Delhi purposefully riles Beijing as tension mounts in South China Sea 

Brand-new DELHI: As tension mounts in the South China Sea (SCS), where the US just sent a guided-missile destroyer to challenge China’s fanciful 9-dashed line claim, India is showing it is open to not only aggressively seeking freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region but also ensuring disputes are resolved in keeping with international laws.

Top government officials here said it was “on purpose” that India mentioned the South China Sea also as West Philippine Sea after foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent meeting with her counterpart from the Philippines, secretary of foreign affairs Albert F Del Rosario. It was the Philippines which insisted that South China Sea be referred to also as West Philippine Sea in the joint statement issued after the meeting.

The two leaders recently co-chaired the third India-Philippines Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation. The joint statement issued also referred to South China Sea as West Philippine Sea, the name which Manila has actually been using only for the past 4-5 years to challenge Beijing’s claims over 90 per cent of South China Sea waters, including the Spratly island chain near the Philippines.

This was the first time that India referred to South China Sea also as West Philippine Sea in any official document. It is significant for India that 60 per cent of India’s seaborne trade passes through Malacca Strait which opens into the South China Sea. According to government sources here, India is also concerned about China’s expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean region and the fact that Beijing is looking to acquire a base for its navy in Djibouti, located strategically on the horn of Africa.

While PM Narendra Modi did not allude to this issue in his meeting last week with Djibouti President Ismail Guelleh, the government remains concerned about how a base in Djibouti could allow China to operate more freely in Indian Ocean, nullifying the advantage of geography to India in overseeing some of world’s busiest shipping lanes.

In the meeting with Swaraj, while he thanked India for goodwill visits by Indian naval ships, Rosario also emphasized that it was high time India started to ‘act east and go east’ with more such visits by the Indian navy.

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In fact, it was during PM Narendra Modi’s summit meet with President Obama last year in September when the NDA government seemed to suggest a subtle shift in India’s position over South China Sea by mentioning for the first time, in a joint India-US statement, the need for freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. Until then India had refrained from bringing up the issue publicly in any bilateral exchange with the US.

In the meeting with Rosario, India also called for settlement of all disputes by peaceful means and for refraining from the threat or use of force, in accordance with universal principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. While China has actually ignored proceedings at the international arbitration court in the Hague, which Manila approached, saying UNCLOS was not applicable in South China Sea, Beijing has actually used the same UNCLOS to stake claim over Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands in East China Sea.

India’s decision to follow the ruling of international arbitration in its own maritime dispute with Bangladesh seems to have given it the moral right to pitch for similar arbitration in South China Sea disputes. In the joint statement, the Philippines recognized the steps taken by India to solve its maritime boundary with Bangladesh, through arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration “and its acceptance of the ruling as an example of peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS by the International Court.”

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