As the world grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, maritime Asia is meddled in geopolitical unrest. The friction between the Chinese and rest of Asian powers is pushing the region into a state of perplex. In recent months, the increase in Chinese air incursion into the Taiwan straits has flared tension in the region. Prof. Srikant Kondapalli says since last year Chinese have flown nearly 3,000 sorties beyond the median line in the Taiwan Straits as a show of strength to both Taiwan and the US. Beijing is also intensifying its claim over the Senkaku Island, in a recent move, Chinese Minister of Natural Resources revealed topographic maps of the Senkaku Islands and the depth of surrounding water to reaffirm China’s territorial rights over these islands. Prof. Li Haidong, from China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times that “geography is closely connected with territory and sovereignty, and China’s latest move is not just a scientific survey but a strong diplomatic and political signal to the world.” China has become skillful and confident over the years in coercing and harassing its neighboring countries. This approach has increased anxieties among the countries in the Indo-pacific region due to the potential for armed conflict which can negatively impact maritime common. The latest development calls for an important question, what role India should play to deter Chinese aggression in the Indo-pacific?
India has not made any stringent or direct comment on Chinese provocation in the Taiwan Straits or neither on Senkaku Issue. However, India is carefully watching the recent development more carefully than ever before. The Chinese assertive maritime policy is a serious concern for the safety and security of international sea-lane of communication (SLOCs). The recently concluded G-7 meeting, the world leaders have raised issues concerning the Taiwan Straits and Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea. The Western and NATO countries alarmed by the changing security situation in the Taiwan Straits and ECS called for better regional diplomatic initiative and military cooperation to respond to Chinese military threats. The UK and France have increased their diplomatic and naval consultation with India on the issue of maritime safety and security in the Indo-pacific region. Prof. Harsh Pant says, in the post-Covid World, “global pushback against China is a new reality.” Therefore, India should harden its stand on the South China Sea and East China Sea vis-à-vis China.
The recent statement from the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh during the eighth edition of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) underlines the importance of global common for India’s maritime security. The defence minister’s statement shows that New Delhi wants to take an active stand on the issue of the South China Sea conflict and the Freedom of Navigation in the Indo-pacific region. This is the first time Indian Defence Minister at the regional forum expressed his concern over the emerging conflict in the South China Sea. On June 24, 2021, the Indian Ministry of External Affair (MEA), Secretary (East) Riva Ganguly Das also made a similar assertion at East Asia Summit Senior Officials’ Meeting (EAS SOM). In the meeting, Ms. Ganguly Das stated that the “Code of Conduct, being negotiated, should not prejudice the legitimate interests of third parties and should be fully consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” These statements clearly indicate that India is reformulating its “Act East Policy” to adopt to more strategically assertive policy.
India has begun to take proactive measures from the lessons learnt in the Galwan valley stand-off. Particularly, in the maritime domain, many Indian experts argued for a more forward presence of Indian Navy in the Indo-pacific. Admiral (retd) Arun Prakash also suggested in an interview that “Indian Navy deployment in the Indo-pacific jointly with the US navy would send a strong signal to China at this juncture.” As of now, the Indian Navy maintains high-temp of operations in the Indian Ocean through the deployment of naval vessels under the “Mission Based Deployment” to maintain a constant vigil against the Chinese naval ships/Submarine activities. But, by gauging the situation in the Taiwan straits, India may need to expand the operational envelop of the Navy far beyond the East of Malacca Straits. Indian Navy’s ‘India’s Maritime Military Strategy (IMMS) 2016 document identifies the “South China Sea, East China Sea Western pacific and their littorals” as a “Secondary Areas of Interest,” without any clear strategy to address the emerging challenges in the region. These “Secondary Areas” are geostrategically liked to India’s “Act East Policy” and “Indo-Pacific Ocean initiative.” The maritime common is at the core of these two initiatives. Particularly, India’s security partnership with the US, Japan, Australia and other Southeast Asian nations are in the maritime domain. Therefore, Indian Navy should formulate a suitable response in view of the magnitude of development in the region.
The security partnership is a key for India to maintain naval presence in the region. The logistics agreement signed by India with partner countries would facilitate the Indian Navy to expand its operation envelope to a substantial degree beyond the East of Malacca Straits. At the same time, maintaining a forward presence is a costly affair for India. It needs greater investment in naval force operations and investment in overseas port and maritime infrastructure which would be a necessary way forward for the Indian Navy to expand its operation footprint beyond the Indian Ocean.
In conclusion, India’s naval strategy requires renewed efforts to strengthen its naval operational capability to address China’s military threat in the Indo-pacific region. As Prime Minister Modi elucidated in the Shangri-la Dialogue in 2018, India should be playing a more direct and major role in the Indo-pacific, and prudently evaluate its strategies, and look out for the great power shifts on the account of ECS and SCS conundrum.