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Introduction As the eastern gateway to the Indian Ocean (IO), South China Sea (SCS) is India’s strategic left flank. And, more than half of India’s interests pass through or are located in the South China Sea.

India has had civilizational contacts and relations, predating the middle ages, with most of the SCS littoral nations. Likewise, China has also had historic interactions and engagements with most of these nations. In addition, being co-located, China has also had neighborly exchanges relating to boundaries and jurisdictions with many of them. With China’s economic and military rise, she has unilaterally begun to alter the terms of engagements from mutuality to assertiveness to aggressiveness.

Today the South China Sea is astir. India’s interests and future engagements in these turbulent waters are brought out in succeeding paragraphs.

Geovitality of the South China Sea

The potential of a geographical region for creative activity depends upon a large number of factors which would, inter alia, include the resources as well as resourcefulness and strengths as well as vulnerabilities. If an index were to be drawn up to comparatively measure such potential, it would perhaps be appropriately called “geovitality”. To assess geovitality of the SCS, it would be useful to first view the IO in perspective.

Indian Ocean hosts the veritable global maritime interconnects. 90% of global trade, by volume, is seaborne. Over 65% of the world’s known oil reserves are located in the IOR, and 40% of the world’s offshore oil production comes from the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. 70% of the petroleum products of the world are transported across the Indian Ocean. The geostrategic significance of the SCS lies in the fact that it is the eastern access to the IO. This vital sea space is populated by a mixed, multiracial, multilingual and multi religious demography. It is to immense credit of the SCS inhabitants that many possible complications arising from such an admixture are skilfully avoided through the hard work, abiding faith, deep set resolve and congeniality of the peoples living there. But the potential for complications and, therefore, conflicts cannot be just wished away. It needs to be addressed.

Indian Navy

The Indian Navy has grown steadily, albeit at times sluggishly, while acquiring its power projection and sea denial capabilities. India currently possesses one aircraft carrier, the 45-year old British made INS Viraat. Sometime next year she will be joined, and eventually replaced, by the 45,000 ton Russian built carrier to be commissioned as INS Vikramaditya, whose operational radius of 14,000 nautical miles will be “three times that of the Viraat,”. In addition, the Indian Navy is currently constructing a 40,000 ton Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, the IAC.

The Indian Navy currently possesses ten Russian-built Kilo class and four German HDW-1500's submarines. There are six French Scorpene Class submarines under construction at the Mazagaon Dock Ltd as part of Project 75 and another six are being planned under Project 75I. In January this year, Indian Navy has taken on lease from Russia an 8000 ton Akula Class nuclear powered attack submarine and commissioned her as INS Chakra. In addition, an indigenously designed and constructed nuclear submarine, to be commissioned as INS Arihant, is presently undergoing sea trials.

By 2022, India plans to have a 160-plus ship navy, including three aircraft carriers, 60 major combatants and close to 400 aircraft of different types. Indian Navy's indigenous shipbuilding programme had started in the 1960’s and the naval modernization started in earnest in the mid-1990s. The growth in navy's share of the defense budget, from 11 per cent in 1992/1993 to 18 per cent in 2008/2009, has enabled a record 49 ships and submarines being on order as on date with an induction average of five units every year for the next five years.

The wide sweep of the Indian Navy’s operational deployments was visible a few months ago when four of her frontline ships were in South China Sea- north western Pacific, even as another group of four ships were in the Mediterranean while INS Savitri was visiting Port Victoria, Seychelles and INS Tabar was on patrol off the Horn of Africa. And, there was one Dornier aircraft on Exclusive Economic Zone patrol each in Maldives and Seychelles EEZ at the host governments’ requests. The transparent induction plan of Indian Navy and visibility of their deployments have, no doubt, raised some apprehensions in a few minds. Viewed in isolation, the growth trajectory would indeed appear to be somewhat steep. But the perspective changes completely when it is related to the very small starting inventory and the large dimensions of the determining factors viz. overall size of the economy, trade and energy requirements; nation’s maritime zones and the compulsions of geography. However, the rationale for the growth of naval plan is underpinned by a defensive, status quo philosophy. Former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash clarifies persuasively, “the prosaic logic underpinning maritime growth is that the Indian nation is struggling to raise half a billion people above the poverty line, these people have demands on resources and the quest for maritime hegemony is the last thing on their minds.”

