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India must tread softly on South China Sea

India must tread softly on South China Sea

India, a non-regional friendly country, should only act as a neutral player rather than become a protagonist, and encourage open dialogue and negotiations instead of inciting the regional states to rush to the resolution of intractable territorial disputes.

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Last Updated : 01 May 2024, 05:27 IST
Last Updated : 01 May 2024, 05:27 IST
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After some hiccups over the delivery schedule for BrahMos supersonic missiles to the Philippines, the deal has reportedly reached the home stretch. This, apparently, befits a celebratory event, a breakthrough for India’s arms exports.

But arms deals are much more than export business. They are almost always many-splendored geopolitical happenings that bring to mind the Russian metaphor of matryoshka dolls where the nesting dolls, each layer representing a different facet of their personality, thoughts, and emotions, symbolises a variety of meanings. 

The Asia-Pacific is an increasingly turbulent region where, as American political scientist at Harvard Graham Allison wrote in his 2017 book ‘Destined for War’, “an unstoppable China is approaching an immovable America”, and a deadly pattern of structural stress ensues. Of course, wars are seldom inevitable, but things get complicated when fear, hubris, and honour are surging.

That is why India’s recent call for a “rules-based order” in the South China Sea raises eyebrows. This unwarranted call came, out of all places, during External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to the Philippines. It is a senseless provocation of China that India can do without. India should be cognisant of the shift in the power dynamic in Southeast Asia, as the Philippines is drifting away as an outlier in its region by aligning with the US’ policy to create limited-membership, closed military-political alliances in the South China Sea, which are anti-Russia and anti-China.

Former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte (who had originally mooted the BrahMos deal with Russia’s backing) warned current President Bongbong Marcos Jr last week about the risks of cosying up with the US at the expense of balanced relations with China, accusing Washington of trying to provoke a war between the Philippines and China, and forewarning that he doesn’t believe “America will die for us” if tensions grow into direct clashes. 

This came after Marcos Jr gave four bases to the United States over and above the existing five, which allows the US to move its military assets dangerously close to Chinese territory. Two of them border directly on contested waters in the South China Sea. Evidently, Washington is reasserting political control over its former colony to maintain an expanded military presence there, and shape that country into a suitable proxy for a potential conflict with China. The US strategy falls out of its copybook on Ukraine following the regime change in 2014, which ultimately culminated in the 2022 escalation of the Donbass crisis into a full-blown NATO-Russia proxy war. 

India, a non-regional friendly country, should only act as a neutral player rather than become a protagonist, and encourage open dialogue and negotiations instead of inciting the regional states to rush to resolution of intractable territorial disputes. Beijing has been exploring a regional dispute mechanism with its South China Sea neighbours since 2002, while the US, which has no claims to the region, has been systematically ramping up its military presence since the early 2010s, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the South China Sea a matter of US “national interest” and began shoring up a network of alliances and undermining Chinese negotiating efforts.

Curiously, besides the Philippines, the other nine ASEAN members continue to maintain a very positive and expanding relationship with Beijing, including Vietnam which has a contentious relationship with China in the South China Sea. Malaysia has become increasingly close to China. Within the Philippines itself, opinion is divided over China. The US is manipulating Marcos Jr while effectively eroding ASEAN's centrality, which is a core element of India’s Act East policy.

The Indian predicament seems to be that China has edged past the US to become the prevailing choice if the region were forced to align itself in the ongoing US-China rivalry, as the recent State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey conducted by Singapore’s ISEAS -Yusof Ishak Institute reveals. 

There was a time when India scrupulously kept a red line that it wouldn’t export weaponry to hot spots. What remains of the government’s doctrine of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam once that principled ‘Nehruvian’ stance is abandoned? Today it is the Philippines, Vietnam, or Armenia. Tomorrow it might as well be the Red Sea or Sahel regions. Now, where do we hide when wars break out? The US has drawn the Philippines toward the Taiwan problem. Duterte resisted being conscripted to the US’ pro-Taiwan positions, but that is no longer the case today under Marcos Jr. 

(M K Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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