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India Calibrates its South China Sea Approach Attachments area

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    24th Jul, 2021
India Calibrates its South China Sea Approach Attachments area


  • Historically, India has taken a neutral position in the disputes along the South China Sea (SCS) involving China and other countries of Southeast Asia.
  • India’s neutral position is consistent even as the tensions have threatened the security in the region.
  • But in more recent time, there has been a noticeable change in India’s stance toward SCS.

This article is to meet the following objectives:

  • It ponders this shift: the rationale behind India’s responses vis-à-vis the disputes, and their implications on the country’s ‘Act East’, Indo-Pacific policies and other projects.
  • Furthermore, it explores the impacts of India’s SCS approach on the country’s overall Indo-Pacific vision.

Assessing territorial and maritime disputes along the SCS

  • Beginning in the 1970s, the territorial and maritime disputes along the South China Sea (SCS) remain unresolved. It continues to impede the path to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Countries involved: The territorial and maritime disputes along SCS have involved China and countries of Southeast Asia (primarily Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines).
  • Claim by other Southeast countries: These countries claim that China has been encroaching on their sovereign territories and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) with its aggressive land reclamation and island-building activities.
  • Claim by China: China maintains that these territories are an integral part of its “core interests”, taking an uncompromising stance on the question of sovereignty and its determination to protect the domain militarily.
  • China has been accused by the United States of efforts to "intimidate, coerce and threaten other nations" to control it.
  • The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherland invalidated China's claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea in 2016, but Beijing does not recognize the ruling. 
  • China has built islands in the disputed waters in recent years, putting airstrips on some of them.
  • Beijing often invokes the so-called nine-dash line to justify its apparent historic rights over most of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.
    • The nine-dash line represents the maximum extent of Chinese historical claims within the South China Sea.
    • China's claim is not that the entire space within the nine-dash line is there territory to control, but that the islands within it, the Paracel, Spratly, Zhongsha, and Pratas, all belong to them.

What are the stakes of Extra-region countries in the region?

  • Extra-regional countries like India and the United States also have stakes in securing the SCS.
  • India, while not a South China Sea littoral state, is invested in the maintenance of the rules-based order and freedom of navigation in these sea lanes of communication (SLOCs).
  • India intends to move away from its historical “balanced” approach towards China and the SCS disputes, and play a more proactive role, guided by its Act East policy, in particular, as well as its overall Indo-Pacific vision.
  • Indeed, India has economic, diplomatic and strategic interests in the vital waters of the SCS.

Unexplored facts about South China Sea

  • Ecosystem: South China Sea is an endowed ecosystem that is home to rich biodiversity and varied resources, including an estimated 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil in proved and probable reserves, most of which lie along the margins of the South China Sea rather than under disputed islets and reefs; much more are potentially undiscovered.
  • Trade: Overall, one-third of the world’s shipping pass through these SLOCs, carrying over US$3 trillion worth of trade each year, including most of the world’s requirement for vital commodities like energy and raw materials.

What are India’s Stakes in the South China Sea?

  • Trade through waterways: India uses the SCS waterways—the second-most used in the world—for trade worth nearly US$200 billion every year. Nearly 55 percent of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region pass through these waters.
    • India signed an agreement with Vietnam in October 2011 to expand and promote oil exploration in the South China Sea.
    • For India, its economic vitality rests on assured supply of energy and safe and secure trading routes in the region, including the Straits of Malacca.
    • It has high stakes in keeping the sea lanes open in the SCS—the junction between the Indian and Pacific Oceans—and many other countries do as well.

A 2019 industry study suggests that India’s bilateral trade with the ASEAN economies would double by 2025 to US$ 300 billion from the 2018 level of US$ 142 billion.

  • Engagement with Southeast Asia: The SCS has the potential to enhance regional growth and further India’s engagement with Southeast Asia.
    • India’s interest in the Indo-Pacific is known, and India views the region as “an integrated and organic maritime space with the ASEAN at its centre.”
    • ASEAN and the far-eastern Pacific are the focus areas of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East policy, and the Southeast Asian commons are a “vital facilitator of India’s future development.”
  • Secure access to Western Pacific: As the Indian Navy also operates in the Western Pacific, secure access through the waters of the South China Sea becomes important.

What was India’s earlier approach to SCS Disputes?

Diplomatic tact

  • New Delhi has tried to balance the many competing interests in the South China Sea and not offend Beijing.
  • India’s concern is that if it wades too deeply in SCS affairs, China might heighten its own naval operations in the Indian Ocean.

Naval posturing

The Indian Navy has been engaging in deployments in the disputed waters since 1995. These deployments include unilateral appearances by the Indian Navy, bilateral exercises, friendly port calls, and transit through these waters.

  • Some naval deployments are part of the series of Singapore-India Bilateral Maritime Exercises (SIMBEX).
  • Friendly port calls to littoral countries such as Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam also bring the Indian Navy into these disputed waters.
  • In July 2012, India established deep-water maritime facilities in Campbell Bay (INS Baaz), the most southerly point of the Andaman Islands, potentially enabling Indian surveillance operations in the South China Sea.
  • The Indian Navy also held exercises in the Andamans and has deployed MiG-29K fighters in the islands.
  • In May 2019, the Indian Navy conducted joint sailing in the SCS with the navies of the United States, the Philippines, and Japan.

How does India engage with the region?

