Rethinking the South China Sea in Indian Maritime Security Strategy

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Rethinking the South China Sea in Indian Maritime Security Strategy

New Delhi’s strategic and economic interests in the region will only grow, but there are high barriers to increasing the Indian Navy’s role in the South China Sea.

Rethinking the South China Sea in Indian Maritime Security Strategy

The INS Delhi docked in Manila during a port call to the Philippines, May 23, 2024.

Credit: Indian Navy

On May 26, the Indian Navy (IN)’s Eastern Fleet concluded its operational deployment to the South China Sea, entailing port calls to Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. The IN’s almost three-week-long presence in the contested waterways was preceded by the visit of an Indian Coast Guard ship to the South China Sea, which demonstrated shared concerns and resolve regarding regional marine pollution in addition to bolstering cooperation with the coast guards of the littoral nations. These developments have again put a spotlight on India’s growing maritime engagement with Southeast Asia’s coastal states – four of whom are locked in maritime disputes with China over features in the South China Sea.

While the IN’s deployment in the region is nothing new, its visits to Southeast Asian states have increased four-fold since 2013. The advancing maritime engagement between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should be viewed in the context of India’s commercial and strategic interests.

No less than 55 percent of India’s total trade passes through the South China Sea. Meanwhile, since the early 1990s, New Delhi has been engaged in a joint hydrocarbon exploration project with Vietnam, wherein its petroleum firm, ONGC Videsh Limited, has invested about $430 million for oil drilling operations in the Phu Kanh Basin of the South China Sea. Despite China’s discontent, India and Vietnam signed an agreement in 2011, which aims to develop long-term bilateral cooperation in the oil and gas industry.

The commercial stakes are likely to increase if India’s strategic interests serve as any indicators. The 20th Annual ASEAN-India summit held in September 2023 was evidence of economic complementarities and India’s intent to deepen commercial engagement with the region. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 12-point proposal during the summit offered tremendous opportunities for Indian businesses to further trade and commercial ties across various sectors.

The trade between the two civilizational partners is set to receive a boost with the review of the 2009 ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement. The negotiations, which are expected to conclude by 2025, would go a long way in fostering mutually beneficial diversified trade by incorporating changes in Rules of Origin and trade remedies.

Similarly, New Delhi’s stakes in Southeast Asia could also be enhanced given its connectivity plans. In 2019, seizing on their mutual interest in exploring the utility of the Eastern Maritime Corridor, India and Russia signed a Memorandum of Intent on the Development of Maritime Communications between the Ports of Chennai and Vladivostok. The potential connectivity corridor would connect Chennai with Vladivostok through the South China Sea. With the route being highly cost-efficient, while also giving access to India to the mineral-rich Arctic, New Delhi remains interested in the project.

Based on its commercial stakes, which are likely to increase in the future, it is clear that India has legitimate interests in ensuring the security of shipping lanes and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, India’s strategic interests in the region, as exemplified by its Act East Policy (AEP) and Indo-Pacific Vision, have also nudged forward its security-oriented engagement in the region.

The AEP’s objective of improved connectivity and commerce requires a South China Sea free of traditional and non-traditional security challenges. As a result, India has adopted a security-oriented approach to create an enabling environment for regional stability and prosperity.

The AEP lies at the heart of India’s Indo-Pacific Vision, which recognizes ASEAN as a link, connecting the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. India’s vision emphasizes the centrality and unity of ASEAN, which will remain pivotal to the former’s approach for seeking peace and security in the region. With the shared objectives of ensuring peace and security and adherence to the rule of the law, a multipolar world remains in the interest of both partners.

Even as India attempts to enhance its strategic profile to contribute to the equilibrium across the Indo-Pacific, the power balance is slumping in India’s backyard, the Indian Ocean region (IOR). China, which has altered the status quo in the South China Sea with its predominant military presence and infrastructure in the region, has also rapidly furthered its strategic engagement with the IOR littorals.

Beijing’s grand Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which entails unparalleled investments and big-ticket infrastructure projects, including in the IOR, seems to have swayed some of India’s neighbors. Its growing economic footprint in the region has facilitated the presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Since 2010, an annual average of eight to ten vessels and submarines affiliated with the PLAN and Beijing’s Ministry of Natural Resources have been known to operate in the IOR. Besides operating its civilian “research vessels” – which were earlier owned by the PLAN and are suspected by India to be used for improving subsurface knowledge and warfare capabilities – China’s fishing vessels have been caught within India’s territorial waters.

