Developments in the South China Sea are bringing India into a debate it generally maintains a distance from. India's shift in its maritime policies and a relatively vocal stand on the issue may be a signs of a future where India is willing to play a more direct role in the South China Sea.
However, the reality on the ground couldn't be further from this scenario. Yes, there has been a shift in India's maritime policies and this is likely to continue, but has India really reached a moment where it will play a more prominent role outside of the Indian Ocean? Although this is being debated by strategists in India and abroad, the incentives for India to engage in such an act are close to nil. More importantly, India may also be on the same page as China as far as freedom of military navigation is concerned. Whether India enforces its view as aggressively as China does is again debatable.
Here are some of the reasons why India is unlikely to lend a helping hand in the South China Sea, as exciting as it may sound:
1. Foreign and Maritime Policy:
As laid out above, India's foreign policy would have to go through a drastic strategic change before it could commit to allocating resources in an area beyond its navy's primary area of interest. India has traditionally been continental in its defence strategy and will remain so, given the obvious troubles along its northern borders.
However, there has definitely been a shift where India attempting to cultivate a more maritime outlook and is more willing than it has been in the past to engage and increase its participation in regional matters. Despite this shift, it is important to note that India still considers the Indian Ocean as its primary area of interest and the South China Sea as secondary. Does this mean that India is not affected by developments in the South China Sea and will take no role? No, India is well aware of the implications of the disputes in the South China Sea and is monitoring it as best it can. But, it also means that India considers the issue as outside of its strategic interests and is wise enough to not meddle in the affairs of other countries, which may have repercussions along its land borders. India is not going to stretch its capacity in fighting a cause it knows it won't be able to sustain.
2. The Issue of Exclusive Economic Zones:
At the heart of the US Freedom of Navigation Operations is the issue of the right to military passage through another country's Exclusive Economic Zone. Although the US makes matters worse in this debate by not ratifying UNCLOS, the US Government asserts that it follows and abides by the rules of the treaty.
There is a difference in interpretation in the right to military passage. The US claims that every nation has the right to military passage through another country's EEZ, whereas China claims that the coastal state reserves the right to evict a foreign military ship from its EEZ. The reason that the US does not specify freedom of military navigation is because most nations in Asia are on the same page as China, including India. Many nations, including Vietnam, using various language, reserve the right to regulate the activities of foreign military ships within EEZs. India, while signing UNCLOS, made the declaration: 'The Government of the Republic of India understands that the provisions of the Convention do not authorize other States to carry out in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf military exercises or manoeuvres, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives without the consent of the coastal State'.
While in practice India does not enforce this right as frequently or as aggressively as China, India too has reservations regarding freedom of military navigation through its EEZ. India as a developing nation, with ambitions to be a great power, has left the option open should it ever come to a point where it may need to practice such a right to safeguard its own strategic interests. Joining the US in demonstrating freedom of military navigation could turn controversial at least on paper. Of course in outlining this point, I in no manner disregard India's recognition of the illegal and unilateral actions in the South China Sea with regards to artificial islands. However, the rules of engagement overlap and are blurred to a certain degree and India feels safer in staying away from the issue.
3. No Strategic Gain:
As most within the Indian political establishment put it: Does it help India in any manner to carry out patrols in the South China Sea? No. It does not make sense in terms of geography, not in terms of capacity, although India may have the capability to do so, and it most certainly does not yield any strategic gains for India.
India's defence budget is limited and the armed forces will have to prioritise its interests while allocating resources. The South China Sea does not feature high on the priority list. Additionally, when India is domestically struggling with a wave of social change and issues that are critical, a decision from New Delhi to send a fleet to patrol the South China Sea will baffle and confuse the Indian public.
There is of course a debate regarding whether India should consider such a move and if India should be paying more attention to the South China Sea. Such debates among Indian strategic thinkers indicate changing times in India's foreign policy and its shift to play a larger role in the region. Should India decide to amuse Washington in such a move in the near future, it would be interesting to see the circumstances surrounding it. Unless it is a situation directly affecting consequences on India's border issues with Pakistan and China, India's approach toward South China Sea will continue to be slow and steady.
This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.