The Rise of China: India’s Concerns

The rise of China, as a reckonable power in the global order, is one of the defining features of the 21st century world affairs. In order to maintain a reasonable degree of stability in its own societal context and to contain internal discord within acceptable tolerances, China would need to sustain 8-10% growth rate. For this, China’s trade will have to double in the next 8 years, the raw material requirement will triple in the next 15 years and the energy requirement will increase by 150% by year 2020. China is also making forays for deep sea mining. It is, therefore, not surprising that a rising China is today taking measured steps to develop its maritime reach and sustenance far beyond its geographical periphery.

China, historically a continental power, has turned its gaze outwards after 600 years. China's first aircraft carrier, the former Varyag has now joined the PLA Navy. Concurrently, the PLA Navy has been busy upgrading its flotilla with five new classes of modern, conventional and nuclear submarines. Beijing is also engaged in design and development of an anti-ship ballistic missile which, through its sobriquet “carrier killer”, has captured the global eye. Whether the developmental assistance provided for the Sittwe naval base in Myanmar, Chittagong deep-sea port in Bangladesh, Humbantota port in Sri Lanka and Pakistan's deep-sea port of Gwadar; were all a part of an encirclement master plan, a string of pearls, is not clear. But, there are ample indicators of increasing Chinese focus towards developing port facilities for various countries in the Indian Ocean. Taken together with the development of the PLA Navy’s power projection capability, these may well be the first signs of the evolution of a two ocean strategy.

In March 2010, it was indicated to two US Govt officials visiting Beijing that the South China Sea was now a part of China’s “core interest”, placing it on an equal footing with Taiwan and Tibet. However, this has not been officially confirmed by the Chinese Government. Earlier, with an U shaped line of nine bold dashes and no cartographic precision or persuasive justification, China had laid “historical claims” to over 80 per cent of the 3.5 million sq km of South China Sea including Spratley and Paracel islands. Criticality of the South China Sea lies in the fact that it is the PRC’s western gateway for trade and for import of energy & minerals. And it has immense fishery & untapped hydrocarbon resources.

Since the US maritime military deployments have been a constant presence in the South China Sea during the last half century, any redistribution of power in the region would need to be very carefully watched and responses calibrated. There is another reason for concerns regarding the rise of China viz. the absence of any commitment on her part to fit into the established order of things. Specifically in the context of maritime security in the Indian Ocean, it is not clear whether China plans to smoothly integrate her growing maritime interests into the existing framework, or she plans to take an autonomous route to be completely self sufficient in all respects or whether she plans to tinker with the existing order till it is modified to her specifications and then join up at her own terms.

Balancing China through Multilateralism

Like all other law abiding nations, India is particular about the freedom of navigation in the maritime commons. In her view, it is of paramount importance that status quo be maintained in respect of freedom of access and passage within the SCS. Bilateral and multilateral naval exercises enhance interoperability and political confidence even as these provide an exposure to each other’s technologies and tactics. Through their visibility on the geopolitical scene, joint naval exercises also send signals of concord to future collaborators as well as of collective resolve to potentially inimical elements.

India's multilateral engagements range from taking the lead in hosting the biennial MILAN (Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Singapore) gatherings at Port Blair to the creation of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) through the India, Brazil, South Africa Maritime (IBSAMAR) exercises. This could be a good time for India to consider engaging China also multilaterally through an invitation to join the MILAN gatherings. And, perhaps India could also consider supporting her inclusion in IONS as an Observer. Whereas the former is within India’s exclusive domain, the latter would require a consensus. But, for either to happen, a sine qua non condition would be China’s articulated and demonstrated willingness to be so engaged on equal and NOT preferential terms. Bilaterally, India regularly engages in naval exercises with the US, French, British, Russian and Singapore navies and on an opportunity basis with the Indonesian, Japanese, Philippines, Vietnamese, Saudi Arabian, German, Omani, Iranian and PLA navies. It is noteworthy that India's policy of bilateral naval engagement with a power such as the US is no different at all from that with the regional or other powers.

Just as India did not wish to be a pawn in the then existing Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, she does not wish now to be sucked into the emerging rivalry of the US and China. The challenge is for India to become a responsible balancer within the international order by effectively partnering with the key players to manage an increasingly insecure world.

