India's Foreign Policy in South China Sea


Photo source: DD News

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

External Affairs Minister of India Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has just concluded his five-day tour in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia in March 2024. However, it remains a hard fact that India's relations with ASEAN countries have witnessed a slow growth for various reasons, lagging far behind its relations with countries like China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Jaishankar's visit is not purely for diplomatic purposes. India is not particularly enthusiastic about developing relations with the Philippines, as it has very little bilateral trade and minimal bilateral investment with the country. However, since India views China as a strategic rival, its plan to draw countries that have conflicts with China, especially over territorial sovereignty disputes. After meeting with his Philippine counterpart in Manila this week, Jaishankar called for ‘staunch adherence to a rules-based order,’ and reaffirmed ‘India's support to the Philippines for upholding its national sovereignty.’

Jaishankar's remarks are nothing but a one-sided attempt to cozy up to the Philippines, and he may not even believe his own words. After all, India shows little interest in developing relations with neighbouring countries in line with the so-called rules-based order. Jaishankar is just hoping that these ‘rules’ will be effective for other countries, but not binding for India. This is typical double standards, as that of the West.

India hopes that the Philippines will engage in a long-term bickering with China in the South China Sea, depleting China's strategic resources, tarnishing China's image in the international community, and diverting China's attention in India-related issues. This erroneous belief will not likely succeed. Any actions by China in the South China Sea will not affect maintaining its sufficient strategic vigilance in South Asia. Safeguarding border security and territorial integrity is sacred and nationalistic missions that the Chinese military and people always keep as high priority.

India's so-called support to the Philippines for upholding its national sovereignty is completely a biased statement. Currently, the Philippines is not defending its national sovereignty in the South China Sea, but rather attempting to encroach on China's sovereignty. If Jaishankar wants to support the Philippines in provoking China in the South China Sea, it could be seen as a highly competitive, and a hostile stance.

In fact, Southeast Asian countries also believe that the Philippines, by deepening strategic cooperation with the US, is provoking China in the South China Sea, which goes against the principles of the ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Moreover, this also disrupts ASEAN's unity and cohesion. Some Southeast Asian countries hold the view that the Philippines' actions provide new opportunities to increase US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and escalate regional tensions. Such moves will not be contributory to resolving the South China Sea disputes and may affect cooperation in other areas among regional countries. India's involvement in the South China Sea will also pose a significant negative impact on China-India relations, forcing China to be vigilant against the Indian government's potential intention to stir up more trouble in the near future. It could also affect their trade-investment issues.

Zhou Shixin wrote in an Oped in Global Times: ‘Jaishankar may see his statements in the Philippines as a coordinated action jointly with the US and Japan, rather than a move that will make India a follower of the US. However, many other regional countries might not necessarily share his view. They may view India as becoming a country subservient to the US' will, like Japan. On the other hand, given that the US and Japan only provide logistical and verbal support to the Philippines on the South China Sea issue, India's assistance to the Philippines will be even more limited.

Jaishankar may recognise this by thinking about the political plans of Malaysia. The country is also a direct party concerned in the South China Sea issue. But overall, Malaysia is firm at employing diplomatic means to calm tensions and maintain friendly cooperation with other parties involved in the South China Sea disputes, showing a cautious diplomatic approach.

The case of Malaysia may help Jaishankar understand that if the parties directly concerned can uphold the principles of mutual understanding and friendly coexistence, only then there can be hope for a peaceful solution to the South China Sea affairs through diplomatic negotiations.

In the end, developing closer economic and trade relations with Southeast Asian countries and enhancing mutual political trust will most likely be the right way for India to maintain friendly relations with neighbouring countries, rather than further conjuring up trouble in the South China Sea.


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