The strategic signal of an Indian presence in the South China Sea

Source: This post is based on the article “The strategic signal of an Indian presence in the South China Sea” published in The Livemint on 31th August 2021.

Relevance: This article explains India’s presence in the South China Sea.

Synopsis

India’s naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea annoy China, but such bold signalling plays a role in safeguarding national interests.

Context

The last year’s border clash and continuing tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have raised questions on India’s China policy. In a major message to China, the Indian Navy made its presence felt in the waters of the South China Sea.

This month, a task force of four warships sailed to the South China Sea. They performed last week’s Malabar 2021 naval exercises with India’s Quad partners. They will also conduct various bilateral exercises with naval forces from South China Sea littoral states, including Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Read more: Explained: The Malabar Exercise of Quad nations, and why it matters to India
What is the significance of the move?
  1. India claimed that these maritime initiatives are aimed at enhancing synergy and coordination between the Indian Navy and friendly countries.
  2. At a time when tensions with China are high along the LAC, India is signalling that it is willing to challenge China in the maritime sphere along with other like-minded nations.
How global countries are showing their presence in the South China Sea?
  • The South China Sea is claimed by China as its sovereign territory almost in its entirety. The claims of other countries are tackled by China through artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapon systems.
  • Several ASEAN member countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, have counterclaims on China.
  • The US also mentioned, “nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea”.
  • In recent weeks, a British aircraft carrier strike group and an American surface action group have marked their presence in the South China Sea region. 
Read more: Quad Summit and its relevance – Explained, Pointwise
What is India’s interest in the South China Sea?

India has wider stakes in the South China Sea, as nearly 55% of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region passes through these waters. So India’s interest is primarily to keep the region’s trade routes safe and secure, thereby helping uphold regional stability and freedom of navigation.

So, India has been pushing for a rules-based order in the region, including by means of upholding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is evident as in the recent meeting of the East Asia Summit, India stressed that any Code of Conduct in the South China Sea should be fully consistent with the relevant UN convention and negotiations.

What India needs to do?

India is willing to reciprocate and play its role, as seen in its recent deployment of Indian Navy vessels. But China is gaining greater operational control over the disputed territories in the South China Sea. Thus, the challenge for India is rising by the day. So, Greater activism, both diplomatic and military, is needed and is beginning to shape up with the involvement of Quad and other military exercises.

India is waking up to the challenge by trying to increase its presence and influence in China’s backyard. This will annoy China, but rattling China is necessary if India is to suitably protect its interests from the Himalayas to the maritime domain.

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