Map with Thailand in focus.
Map with Thailand in focus.

The Sydney Morning Herald ran a fine opinion article, Great powers stepping up on China, on June 4 regarding the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The author, Peter Hartcher, said successive speakers at the forum talked about the rules-based order in the South China Sea, and the further their countries were from the strategically vital waterway, the  louder their condemnation of China tended to be.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also shared his views of the Indo-Pacific: “India’s own engagement in the Indo-Pacific Region – from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas – will be inclusive.”

In his assessment, Hartcher said the countries whose territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea was threatened “tiptoed carefully around the subject and had little or nothing to say.”

With the South China Sea forming a part of the Indo-Pacific, Modi definitely made his position clear. Without making a reference to China, in his remarks about the region, he said, “We should all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.”

Hartcher said Modi’s speech was “a departure from India’s longstanding passivity.” He added, “The Philippines and Vietnam have been intimidated into quiescence.”

There is a lot of truth in Hartcher’s assessment. Apparently, the countries of the South China Sea are quite intimidated by the aggressive posturing of the Chinese. Even after winning its legal battle in the International Court of Justice, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has not pressed his case regarding territorial rights with the Chinese in the South China Sea.

Many of these countries look to India to provide some stability in the region. The Indian interest to its east goes beyond the South China Sea and the Asean member states to countries across the Pacific, including Japan, Australia and the two Koreas.

India’s Look East policy was initiated in 1991. The objectives were both economic and geopolitical. However, never has the pursuit of these objectives been as vigorous as after Modi became India’s prime minister four years ago. He upgraded the policy from “Look” to “Act” East.  Highlighting this new geopolitical orientation, on January 26, the Indian Republic Day Parade featured all 10 Asean heads of states as guests.

However, it would be unreasonable to state that India can thwart Chinese hegemony by itself. Its defense budget of less than US$50 billion is paltry in comparison with China’s allocation of over $175 billion. The modernization of China’s military has been ongoing for years now. India’s efforts, however, have been hamstrung by a lack of resources.

The Chinese already have infrastructure in place along the Indo-Tibet border and other border areas. Their land borders can be defended against any threat, and they have the capability to undertake punitive aggressive action. Having created defenses along their land borders, they have turned their attention to the seas. Currently, they are projecting power in the South China Sea while concurrently building capabilities in the Indian Ocean. The Belt and Road Initiative allows them to further extend their influence into Central Asia and Africa.

China’s tendency to aggressively impose its will in the region has been met with considerable criticism. The South China Sea has been the scene of greatly stepped-up international naval activity in recent years. The battle in the South China Sea today is mainly about the littoral states, the European powers, the US and, of course, India wanting to keep the sea lanes and skies open for international traffic.

The battle in the South China Sea today is mainly about the littoral states, the European powers, the US and, of course, India wanting to keep the sea lanes and skies open for international traffic

The Indian counterstroke so far was best summed up by General VP Singh (Retired), the Indian minister of state for defense, while replying to a question in parliament. He said, “India has upgraded its relations with Southeast Asian countries in a big way to strategic partnership with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, Singapore and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. We have Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements with Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Free Trade Agreements with Asean and Thailand.”

India and Indonesia recently upgraded their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.  The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is being negotiated by Asean, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, and would embed India more deeply with Asean.

The Chinese agenda is defined best by its Nine-Dash Line, which covers most of South China Sea. Beyond the islands of the South China Sea, the Chinese are creating facilities along the Myanmar coast at Kyaukpyu, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, where they have acquired a lease for 99 years, Gwadar in Pakistan, which they have for the next 40 years, and a full-fledged naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. The Chinese have also been keen to fund port construction in Bangladesh.

Indian efforts to establish infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific includes logistics arrangements recently made with Indonesia and Singapore. A few Indian initiatives have suffered setbacks recently. Maldives seems to be leaning more towards Beijing lately and the Ascension Island deal with Seychelles is also wavering.

The major naval exercises that the Indians have been conducting along with other countries in the region to foster greater solidarity are Exercise Milan, a biennial exercise that has been running since 1995, with five countries participating in its first edition.  The last edition was conducted in March 2018 with 16 nations participating in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The participating countries were Australia, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar, New Zealand, Oman, Vietnam, Thailand, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya and Cambodia.

SIMBEX 17, one of the oldest exercises conducted by the Indonesian and Indian navies, has been running for 25 years. India also runs the biennial Malabar exercises with the US, which Japan is now participating in. The Australians were keen to join it this year, but their entry has been postponed.

Southeast Asian countries, by and large, remain subdued by Chinese pressures. To maintain stability in the region there is a need for greater cohesion between the littorals and India. India, by itself, is not in a position to project adequate power in Southeast Asia. Should the members of the Quadrilateral – India, the US, Japan and Australia – be able to forge a durable relationship, the Chinese would display greater prudence and lesser belligerence in the South China Sea. Southeast Asian nations could ultimately align with the Quad.

S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.

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