Beijing’s naval forays, which have fostered anxieties in Indian officials, are bound to increase in the near to mid-term to secure its ever-increasing BRI projects, cargo, and energy shipments. PLAN maneuvers in the IOR draw from China’s Military Strategy (CMS) 2015, which combines the call for offshore defense with open seas protection.

Going forward, commercial, strategic, and security interests are likely to compel India to substantially increase its maritime presence in the South China Sea, or even change the region’s status from a “secondary” area of interest to that of “primary” in its next version of its Maritime Security Strategy. However, that pursuit could prove to be particularly onerous.

First, ASEAN’s stance on the South China Sea dispute remains conservative. The bloc’s diplomatic diffidence is attributable to intra-ASEAN divisions on the issue. China has successfully exploited the organization’s internal discord and isolated Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei from other member states. This is evident by the Four Point Consensus on the South China Sea concluded in 2016, which toes Beijing’s position on the dispute.

Intra-ASEAN discord has partly fostered China’s unabated maritime aggression, jeopardizing the maritime rights and interests of not only littoral navies but also potentially of regional stakeholders such as India. China’s continued militarization of the disputed islands, and overwhelming military and paramilitary presence, wherein its coast guard can delineate exclusion zones in virtually any circumstance, could affect freedom of navigation for any foreign vessel, including those from India.

Second, in contrast to China-ASEAN economic engagement, wherein China remains an indispensable economic partner with $722 billion worth of merchandise trade, India-ASEAN trade accounts for $131 billion, a mere 18 percent of China-ASEAN trade. Beijing’s investment in the region also remains incomparable. The trade levels between India and ASEAN fall far short of their potential due to a range of issues, including an absence of regional value chains, ASEAN’s non-reciprocity in FTA obligations and non-tariff barriers, poor connectivity, and red tape.

These unresolved issues have adversely affected ASEAN’s perception of India, creating doubts regarding the latter’s political will and capacity to become a leading player in the region. Both economy and security are integral to any country’s foreign policy toolkit.  The limited economic exchanges serve as an impediment to a potential increase in the IN’s deployment, especially given India’s acutely limited trade with countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei, with each of them being highly dependent on Chinese investments. India’s greater military presence in the future is likely to find acceptance or become a possibility only if New Delhi becomes a major economic partner in the region.

Third, Beijing’s pursuit of establishing de-facto control over the South China Sea has seen hawkish official rhetoric regarding the involvement of other stakeholders, including India. India’s military engagement in the South China Sea and verbal support for the Philippines in upholding its sovereignty has been followed by an uncompromising response from Chinese officials, demanding that third parties not intervene.

The CMS adopts the same approach toward the regional security dynamics, denouncing the “meddling” of some external countries in the South China Sea dispute. This implicit reference seems to be pointing toward extra-territorial players with growing security cooperation such as Japan, India, and above all the United States.

Furthermore, acknowledging the imperative of open seas and strategic sea lanes protection, the CMS suggests a commensurate shift in PLAN operations. By increasing the PLAN presence in the IOR, a serious concern for India, China also desires to overcome its “Malacca dilemma.” Since 2012, PLAN submarines, totaling three to four platforms on average have been sighted around India’s Andaman Islands, leading to the latter’s suspicions regarding reconnaissance and surveillance.

Consequently, there remains a possibility of an enhanced PLAN presence in the Andamans and the IOR as a counter to a potential increase in IN deployments in the South China Sea.

Therefore, China’s military strategy and capabilities along with India’s weak economic footprint in the region serve as limitations for the IN making the South China Sea into a primary interest area in the coming decades.

Nonetheless, the IN should continue to maintain across-the-spectrum operational engagements with its counterparts in the South China Sea. India needs to step up its strategic role, explore convergences in capacity-building sectors such as digital innovation, and leverage complementarities in trade with the ASEAN.

In the near term, besides broad-based cooperation on maritime domain awareness, New Delhi would do well to probe trilateral exercises with littoral navies and conclude long overdue logistic pacts with Indonesia and Malaysia. The considerations of India’s commercial interests and balance of power necessitate New Delhi’s constant focus on its maritime diplomacy to ensure secure seas and adherence to the rule of law.