Tensions along the Line of Actual Control compelled India to give away its symbolic South China Sea Policy.
It is worth taking time to observe the dynamics that influence India’s South China Sea (SCS) policy. The changes in India’s SCS policy are not hard to attribute to tensions in bilateral relations with China – a claimant of the SCS, ASEAN claimants, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, including Taiwan. The shift from symbolic policy to a policy of concern is about how India reads geopolitical developments in the South China Sea region. Indeed, India started to look at the region of the SCS as independent from its economic relations with China. India’s traditional approach of the “middle path” – ‘strategic neutrality’ on the SCS disputes could be adventurous but at the same time promising if cast-off carefully.
As tensions at the LAC become frequent, unpredictable and increasingly violent, India believes its economic relations with China no longer influence the early solution to disputes at LAC. In the late 1980s, it was widely believed that renewing diplomatic and economic ties with China after the 1962 conflict may favour dispute settlement. Especially growth in trade, investments and technological cooperation with China has deeply convinced and became compelling evidence for Indian leadership to believe such an assumption, which over time has lost relevance.
Precisely, the shift started since the Doklam incident (2017) in an area between Tibet’s Chumbi Valley to the north, Bhutan’s Ha Vally to the east and India’s Nathang Valley to the west. Anyone who knows the geopolitics of the region well can understand the problem with China building infrastructure in the disputed land; in a conflict, it gives an edge to access the Siliguri Corridor – a narrow stretch of land connecting India’s North Eastern states with the rest of India, which is also absurdly known as “chicken’s neck”.
Even though the change started earlier with clear evidence of the “string of pearls theory” – a roughly drawn map connecting China’s investments and military rights in the ports of the Indian Ocean Region, they were depicted as encircling India’s coast made media headlines. Nevertheless, such arrangements for China’s expansion on the high seas did not shake bilateral relations much. With this logic, the assumption that China’s actions at the LAC primarily influenced India to reject China’s “historical” claims on the SCS gained weight.
If we look at India’s formal statements on developments in SCS, the specific use of words has changed from ‘noted’ to ‘concerned’ when compared with India’s comments on the ruling given by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement on SCS region. India (MEA) clarified its stance on the SCS two times in two months, on 21 May 2020and 16 July 2020, which stated, “the South China Sea is a part of global commons, and India has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the region.” A clear message to China and other claimants to mend their ways. This also puts an end to the polished response.
Does the Change in Statements Work?
In diplomacy, messaging and the narrative building is some of the key instruments to apply pressure. Also, they are useful variables to determine future policy options and courses of action. However, these tools cannot assure that China will give up claims but serves specific political objectives, namely balance of power equations and building partnerships with China’s rivals. Indeed, in the long run, these are useful tools to limit the power play and uphold international law. If soft pressure and narrative building are rightly used, the interest in the region towards a Quad plus – Quad-ASEAN dialogue may likely increase to protect global commons in SCS. Such signalling is a reminder that SCS is critical for India’s external security interest and cannot be compromised just for economic relations with any single country – China.
Some of the sweeping changes in India’s South China Sea policy suggest that conflict with China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) caused a change in policy behaviour. For instance, in terms of the policy, the change is articulation, choosing the right time to clarify its stance, leaving space to “reset” bilateral relations with China based on “reciprocity”. Besides, the change in actions explains its intentions for expanding the Indian Armed Forces (Navy) outreach and partnerships in the SCS region.
Indeed, the change is driven by the new perception in India – that there is no division between strategic interest and economic/business interest; both are very much part of national interest. Second, security and business opportunities influence India to delve into the potential of the South China Sea.
Significance of Strategic Waterways
When we look at the significance of strategic waterways and SCS to India, 95 per cent of overall trade by volume and 70 per cent by value passes through maritime transport, of which a significant share of around USD 200 billion trade passes through the SCS. Strategic resources (oil and natural gas reserves) around the South China Sea also inspire India to deepen engagement to exploit the range of commercial opportunities for Indian businesses and investments. Thus, the region’s stability and security of sea lanes of communications in SCS are crucial for India’s economic interest. India believes that if China’s naval diplomacy in the Indian Ocean region by acquiring military facilities should not be seen as a concern of India, India’s maritime diplomacy in the SCS should not be a concern for China.
Although it is unclear will the Indian Navy emerge as a net security provider or at least become the first responder to disasters in the South China Sea, as demonstrated in the Indian Ocean Region for decades, the Navy’s mission-based deployment near chokepoints has been promising. In the policy outlook, this region was articulated for its enormous trade, business and security potential. Some cases of visible articulation can be seen in India’s ‘Act East Policy’, the SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region), Indo-Pacific policy, Quad, and ‘Act Far East’ policy.
If we look at the events, India has geopolitical interests driving its active engagements in the South China Sea. The sequence and coordination of the Indian Navy exercises around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, warships sent to the South China Sea, and conducting combat drills with the US Navy explain the above rationale. Nonetheless, India’s symbolic activities may not change much on the ground but only serve as a signal to China and South China Sea littoral states about its growing interest in the region.
