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India voices unusual criticism of China’s conduct in South China Sea

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands, in 2015. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto/Released)
May 25, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

India has voiced a rare note of criticism of China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea, amid a tensions between the two Asian powers on their long land border.

A New Delhi-based analyst said India is concerned over China pressuring South China Sea claimant nations that India considers partners. India is also wary that China could seek to assert itself in the Indian Ocean.

On Thursday, India’s Ministry of External Affairs commented on the recent incidents along the Line of Actual Control – the nearly 2,200 mile unsettled border between China and India. Chinese and Indian troops clashed on May 5 over road construction the Indian side was completing at Pangong Tso, a glacial lake bordering Ladakh and Tibet. They clashed again May 9 near Doklam, which borders India China, and Bhutan. Soldiers were reportedly wounded on both sides in the clashes.

At the same news conference, ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastave was also asked about recent unilateral actions by China in the South China Sea: the establishment of two new administrative districts for the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands and the naming 80 obscure geographical features over the objections of other claimants.

“(The) South China Sea is a part of (the) global commons and India has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the region,” Srivastave said. “We firmly stand with the freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in these international waterways, in accordance with international law.”

While the statement seemed bland enough, and was consistent with India’s long-standing position on the maritime disputes in Southeast Asia, Abhijit Singh, senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said it was unusual for a government spokesman to make a public statement on the issue in this way. He said it was sign India links the territorial issues it has with China at the Line of Actual Control with the situation in the South China Sea.

Singh said India appeared to be warning that “if Chinese troops do not behave on the border, India isn’t obliged to adhere to the Wuhan consensus, and would reiterate its South China Sea position.”

The Wuhan consensus refers to an informal summit between Chinese General-Secretary Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018. There, the two countries vowed to de-escalate tensions between each other for the sake of better bilateral ties. China and India are widely viewed as strategic competitors and fought a border war in 1962. China has historically close ties with India’s archrival and neighbor, Pakistan.

China’s recent pressure campaigns in the South China Sea against other claimants are beginning to affect India’s interests in the region. According to Singh, India is principally concerned with its deepening economic and commercial ties to Southeast Asia under the new Act East Policy – especially with Indonesia and Vietnam. China has infringed on exclusive economic zones of both of those nations in the past year.

India is also worried about the balance of power in Southeast and South Asia, where China’s growing naval presence threatens India’s standing in the region.

“When Delhi defends nautical norms and the right to access common maritime spaces, it is usually part of messaging to Beijing to keep clear India’s sphere of interest and influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean,” Singh said.

“India knows it must take a principled stand on the territorial disputes, so that it can contribute to the restoration of strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific,” he added.

Singh said there is uncertainty in India over China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, which could be “destabilizing for maritime Asia.”

Singh said India’s government is concerned that the playbook China employs to harass claimants in the South China Sea, using survey vessels, maritime militia and its coastguard, could be repeated in the Indian Ocean, closer to India’s shores. Singh cited the presence of Chinese maritime militia off the coast of Natuna, in waters close to the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, and a December survey by China near the Andaman Islands which was within India’s exclusive economic zone.

He said India is taking note of such incidents and China’s increasingly large fleet of deep-sea mining vessels. It’s also watching to see if China establishes outposts in the Maldives.

Delhi is wary that “as China gets stronger in the South China Sea, these kinds of provocations in the Andaman Sea and more broadly in South Asia will grow,” Singh said.