  • India engages with the region through regular naval deployments, visits and exercises in these waters, through established and growing strategic-military partnerships with the littoral states, involvement in oil exploitation in these waters, and diplomatic discussions.

India’s Naval Exercises and Deployments in the Indo-Pacific


Operations and overseas deployments in the Eastern Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific


  • Deployments of a five-ship flotilla (two Kashin class destroyers, INS Ranjit and Ranvijay; the frigate Godavari; the missile corvette Kirch; the offshore patrol vessel Sukanya; and the fleet tanker Jyoti) to the South China Sea.


  • INS Kamorta was deployed to participate in the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition (LIMA-15) scheduled from 17 – 21 Mar 2015.


  • INS Kamorta, Satpura took part in SIMBEX-15 in May 2015.


  • INS Saryu, participated in a week-long ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Disaster Relief Exercise (DiREx) conducted in Penang, Northern Malaysia


  • INS Airavat participated in the ADMM Plus (ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus) Exercise on Maritime Security and Counter Terrorism (Ex MS & CT) which commenced at Brunei and culminated at Singapore, with various drills and exercises in the South China Sea.


  • The Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet sailed out on a two-and-a-half-month-long operational deployment to the South China Sea and North West Pacific. During this overseas deployment, the ships of Eastern Fleet made port calls at Cam Rahn Bay (Vietnam), Subic Bay (Philippines), Sasebo (Japan), Busan (South Korea), Vladivostok (Russia), and Port Klang (Malaysia).


  • INS Sumedha arrived in Padang, Indonesia on 10 Apr 2016 to participate in the International Fleet Review and the second edition of the Multilateral Naval Exercise KOMODO (MNEK).


  • INS Kamorta exercised with the Indonesian Warship KRI Usman Harun in the Bay of Bengal as part of the Indian Navy – Indonesian Navy Bilateral Exercise ‘Samudra Shakti’


  • The 30th edition of the India-Thailand Coordinated Patrol (Indo-Thai CORPAT)6 between the Indian Navy and the Royal Thai Navy was conducted from 18 – 20 November 2020.


  • The 35th edition of the India-Indonesia Coordinated Patrol (IND-INDO CORPAT)7 between the Indian Navy and the Indonesian Navy was conducted from 17 to 18 December 2020.


  • The Indian Navy (IN) undertook a Passage Exercise (PASSEX)8 with Russian Federation Navy (RuFN) in the Eastern Indian Ocean Region (IOR) from 4 to 5 December 2020.


  • The 2020 edition of SIMBEX9 in the Andaman Sea


  • 2nd edition of India, Singapore and Thailand Trilateral Maritime Exercise SITMEX10-20, from 21 to 22 November in the Andaman Sea


  • The Indian Navy carried out a military exercise with a US Navy carrier strike group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz off the coast of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. 


  • The IN undertook PASSEX with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the East Indian Ocean Region


  • India and the US on March 28 kicked off a two-day naval exercise in the eastern Indian Ocean region.

Why there is Shift in India’s Approach?

  • Galwan Valley clash: India has not directly spoken about the South China Sea disputes. However, following the Galwan Valley clash of June 2020, a change in India’s attitude towards China started becoming more noticeable, even in relation to the SCS disputes.
  • Stronger positions from other extra-regional players: India is looking to work more closely with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific, and is entering into issue-based mini-lateral partnerships like Japan-Australia-India, India-Australia-France, and the
    • The Quad, since its revival in 2017, has reiterated its aim of working towards a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

What are the challenges for India in the region?

Lack of unity in ASEAN

  • India has observed how Singapore, Vietnam and Myanmar appear to be more invested in India’s role as a security provider in comparison to Malaysia or Indonesia – due to the sensitivity attached to security in the Malacca Strait.
  • At the same time, Laos and Cambodia enjoy closer relations with China, whereas the Philippines, Thailand and Brunei remain undecided on India’s role as a security provider in the region.

China, an important partner of ASEAN

  • China is a power that will continue to be an important partner for the ASEAN and, for that matter, many others in the Indo-Pacific, especially in a post-COVID world where countries will struggle to revive their economies.
  • ASEAN overtook the European Union to become China’s largest trading partner in the first quarter of 2020, and China is the third-largest investor ($150 billion) in ASEAN. 

What India must do?

  • Focus on engagement: India needs to have a stronger presence in the region and for this, it needs to interact and engage more as part of its Act East Policy along with the other Quad members that have similar influence in the region. 
  • Strong reach to other forums: Besides the platform of Quad, India can work with other countries in other forums.
  • Investment: India can push the US, Japan, Australia to invest in the infrastructure development in Southeast Asia, and by extension, in the ASEAN Masterplan on Connectivity 2025.
  • Strong maritime domain awareness (MDA): India’s Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Centre (IOR-IFC) can work with the IFC in Singapore, Indonesian Maritime Information Centre, and Malaysia’s International Maritime Bureau to exchange and share information on illegal incursion and movement of Chinese fishing and naval vessels in the disputed waters of the SCS.

Concluding thoughts

China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean region and other spheres is considered as India’s primary theatre of interest. It is right time for India to also increase its influence in China’s backyard (the Western Pacific). India’s tilt or policy shift for South China Sea is noticeable approach.

India must harden its stance on the South China Sea conflicts, and work towards developing a composite strategy on dealing with the issues to make its presence felt in the region and, ultimately, craft a more meaningful Indo-Pacific strategy.