There is yet another dimension to balancing China through multilateralism. And, Indonesia holds the key to it. Purely from the navigational safety point of view, Indonesia would sooner or later feel the need to modernize and upgrade the traffic control infrastructure for safe, efficient and expeditious movement through the Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits. This could offer a great opportunity for multilateralism and interdependencies which would inherently enhance maritime security. The suggestion here is not to set up an elaborate infrastructure against strategic maritime assets of the PRC but in fact to involve PRC also in setting up a state of the art facility for enhancement of maritime safety in the vicinity of these choke points.

Engagements in South China Sea The islands and maritime zones in the South China Sea remain a bone of contention between China on one hand and Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei individually on the other. Even Indonesia is not entirely enthused by the informal assurances given by China. Beijing’s claims over 80% of the entire South China Sea have caused apprehensions among both territorial and extraterritorial stake holders. In fact, this has goaded many of them to hedge their options and rebalance their respective strategic as well as economic interests in the world’s second busiest international sea lane.

Consequently, the engagements are now developing along two tracks. The first has taken the form of the US rebalancing its forces deployed in the Asia Pacific region. And, the second track works on conflict resolution through intra- regional rapprochement between various stakeholders. This is sought to be done by sharing the resources of ‘global commons’ while focusing on absolute gains rather than relative gains.

India, as a resident power in the Indian Ocean region which is still growing, has new responsibilities in the 21st century. These relate not only to defending her own national interests but also to ensuring security and order in her maritime neighbourhood. The Indian Maritime Military Strategy identifies the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean as ‘secondary areas’ of operational interest for the Indian Navy. It elaborates “Areas of secondary interest will come in where there is a direct connection with areas of primary interest, or where they impinge on the deployment of future maritime forces”.

Around 55% of India’s trade in the Asia Pacific transits through the SCS region. For India, the South China Sea region serves as a strategic link between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans whose security is vital for the smooth flow of her sea borne trade. One of the more substantive issues of India’s active engagement with the South China Sea littorals is to commercially participate in exploration of the vital energy resources. Chinese assertiveness and her proclivity to unilaterally seek to change the status quo, have the potential to impinge upon India’s commercial interests relating to energy security and the navigational prerogative to freely use the South China Sea as provided for by the international law.

Strategically and diplomatically, India’s policy towards the nations involved in the South China Sea imbroglio would be to respect their viewpoints as they resolve their issues bilaterally. While not interfering in the ongoing bilateral or regional dialogues is the right policy for India, she should also hedge her bets and be ready to safeguard her own national interests. However, experimentation with differential power application should be resisted as it is fraught with dangers. India should, therefore, extend full support to reducing friction in the region. This would be best done through principled negotiation and peaceful resolution of all potential conflicts under a defined set of rules.


India has vital maritime interests vested in the South China Sea. In pursuance of her Look East policy, India’s engagement with the South China Sea resident nations increased multifold and the economic ties flourished. In the last decade or so, however, the rise of China has increasingly been anything but “peaceful”. Admittedly, no live lead has flown across these waters so far. But now it appears that the potential for conflict in the region has grown multifold. Accordingly, India needs to work “smart” to secure her growing strategic interests in the region. A stage may soon be reached wherein deployment of a meaningful presence in the South China Sea would be an imperative rather than an option.

Like other major powers, India is concerned about China’s strategic posture in the South China Sea. International trade, mineral resources and energy flows through the region render the security concerns too vital to be controlled by a single country. All maritime powers, including India, have a natural national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea. Normally, territorial and other disputes between neighboring countries would be a matter of bilateral or multilateral resolution between themselves. But, these are not normal times and South China Sea is not just another sea space. Here the resident states’ interests spatially proximate the trade, energy and strategic interests of many non-resident nations. Accordingly, there is need for all stake holders to constructively engage with each other, singly as well as collectively. South China Sea can securely thrive with vitality and prosperity if all stake holders in the region, resident as well as non-resident ones, enhance their co-operative engagements and re-calibrate their positions in tandem with the growing strategic interdependencies.

And as an aside, since all pursuit of own national objectives and interests in this time and age needs to be within the framework of international law, perhaps the time is now opportune to revisit the law itself. As the most cited reference document in the maritime context, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1983 (UNCLS III), presents itself as a prime contender for such a review.

(Based on a presentation made by the author at a seminar in Jakarta on 20 Sep12)
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