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India Ups the Ante Against China in Beijing’s Lake
Decision to support UNCLOS decision lays down a regional marker
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
The surprise reversal by India of its previously neutral stance to extend its support to the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea nullifying the legitimacy of China’s so-called “nine-dash line” is a step by Delhi to raise its regional profile and delineate a more vigorous role against Beijing.
China has ignored the July 12, 2016 decision by the arbitral tribunal in the Hague, which held overwhelmingly for the Philippines, determining that major elements of China’s claim including recent land reclamation on islets and other activities in Philippine waters were unlawful under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
India’s statement of support for the Philippines, delivered to Enrique A. Manalo during a June visit by the Philippines’ foreign secretary, comes at a time when China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are in the midst of intense negotiations over a mutually agreed code of conduct for the strategically crucial sea corridor that China claims as its exclusive region. With India changing its stance in the wake of its own tensions with China in Ladakh, Beijing is increasingly facing diplomatic isolation.
New Delhi has apparently started a game of real politics. For India, taking a standard position on this regional dispute means tapping into a major geopolitical alignment that has its roots spread as far as Washington, where policymakers, for the past several years, have been trying to build a global coalition against China. In Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, New Delhi does have a prominent role to play. Now that New Delhi is starting to reinforce Washington’s stance vis-à-vis China and its involvement in regional disputes, it can only be a very encouraging sign for the Biden administration as well as that of the littoral nations of the South China Sea, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, which have been the most confrontational to China, albeit ineffectively in the face of China’s overwhelming military advantage and aggressiveness.
India’s decision to reverse its previous position comes against the backdrop of New Delhi’s own inability to reclaim the territory it lost to China in the Ladakh region a few years ago. As Indian intelligence reported to the Indian Congress in August-2020, China has about 1,000 sq. km in Ladakh under its control. With Delhi finding itself unable to push China back, it finds itself in the same position as the Southeast Asian nations. Supporting the latter’s stance against China, therefore, makes sense for India.
This diplomatic reversal is also tied to India’s other forays into Southeast Asia. With an eye on the ASEAN countries’ territorial conflict with China, Delhi is actively seeking to sell its arms to them to better equip themselves against a Chinese confrontation. In March, the India-based defense firm BrahMos Aerospace said it was in advanced discussions with Indonesia on a US$200 million supersonic cruise missile deal. The Philippines is also scheduled to receive its first delivery of these missiles from India.
In May, India held its first maritime exercise with ASEAN in the South China Sea, leading Chinese maritime militias to approach the area where the exercise was being held. Although China denied its presence, Indian authorities confirmed that they were tracking at least five Chinese vessels, symbolizing the coming together of India and ASEAN against a coming rival. For many, this is the coming of age of India’s “Look East” policy.
This coming of age is coinciding with a growing shift in India’s foreign policy towards Washington, most recently evident in the recent SCO summit, where India’s Modi, in sharp contrast to the Chinese and Russian leaders, not only questioned the SCO’s feasibility but also downplayed its significance when he invited the organization to “ collectively ponder upon” whether the SCO is “evolving into an organization that is fully prepared for the future,”
Modi and his administration are thus also warming to an organization prepared well for the future: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its growing presence in Asia. In fact, Washington’s NATO Ambassador Julianne Smith recently said that, while the organization was not looking to have any members from Asia, it was very much open to more engagement with countries like India.
“In terms of the future with India, I think NATO’s door is open in terms of engagement should India be interested,” she said. “But we would not want to at this stage invite them to NATO ministerial until we knew more about their interest in engaging the alliance more broadly.”
This possibility of engagement with India is encouraged by the fact that four countries located outside of the Euro-Atlantic region have already established ties with NATO and their officials were present in the recent meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers in April. These are Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. Of these four, India is already allied with Australia and Japan alongside the US in the anti-China Quadrilateral Security Group (QUAD), consequently binding India with a presence in the region with a visible preference for a Euro-Atlantic-led system of combined security.
The big question, however, is whether India’s cautious entanglement with such a system would really pay New Delhi off. In simple words, would the US come to India’s help in the wake of an actual military conflict with China in Ladakh?
As critics have pointed out, in any potential conflict between China and India, the battlefield would be Ladakh, not the US, which means the US would have no direct stake in such a conflict. There is not a hint of a defense treaty that would make the former’s participation mandatory, nor is there likely to be anytime soon. Even if India decides to engage with NATO, the latter is far from having a formal military presence in the region, as many ASEAN countries remain very much open to extending and deepening trade ties with China and creating a system of complex interdependence.
New Delhi’s options are further complicated by the fact that Washington is unlikely to offer a formal defense treaty against China without extracting critical concessions from India, especially with regard to India’s ties with Moscow.
In other words, for India to really up the ante against China in the region, it needs Washington’s help. But Washington’s help is unlikely to become fully-fledged without India making critical changes in its foreign policy. The Indian leader gave a hint of possible change at the SCO summit. Whether or not this will take a permanent turn remains to be seen. However, if – and whenever – India takes that turn, this will also mark the end of its strategic autonomy within today’s multipolar world.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He holds a PhD in Politics and International Studies from SOAS, University of London. He is a longtime regular contributor to Asia Sentinel