Rising tension: India asserts its presence in South China Sea

The revelations about Chinese Navy challenging Indian warship INS Airavat in South China Sea, while returning from a goodwill visit to Vietnam, has once again drawn international attention on the hardening attitude of China on the South China Sea and raised concerns that this will raise tensions in the maritime region.

Though Indian Navy and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) have simultaneously denied any confrontation with the Chinese Navy, Indian MEA spokesman has accepted that the Indian warship Airavat was indeed contacted by an open radio channel by a caller identifying himself as the “Chinese Navy” stating that “you are entering Chinese waters.” No ship or aircraft was visible from INS Airavat, which proceeded on onward journey as scheduled.  

Recent assertions by China on the status of South China Sea and the launching of the first aircraft carrier for sea trial on August 10 has caused deep concern not only among littoral states of the region but countries like India are also  worried.

The US has already challenged the Chinese contention and India has also said publicly that the maritime area is an open sea in which any country can roam freely. It is evident from the Indian Navy and MEA statements that the Chinese Navy did challenge Indian naval warship.

Freedom of navigation

This is why Indian government had to assert that India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles on international law. India reminded the Chinese by saying that these principles should be respected by all.

Since the beginning of last decade India has started asserting its presence in South China Sea, as India’s area of concern extends from the North of Arabian Sea to the South China Sea, first publicly enunciated by the then Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes in April 2000.

Since then India has been expanding the operational capabilities of its navy to the South China Sea and paying increased attention to force projection and sending expeditionary forces in conjunction with the countries having dispute with China over Spratly Islands and also with other major countries in the maritime region.

India’s primary naval activities in the region concerned mainly anti-piracy, bilateral exercises and goodwill naval visits to ports which in fact indirectly asserted its view that South China Sea is international maritime area and every country has the right to safeguard its economic interests though its own naval resources.

Almost 55 per cent of India’s trade transits via Malacca Strait which funnels out in South China Sea for onward move to China, Japan, Korea, US and other major destinations.

Thus, India has a vital stake in peace and stability in the South China Sea, which China claims to be its territorial waters. Ever since China has started asserting this, Indian and other major navies have been contesting and describing this as international waters.

Situation in South China Sea was a subject of special focus in the July 19 meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum wherein India for the first time spelt out its policy publicly.

The then Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao later on asserted during a seminar in New Delhi, “the South China Sea is an important shipping route. India supports the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”

At the recent ARF meeting in Bali, India noted that the parties concerned were engaged in discussions to address the South China Sea issue and welcomed the recently agreed guidelines on the implementation of the 2002 Declaration of the Conduct of Parties between China and ASEAN.

A senior defence official said that no major country including India can accept South China Sea as exclusive domain of China in view of its economic and strategic interests.

Hence, India has adopted a conscious strategy to mark its military presence in the South China Sea, through its forays into the maritime waters which China claims to be of its interest.

Indian Navy started sending its big flotilla of warships to the maritime area since early last decade and is now indulging in joint naval exercises with countries who are contesting the Chinese claims over the Spratly Islands.

India now organizes joint exercises with Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia on a regular annual basis.

In fact, Singapore has helped India flex its muscle in South China Sea, which has irritated China and it objected to the gun and missile firing during Singapore-India joint exercises SIMBEX and both the countries later relented and agreed to exercise silently.

In June, Vietnamese Chief of Naval Staff visited New Delhi and held discussions on  issues of naval cooperation which will in fact help strengthen the Vietnamese naval prowess vis a vis Chinese Navy.

According to a defence official, “we will not say publicly that we want to checkmate China in the South China Sea but our actions speak louder.” India’s defence engagement with Vietnam has led to drawing of a parallel line with the growing defence cooperation between Vietnam and India to the China-Myanmar naval cooperation.

As Myanmar has extended naval facilities to the Chinese Navy on Coco Islands in Andaman Sea and the Sitwe port, Vietnam has only last month given permission to India to drop anchor at its Nha Trang port in Southern Vietnam.

Naval officials revealed that probably Indian warships are the only one which has been given such facility so near to the Chinese coast. Halong Bay port near Hanoi used to extend such facilities to Indian Navy.

This will facilitate a sustainable presence to Indian Navy in the South China Sea. However, a senior diplomatic source asserts that growing India-Vietnam defence cooperation should not be seen in response to the Sino-Pak cooperation nor to contain China in the South China Sea.

Since early last decade, India has made it an annual ritual to send warships to countries like Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea and other South East Asian countries who are contesting the claims over the Spratly Islands with China.

Expanding capabilities

In fact, officials cite, a decade old statement of the then Defence Minister George Fernandes that India’s area of interest extends from the north of the Arabian Sea to the South China Sea.

The Indian strategic planners have asked Navy to expand the operational capabilities and to increase attention to force projection and expeditionary forces. India has been deploying its ships in the name of the anti-piracy operations jointly with regional powers.

As India wants its maritime trade routes free of pirate attacks and prevent any possibilities of obstruction by any state or non-state actors in Indian Ocean, India has also been marking its naval  presence in the South China Sea and establishing close working defence relationships with countries involved in South China Sea dispute.

From Vietnam to South Korea India has signed defence cooperation agreements, besides with countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

India is now using the opportunity given to it by the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting plus forum of ten ASEAN and eight non-ASEAN countries as a member.

India views it as an effort to establish open and inclusive security architecture for the region. India’s policy is to encourage and participate in cooperative approaches which would enable all countries in the region to counter traditional and non-traditional security challenges and ensure that the critical sea lanes in the region are kept open, secure and for navigation and trade.

India’s involvement in the ADMM plus and various other ASEAN fora is a part of progressive and multifaceted partnership with the East Asian region. At the same time India is also mindful of evolving dynamics of power rivalries in the region and their impact on the region and on regional interests, according to a defence official.

In this context, the recent Chinese plans to expand the Maritime Surveillance Force is being viewed with concern in India as it would raise the counter deployment from other claimants of the Spratly Islands.

The MSF will be equipped with additional 16 aircraft and 350 vessels by 2015 and enhance the strength of the naval personnel from 9000 to 15,000 by 2020. The strength of patrol vessels will also increase to 520 by 2020. These will be deployed in the contested maritime area of South and East China Sea.

Indian officials believe a minor incident could be a potential trigger for a major war in the region involving many countries. India would want this region free of any conflict like situation so that the maritime trade routes to major developed markets are kept open.

According to top defence officials, a structure of bilateral and regional maritime confidence building measures with China would be helpful in keeping the area free of maritime tensions.

India would also like to have a maritime security dialogue which could be an extension of the defence dialogue architecture already in place which is likely to be resumed after suspension last year due to the staple visa policy for Indian Kashmiris by the end of this year with the visit of the Chinese defence secretary to India.

India thus wants that South China Sea to be free of military rivalries and disputes to be resolved amicably, and therefore keen to engage not only with China but all the regional powers. India also wants to assert through its naval activities that South China Sea is in fact international waters and no country can claim suzerainty over the maritime area.