|[Chinese Navy Flotilla near Somalia (Source: Sino Defence Forum)]|
India’s Look-East Policy, which shaped its foreign relations with countries of the Indo-Pacific Region since 1991, has outlived its utility. For efficient promotion of its strategic and economic interests and to maintain its stake in the regional security, it’s imperative for India to increase its role in resolving disputes in the Indo-Pacific region and deepen relations with regional countries. Therefore, India could begin by increasing its role in resolving the South China Sea dispute, which has the potential to disrupt peace and safety of the entire Indo-Pacific Region. Simultaneously, India needs to strengthen its partnership with three crucial Indo-Pacific countries in particular, namely, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. By virtues of their demographic dimension, economic profile, geostrategic location and willingness to defend common regional security principles, these three countries hold special importance for India. A close relationship with all three could help India strengthen the regional security and cooperation framework and ensure peace and safety in the Indo-Pacific.
So far, India has avoided taking any conspicuous role in the South China Sea dispute, barring few anodyne and statutory declarations. Although, Indian government fully understands that if the dispute takes an ugly turn, its consequences would be disastrous for India’s economic and strategic security. Nevertheless, the shyness owes its origins to seemingly strong but dubitable and unsubstantiated reasons. The atavistic fear is the main reason, if not the strongest, that if India played a prominent role in the South China Sea dispute, China would be deeply offended. China could then, in theory, create problems for India by establishing creative alliances in the Indian Ocean Region, where India prefers to believe that it has the upper hand.
[Chinese Nuclear Attack Submarine Shang Class in Indian Ocean 2014 (Source: Sandeep Unnithan, India Today)]
Regrettably, this policy is erroneous and ill-suited for the regional security as it neither enhances Indian profile in the Western Pacific nor restrains Chinese aspirations in the Indian Ocean Region. The policy has failed miserably in preventing China from permanently deploying its naval fleet in the Indian Ocean, sending its submarines on patrol near mainland India and most important, from creating “places not bases” arrangement with Indian Ocean Rim countries. Hence, in 2014, Chinese naval flotilla refuels and resupplies from ports in Seychelles (Victoria), Oman (Salalah), Yemen (Aden), Djibouti, Pakistan (Karachi, Gwadar, Pasni), Sri Lanka (Colombo, Hambantota), Bangladesh (Chittagong), Myanmar (Kyukpyu) and Singapore, amongst others. In addition, a Chinese Naval flotilla is permanently forward deployed near the Somalian Coast while other ships have begun conducting naval exercises in the Southern Indian Ocean. In contrast, the Indian Navy has hardly any role or deployment in the South China Sea, East China Sea or anywhere significant in the Western Pacific.
Given this situation, a realistic assessment demands an increased Indian role in the Indo-Pacific Region, especially in the South China Sea. India’s 55 percent trade flows through the sea lines of communication (SLOC) in the South China Sea and Indian trade with Japan, China, South Korea, ASEAN and Russia is dependent upon these SLOCs. In addition, Indian oil companies are investing substantially in oil exploration ventures near the Vietnamese coast and India imports oil from Sakhalin Oilfields in Russia through this route. Moreover, about 40 percent of seaborne crude oil and 50 percent of the global merchant fleet passes through this region. Hence, the freedom and safety of navigation through the South China Sea is crucial for the world economy. Any disruption in navigation would be disastrous, leaving the global and Indian economy at the mercy of the hegemonic power over the South China Sea, which India can’t afford to let happen. Hence, India cannot stay away from this dispute without considerably harming its core national interests. Thus, it’s imperative for India to increase its role in resolving the dispute while simultaneously creating closer relationships with key naval powers of the region, namely, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan.
[Indonesian Islands under Chinese Claim]
Indonesia is a crucial Indian neighbour and lies adjacent to the Indian island territories in the Indian Ocean. At present, it is looking for ways to reduce potential hegemonic domination in the Indo-Pacific through external balancing. In particular, Indonesian anxiety of Chinese intentions in the South China Sea has increased in last few years after China expanded its “nine-dash line”, incorporating Indonesian Riau Islands. This led to substantial up-gradation of security arrangements of these islands and consequent deployment of latest Sukhoi-30 fighter jets and naval warships to guard against any future threat. In addition, Indonesia has become quite vocal about China’s power play in the South China Sea dispute and its absolute disregard for international law, multilateral treaties and conventions. Chinese Navy’s frequent naval exercises, especially amphibious warfare ones, and nuclear submarine deployments have especially raised Indonesian concerns. Most of these Indonesian concerns are similar to Indian apprehensions.
Vietnam is another country which has been at the receiving end of the regional power play. A sizeable chunk of Chinese diktats in the South China Sea is directed towards Vietnam and the trend has followed through fishing ban announcement, oil-rig dispute and a probable declaration of Air Defence Identification Zone. Vietnam is compelled to remain always on guard and often deploys its fighter jets and submarines to safeguard its interests in the region. In an ominous trend, Chinese newspapers have been increasingly advocating for a short war with Vietnam to punish it and set an example for other regional countries.
Finally, Japan has bore the brunt of China’s anger and provocation in the last decade. The threshold of a conflict between China and Japan has been reducing with every passing day and naval stand-offs between both navies have occurred regularly. Japanese concerns for their national security have grown multi-fold, leading to the removal of restrictions over its defence exports and strengthening of its efforts for the “normalisation” of its military in the Japanese Constitution. These actions have met with only a feeble opposition in the Japan’s pacifist society which indicates its seriousness. Japan is also a large industrial power with a growing profile in the Indian economy so a close partnership is an absolute necessity. Unfortunately, though the Indian Government under Manmohan Singh strived to create a close partnership with Japan, most of its overtures were half-hearted in nature, owing to left-liberal leanings of the Indian ruling party. Hence, much needs to be covered in this relationship.
In sum, India has arrived at a historic opportunity to enhance the security of the Indo-Pacific region, while safeguarding its own national security, by increasing its role in the South China Sea and creating close-cooperation with Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. Arguments for better relations with Singapore, Philippines, South Korea and others can also be advanced. However, many of them have concluded bilateral security treaties with America to check the domination of any regional power. Indonesia and Vietnam do not enjoy such security guarantees and though, Japan remains under the US security umbrella, no Japanese government would afford to keep all its eggs in one basket. Hence, India can immensely enhance the Indo-Pacific regional security by playing a prominent role in the South China Sea dispute and creating close and creative partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.