:
Russia, India and China are committed to maintaining a legal order for the seas and oceans based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). All related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned. In this regard the Ministers called for full respect of all provisions of UNCLOS, as well as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the Guidelines for the implementation of the DOC.
The statement is notable as the first mention of the South China Sea disputes in a Russia-India-China trilateral statement. Last year, at their 13th annual meeting, the foreign ministers omitted any mention of the disputes, despite the fact that China’s construction of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands was already beginning to raise red flags in the international press. This year, however, with a decision looming at at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the case Philippines v. China —a decision that is likely to not go in China’s favor by most counts—Beijing is looking to shore up its position on the disputes.
Namely, the statement that “All related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned” is nearly verbatim lifted from China’s frequent foreign ministry statements on the South China Sea disputes. China opposes the internationalization of dispute resolution in the South China Sea, and has said it does not recognize the authority of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in its disputes with the Philippines.
Moreover, last week, before the trilateral meeting in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued similar remarks. “I am convinced that they (attempts to internationalize the issue) are completely counterproductive,” Lavrov said at the time, according to Xinhua. “Only negotiations, which China and the ASEAN are pursuing, can bring the desired result, namely, mutually acceptable agreements.” The alignment of Russia’s position with China’s came shortly after the G7 group of nations—a group that formerly included Russia as the G8—issued a forceful declaration on the South China Sea. Lu Kang, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, said that China appreciated Lavrov’s comments.
Finally, what’s striking about the Russia-India-China trilateral joint communique this year is that India was willing to sign on to the statement. Since 2013, New Delhi’s language on the South China Sea has matched that of the United States, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, and Japan—all stakeholders in the persistence of the regional status quo, which values a rules-based order privileging international principles such as the freedom of navigation. The Indian decision to acquiesce to the trilateral communique doesn’t suggest a change of policy, but it will frustrate regional states and muddy India’s position on the South China Sea. Just days before the trilateral communique was released, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had released a joint statement that:
…reaffirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, including in the South China Sea. They vowed their support for a rules-based order and regional security architecture conducive to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean, and emphasized their commitment to working together and with other nations to ensure the security and stability that have been beneficial to the Asia-Pacific for decades.
The bilateral U.S.-India statement and the Russia-India-China trilateral communique speak to opposing sides of the same issue. As I said, India’s policy almost certainly hasn’t shifted, but it’s still curious that it would acquiesce to a trilateral communique with Russia and China that runs counter to its previously stated positions on how the international community ought to treat the South China Sea disputes.