Indian Presence in the South China Sea: Strategic Compulsions

The month of May saw India’s participation in the inaugural ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise (AIME 2023) that was held on May 2-8, 2023 in the South China Sea waters. Two indigenous-built ships, INS Satpura and INS Delhi, from the Eastern Naval Command participated in the two-phased exercises. The harbor phase was held in Changi Naval Base, Singapore, while the sea phase was conducted on May 7-8 in the South China Sea (SCS). In addition to taking the India-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic partnership to the next level by conducting joint naval exercises and coordination between the Information Fusion Centers, it also showcased the capabilities of the indigenously developed ships. Having passed the foundation of its capabilities and interoperability with other ASEAN navies, India needs to consider more patrolling in the SCS waters. While India cannot consider a Quad level patrolling, the recent ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise and India’s own interest in the SCS can be sufficient reasons for more naval presence.

The Other Military Quad

In June, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2023, the other Quad members minus India, i.e., Australia, Japan, and the U.S. along with the Philippines undertook defense cooperation talks including joint patrolling in the SCS. Recently, the Philippines, U.S., and Japan also held a trilateral exercise in the SCS. The preference for the Philippines to be a partner in this Quad exercise is understandable. Manila has been the longest (non-NATO) treaty ally of the U.S. and despite trepidations in the bilateral relations, it has signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and agreed to open four new U.S. bases in undisclosed locations, indicating increasing U.S. presence in the region. Japan, on its part, has in recent times transformed its passive defense policies to include more radical shifts in the wake of Chinese aggressive postures. Moreover, both the Philippines and Japan are facing direct threats from China in their maritime claims in the SCS and ECS waters.

India, however, neither has any maritime claims in the SCS except for two blocks near the EEZ of Vietnam, nor allows for U.S. bases to be established on its soil. Indeed, the signing of four foundational military logistics and security agreements, namely COMCASA, BECA, LEMOA and GSOMIA, etc., has provided more access and transparency of information sharing between India and the U.S. in recent years.

Why India Might Not Consider Venturing into SCS?

SCS does not seem to be an immediate security concern for India. However, a country that is seeking to become a Blue Economy, requires a Blue Water Navy to protect its national, economic, and human assets beyond 200 nautical miles of jurisdictional waters from its coastline.

Therefore, the current focus is on its presence in the Indian Ocean Region which the Indian Navy’s Indian Maritime Security Strategy 2015 calls “primary area of interest”. The seas beyond form the secondary area of interest. India has continued its neutral stance on the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration verdict on the SCS dispute. Adequate budget to support these naval deployments as well as support from other countries to provide logistics to them are some other hindrances at the moment.

While India did conduct SCS patrolling with its Southeast Asian neighbors, it might be reluctant to do so in the current Quad format. This has partly to do with its reluctance to appear to be part of any alliance with a military angle, and partly to avoid unwanted Chinese attention in the maritime domain while its land tussle in the northern borders is still ongoing. India thus finds itself in a bind, preventing more military activities with its Quad partners. However, it is finding synergies in new forms of cooperation such as maritime domain awareness (MDA), resilient supply chains, and undersea cables to address the maritime challenges.

And Why it Should?

Despite the current security calculus, India should venture into the SCS waters more for strategic reasons. India’s reasons to be present in far-off seas are neither unique nor new to other countries. International maritime law, UNCLOS provides freedom of navigation and overflight rights to all the countries in the high seas, EEZ and even territorial waters of other countries for ‘peaceful reasons’. India has been making port calls to its Southeastern neighbors since as early as the 1960s. Of late, the Indian Navy has been making friendly visits to far-off African and Latin American countries showcasing their diplomatic approach as well as naval capabilities to traverse and sustain in far-off waters.  India is improving its relations with Pacific Island Countries too, broadening its maritime vision.

Over 80 percent of India’s trade is dependent upon sea lines of communication. While the 2015 government figure of over 55 percent of trade passing through SCS waters requires revision now, India finds strong market and trade synergies with Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN as much as it does with China. Protection of commercial shipping vessels in the piracy- and trafficking-infested waters of Southeast Asia is in India’s interests. The post-COVID scenario has put further impetus on the need for resilient supply chain mechanisms. Additionally, there are other maritime assets such as two oil exploration blocks, 127 and 128, off the coast of Vietnam that the two countries are jointly exploring.

Traversing the high seas also requires constant research for understanding the nature of the seas. Each sea presents unique challenges and for India to achieve its Blue Economy/ Blue Navy objectives of sustainably exploiting marine resources, more knowledge and testing of its capabilities would be required. Although the developing Asian economies might not have unilateral capabilities, India and its like-minded partners can undertake joint maritime activities.

Most importantly, India holds a principled position when it comes to using the global commons such as maritime domains that it should be free, open and “inclusive”. It also commits to a maritime order that is fair, and any disputes to be resolved peacefully. Though New Delhi has yet to overtly show its position on the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) 2016 verdict on the South China Sea, it has repeatedly reiterated its support for international laws and UNCLOS to govern for a rules-based order in the maritime domain. India is an UNCLOS signatory and ratified it in 1995. To be a credible power, India needs to commit its resources to its vision towards the maritime domain beyond the Indian Ocean waters. While it has been increasing its maritime cooperative activities with western neighbors, the waters in the eastern seaboard should be seen from the same perspective. Such an initiative also lies parallel and complementary to India’s approach towards its eastern neighbors under Act East, Neighborhood First and Security and Growth of All in the Region (SAGAR) policies. For India, ASEAN Centrality is fundamental to this approach as well as towards the multilateral frameworks in the region.

The AIME exercises not unexpectedly were followed/ shadowed by the Chinese maritime militia rather than PLA(N), something that is a universal practice by adversary navies. This demonstrates Chinese acceptance that maritime cooperative exercises by other navies are no reason for military confrontation. The abovementioned should provide enough reasons for India to be vocal and declare its maritime interests to be overtly present both unilaterally and multilaterally in the SCS.

Disclaimer: Views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India or any government organization.