The rise in naval deployment, exercises and partnerships make India a more visible player in the SCS. The list goes: in October 2017, change in Indian Navy operational deployment; in July 2018, Indian Coast Guard ships visited the port of Sabang, Indonesia; in December 2018, inaugurated Information Fusion Centre Indian Ocean Region for maritime domain awareness; December 2018, SHINYUU-MAITRI-18 in India; in January 2019, established additional Air and Naval bases in Andaman and Nicobar Islands; a first trilateral naval exercise in the East China Sea; May 2019, September 2019, India took part in week-long sail in the South China Sea with the US, Japan and Philippine; in September 2019, India further extended aid and line of credit to the South Pacific States; and in November 2019, Anti-submarine warfare exercises with Indonesia.
The question of what motivated India to engage in the South China Sea actively finds an answer in the belief that geopolitics caused a change in policy behaviour. These are prevailing factors why New Delhi had to rethink its earlier approach toward the South China Sea. The anarchic nature of the security environment in the region provides a menu of reasons for the differences between India and China. The shift in India’s engagement is closely linked to China’s traditional South Asian Policy – “support the small to defeat the big”. China has been undertaking the Belt and Road Initiative projects in the UN-designated disputed region (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir), taking the Kashmir issue to the United Nations Security Council and ignoring India’s claim, which has resulted in India revisiting projects in China’s claimed area. Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, as well as the South China Sea and Taiwan issues, have been leftovers/grey areas of India’s China Policy. India realised frequent clashes had exhausted and transcended their balancing potential, thus starting to pick one after another. The South China Sea and Taiwan issues being outside of complete control of China, India to find value either to pressure China or to balance its revisionist rise.
China has always had the element of pressuring countries to recognise, follow and reiterate the ‘One China’ policy – which included claims over the South China Sea. In response, the former Foreign Minister, Shri Sushma Swaraj, plainly stated that if India has to take a stand on the ‘One China’ policy, China should first clarify its position on the ‘One India’ policy. For China, adhering to the ‘One China’ policy means acknowledging its claims, including those over the SCS. Although India has been silent on the ‘One China’ policy in joint statements, Swaraj’s comments on emphasising reciprocity open fresh discussion.
Besides, the timing of India’s response explains it has to do with the trajectory of China-India relations. The change New Delhi needs to signal is that unless China clarifies and acts on India’s sensitivities, it will not feel the need to consider China’s sentiments. If China continues to side lining India’s concerns, such an act will force India to take hard stands.
Regarding coping with change, the security situation in the LAC became one of the push factors for India’s active engagement in the South China Sea. Eyeing to balance China at LAC, India should gear up both military and commercial activities in the South China Sea. The timing and synchronised posture should maintain on one side, with the Indian Army’s resistance and push back the People’s Liberation Army along the LAC with the Navy’s engagement in power projections in the South China Sea on the other side. Conversely, concern about China’s naval activities in SCS would compel ASEAN claimants positively reflect on India’s intent, including Vietnam, the Philippines, the US and Australia.
 Namrata Goswami, INDIA’S APPROACH TO ASIA: Strategy, Geopolitics and Responsibility, New Delhi: Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses and Pentagon Press, (2016), PP. 120-140.
 Dnyanashri Kulkarni, “India and China: Revisiting the 1962 war and 2020 Galwan attack”, OpIndia, 16 March 2022, accessed on 27 September 2022, URL: https://www.opindia.com/2022/03/india-china-revisiting-the-1962-war-and-2020-galwan-attack/.
 MEA, “Transcript of Media Briefing by Official Spokesperson (May 21, 2020)”, Ministry of External Affairs, accessed on 23 August 2022, URL: https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/32699/Transcript_of_Media_Briefing_by_Official_Spokesperson_May_21_2020.
 MEA, “Transcript of Virtual Weekly Media Briefing by the Official Spokesperson (July 16, 2020)”, Ministry of External Affairs, accessed on 23 September 2022, URL: https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/32836/Transcript_of_Virtual_Weekly_Media_Briefing_by_the_Official_Spokesperson_July_16_2020.
 Vijay Gokhale, “How the South China Sea situation plays out will be critical for India’s security”, The Indian Express, 16 June 2020, accessed on 22 September 2022, URL: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/south-china-sea-dispute-asean-countries-relations-vijay-gokhale-6460680/.
 Dr S. Jaishankar, “Indian Foreign Policy in Era of Geo-Political Volatility”, The Economic Times, 06 March 2020, accessed on 23 August 2022, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hh2App6Cf7c
 Nandini Jawli, “South China Sea and India’s Geopolitical Interests”, Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, Vol. 29, No. 1/2 (June-December 2016), pp. 85-100.
 Ankit Panda, New Delhi Will Recognize ‘One China’ When Beijing Recognizes ‘One India’, The Diplomat, September 09, 2014, accessed on 15 September 2022, URL: https://thediplomat.com/2014/09/new-delhi-will-recognize-one-china-when-beijing-recognizes-one-india/.
 Srini Sitaraman, “Rising Chinese Power and Territorial Assertiveness in the South China Sea: India-Vietnam Strategic Partnership as a Counterbalancing Endeavor”, in Enrico Fels, and Truong-Minh Vu (eds.), Power Politics in Asia’s Contested Waters: Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea, Switzerland: Springer Nature, (2016), pp 403–423.