Eye on Dragon, India steps up to Look East

Eye on Dragon, India steps up to Look East

China and the Philippines have of late engaged in a “buoy” war in the South China Sea over their respective claims. In a tit-for-tat move in the dispute over South China Sea sovereignty, China has set up three “navigation beacons” in the maritime region to offset five navigation buoys placed by the Philippines.

New DelhI: China and the Philippines have of late engaged in a “buoy” war in the South China Sea over their respective claims. In a tit-for-tat move in the dispute over South China Sea sovereignty, China has set up three “navigation beacons” in the maritime region to offset five navigation buoys placed by the Philippines.

The move comes as Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has pursued warmer ties with the US, including giving the US access to more military bases in the face of China's increasingly aggressive actions in the area. However far more significant is the fact that India has revised its position on the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration. This subtle shift in position went almost unnoticed. The shift was noticed in the Joint Statement issued after a meeting between Indian and Philippine Ministers for Foreign Affairs in New Delhi (June 2023) wherein India supported Manila’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The operative part of the statement reads “They underlined the need for peaceful settlement of disputes and for adherence to international law, especially the UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea in this regard”.

The revised stance on the 2016 arbitration award, which counters China’s claims in the South China Sea, and favours the Philippines in the territorial dispute, comes as India has increased security engagement with countries in South-East Asia.

India revealed its new stance in the Joint Statement at the conclusion of the 5th India-Philippines Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation, where Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo and Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar met in New Delhi from 27-30 June 2023.

The Joint Statement inter alia states both sides “held wide-ranging and substantive discussions on regional and international issues of mutual concern”. They also underlined that both countries have a shared interest in a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.

Prior to the 2023 support shown by India for the Philippine, India had only acknowledged the outcome of the award in 2016. However, with the flareup of the Sino-Indian border dispute in the last few years and its role in the Quad’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, India has become more supportive of countries across the region such as the Philippine.

India’s Ambassador to the Philippines Shambhu Kumaran in an interview to Gising Na (March 2023) highlighted concerns shared by India and the Philippines about China. The Ambassador said India had learnt that it needs to “have a very firm and robust response to ensure our interests are safeguarded.” India’s enhanced security ties with the Philippine is a part of India’s “Act East Policy,” which aims to increase ties with countries across the Indo-Pacific. Many of India’s efforts under this policy, especially regarding defence cooperation, can be seen throughout Southeast Asia.

Claims and counter claims over sovereignty in the South China Sea have lately taken the form of nations installing buoys to mark their territory. China and the Philippine recently staged several such buoy wars.

On 24 May 2023 for instance, China announced: “To ensure the safety of ships' navigation and operations, the South China Sea Navigation Security Center of the Ministry of Transport deployed three navigation beacons in the waters near Irving Reef, Whitsun Reef and Gaven Reef in the Nansha Islands [the Spratly Islands].”

The announcement came after the Philippine Coast Guard set up five nationally flagged buoys (10-12 May) within its 322-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). All three reefs are in waters that Manila claims to be within its EEZ, where under international law it enjoys sovereign rights to economic exploitation and exploration.

Earlier, at the end of April 2023, a Chinese Coast Guard ship had blocked a Philippine patrol vessel in the South China Sea, causing a near collision. International media which witnessed the tense encounter near Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly archipelago noted that it was a classic example of Chinese intimidation tactics.

The incident occurred a day after Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr met Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in Manila and expressed hope for open communication lines on the South China Sea dispute.

When the stand-off happened, the US and the Philippines were also close to finishing their largest ever war games. With the US gaining access to key Philippine military bases, the Chinese are now likely to intensify their maritime actions against the Philippine in the South China Sea.

Pertinently, the Philippines had in 2013 filed an arbitration case against China concerning the latter’s activities in the South China Sea. The Philippines focused its case on the legal status of maritime features, particularly on the definition of what is an island. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), only islands can extend the reach of a country’s EEZ.

In 2016, the UNCLOS constituted international arbitral tribunal ruled that many of China’s features in the South China Sea were not islands, but rather rocks or low-tide elevations. The award also discredited the Nine-Dash Line. China has used the “Nine-Dash” Line to claim South China Sea features hundreds of miles away from mainland China. One of these features includes Scarborough Shoal, a maritime feature around 120 nautical miles from the Philippines’.

In 2012, Scarborough was the site of a Philippine-China flashpoint after Chinese vessels occupied the shoal. China does not recognize the UNCLOS 2016 ruling despite the Philippine winning the arbitration in an international court. The arbitration ruling was described by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as “null and void and has no binding force,” and China continued its expansionist activities throughout the South China Sea.

Notably, when the Foreign Ministers of India and the Philippines met in New Delhi recently, they also discussed maritime and defence cooperation, which included maritime exercises, enhanced coast guard collaboration, a Line of Credit for military equipment and the acquisition of naval assets.

The Philippine previously bought India’s BrahMos anti-ship cruise missile and is slated to become the first foreign operator of the system. India seeks to export its BrahMos anti-ship missiles to states around the SCS and the missiles have reportedly been pitched to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Manufacturers of the BrahMos also expect the Philippine to procure more missiles later this year.

India has also focused its attention on Vietnam, recently announcing the transfer of INS Kirpan to the Vietnam People’s Navy, a first between the two countries. New Delhi’s security assistance to Vietnam has taken a keen focus on the construction and transfer of maritime assets.

Previously, Vietnam received a $100 million Line of Credit to procure 12 High-Speed Guard Boats. India together with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, held the first-ever ASEAN-Indian Maritime Exercise this year from 2-8 May. The objective of AIMEX 2023 was to enhance ‘Maritime Cooperation and enhancing trust, friendship and confidence amongst ASEAN and Indian Navies.’

However, during the last phase of the exercise in the South China Sea the ASEAN-Indian flotilla passed a China Maritime Militia formation. The Indian Navy also holds several goodwill activities annually throughout the region. Indian warships commonly hold coordinated patrol exercises with the Royal Thai and Indonesian Navies. A month before the USS Ronald Reagan arrived in Manila, INS Delhi and INS Satpura visited Vietnam.

India has taken a clear and defining line to ensure that its interests are secured. This military and diplomatic offensive sends out a clear signal to China that the dynamics of the bilateral relationship today goes far beyond the boundary issue.

While the boundary is of paramount importance to India, the shadow game India is playing in South-East Asia reflects the new priority accorded to the Act East policy, a practical measure to counter China in its backyard. The Chinese must surely be knowing that the game is afoot! (Agencies)

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