Will India revisit its stance on South China Sea? Dr. Jagannath Panda

The following article was published in the May 2023 issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL.


Dr. Jagannath Panda*

The geo-political conflict in the South China Sea (SCS) has new momentum with the rising United States-China rivalry and China’s assertiveness in the region. The official U.S. position rejects China’s claims to offshore resources in the SCS as “unlawful” and questions the legality of the “Nine-Dash Line” – a set of line maps that reflect China’s claim to 90 percent of the SCS. The United States says that the Chinese predatory world view has little space in current world politics. This official U.S. stance has intensified the SCS frontline debate among the non-claimant countries, including India.

India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies and the third largest energy consumer. As SCS is a major sea corridor for naval and commercial shipping, and one of the world’s most important energy trade routes, it is vital for India’s access to the region. India’s growing energy needs make it necessary for the emerging economy to explore potential sources of energy – including oil and gas expedition in the SCS. As India is heavily dependent on sea trade, any disruptions in the sea lanes of communications (SLOC) or impediments to accessing the region’s maritime passages can be profoundly detrimental to India’s development.

For a long time, New Delhi has maintained a strategic neutrality on the SCS dispute, reaffirming that it should be resolved peacefully through “legal” means. As a non-claimant country, India has advocated “freedom of navigation” and protection of “overflight” and “unimpeded lawful commerce.” This position is commensurate with India’s Act East Policy, allowing it to form deeper strategic and economic engagements with Southeast/East Asian countries. After the release of the U.S.’s “position paper,” the Indian Ministry of External Affairs restated that New Delhi considers the SCS a part of “global commons” and that it has an “abiding interest in peace and stability in the region.”

But will India revisit its tactical neutral position on the SCS in the face of rising tensions with China? What potential factors could shape this policy change?

Any alteration in India’s stance on SCS would require a nationalist and revisionist resolve on its part as well as strategic foresight vis-à-vis China. In fact, this renewed position would likely be heavily conditional upon India’s future relationship with China, and the response of other non-claimant countries towards the SCS dispute. For instance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s willingness in 2019 to expand India’s footprint in the SCS by proposing a maritime route with Russia that would partly pass through the contested waters showed signs of this resolve.

India-China ties are undergoing strategic confrontation, bilaterally and regionally. While largely implausible before, strategic circles in post-Galwan India have begun thinking about a revision to India’s “One China” policy, which has pointedly gone unmentioned in joint statements between the two nations over the last decade. If revised, India’s re-consideration of its current stance on SCS would be decisively linked to a renewed outlook on the issue of Tibet. This could happen if China continues its aggressive claim to Indian territories – like the whole of Arunachal Pradesh – and revises its the “One India” policy.

Another scenario that would require India to revisit its neutrality is if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forcefully occupied Taiwan, leading to a war-like situation between China and the United States, creating massive regional instability. Further, as almost 55 percent of India’s trade passes through SCS, disruption of this trading connection might encourage India to revise its outlook. These changing perspectives would also depend upon how the United States, other major powers including the Quad countries like Japan and Australia, and claimant countries in the SCS respond to developments in the region.

The PLA has played a shrewd role in recent years by creating a strategic divide between India and its two Himalayan neighbors, Bhutan and Nepal. During the 2017 Doklam incident, the Chinese military created a fissure between India and Bhutan while the Kalapani-Lipulekh dispute between India and Nepal has seen Chinese backing. The persistence of such tension and the PLA’s recent aggressive posturing in the Western sector (around the Ladakh region) to claim new Indian territories are also factors that could induce a review of India’s neutral position. New Delhi realizes that the SCS is a core issue for Beijing.

India might also revisit its position if China decides to engage with Pakistan to create a double front conflict with India. Beijing has consistently opposed India’s joint oil exploration with Viet Nam in the SCS, asserting its “sovereignty” in the disputed region and citing “historical” claims. However, Beijing shrugs off India’s “sovereignty” over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), overlooking India’s historical claim to the region. China’s involvement in the POK through investment and infrastructure projects – especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under the Belt and Road Initiative – is emblematic of a hypocritical stance as perceived by India. A mini-scale/limited war either between India and China, or between India, China and Pakistan may prompt a change in India’s SCS position.

Beijing’s strategic goal to control much of the oil-rich seabed in SCS is another important factor. This might lead to soaring regional tensions, spurring claimant and non-claimant countries into collective action at some point. In such circumstances, India could play a decisive role given its substantial exploration efforts with Vietnamese oil companies. The presence of ONGC Videsh (the National Oil Company of India) in Viet Nam is not a new development; it began in 1988. Until now, India’s diplomatic position on the SCS had been grounded in a desire to avoid repercussions from China. But if China was to replicate its 2019 attempts to stop India’s oil exploration in the SCS, a post-Galwan India, amidst mounting political and public pressure, may as well abandon its persistent neutrality in favor of a bolder outlook. India’s recent decision to ban Chinese apps and restrict Chinese access to Indian public procurement projects is a sign of a stronger posture by New Delhi.

Support for a larger coalition vis-à-vis China and the SCS could be another motivating factor. The non-claimant countries share little in terms of strategic compatibility over the SCS dispute. Consequently, there exists no coalition amongst them to address the disputed maritime region. The different – and at times, overlapping – maritime claims by Malaysia, Brunei, Viet Nam, Philippines and Taiwan, which have asserted sovereignty over contested areas in the region, only adds to the complexity of the situation. These fragmented perspectives have thus far discouraged many countries, including India, from taking a specific position. If India’s (already considerable) commercial activities in the SCS receive diplomatic and military support from its non-claimant, Quad partners, as well as from the Southeast Asian claimant countries, India may boldly seize the opportunity to review its neutral position.

India’s least tangible and yet most significant stake in the SCS is to support a “rules-based” order consistent with India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific. To India, this means strengthening certain foundational principles such as the endurance of sovereign rights, discarding unilateral territorial expansion, upholding international law, and protecting the global commons including the sea-lanes. Given the rising significance of the SCS in the Indo-Pacific calculus, Indian foreign policy may no longer remain apolitical by maintaining a China-cautious position.

With India’s worldview on China rapidly changing post-Galwan, New Delhi will not hesitate to revisit its SCS policy of avoiding provocation of China’s wrath if pushed by Beijing’s undue aggression. The outcome of this new outlook in India’s foreign policy will profoundly influence, if not completely shape, the trajectory of the South China Sea dispute in the future.

* Head of Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA), Institute for Security and Development Policy, Sweden; Senior Fellow at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS), The Netherlands; and Director for Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies (YCAPS), Japan

All articles published in the International Review of Contemporary Law reflect only the position of their author and not the position of the journal, nor of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.


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