It is in the fitness of things that the US State Department has denied plans for Indo-US joint naval patrols in South China Sea over which China has claimed total sovereignty. But then the US naval officials did confirm that both the sides had held discussions for a joint naval patrols in the disputed South China Sea region, one of the vital oceanic stretches of the world through which more than US$5-trillion in world trade moves. As it is, last year India and US had signed a joint Vision statement that stressed the need for “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight “all through the Asia Pacific region.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman commenting on the agency report that India and US are mulling a joint naval patrol in South China Sea said, ”The United States and India do have a shared vision of peace, stability and prosperity in Asia. At this time, there are no plans for any joint naval patrols”. Interestingly, the Indian official position on such disputes are clear and unequivocal: it would not form a part of any military coalition except under the UN mandate. In keeping with stance, Indian navy has never carried out any joint operations with another country. On its part, India’s Defence Ministry has described reports appearing in a section of the media on the move for a joint Indo-US naval patrols in South China Sea region as “speculative”.
Early this year, China had accused of US of establishing a global maritime hegemony in the name of “freedom of navigation”. This was a sequel to a US Navy destroyer sailing close to the disputed Parcel island chain in South China Sea early this year. Prior to that, in October last, US navy had carried out exercise close to one of the artificial islands that China had carved in the Spratlys region of the South China Sea. China has also said that since both US and India are not claimants to the South China Sea they should keep off from meddling in the dispute. Even so, during October.2015 visit to New Delhi of US President Barack Obama, both India and US had laid emphasis on the need for sustaining the freedom of navigation and overflights in waterways across the world. Significantly, the issue of joint patrols had come in for discussion during the Dec.2015 visit of the Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to the US Pacific Command in Hawaii.
The US on its part wants the claimants to the South China Sea resources –Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan—adopting a more untied stance with a joint strategy against China .A spokesman of China’s External Affairs Ministry Hong Lee made the observation “We hope that the relevant parties speak and act with caution, refrain from intervening in the South China Sea issue, and especially avoid being manipulated by certain countries and ultimately harming their own interests.”
Incidentally, at the first ever trilateral Ministerial meet of India, Japan and US held last year,–in the backdrop of China’s growing assertiveness in South China Sea—had called for a peaceful and amicable settlement of disputed maritime issues and freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce across the global waterways. And much to the chagrin of China, the three countries also agreed to work together to maintain maritime security through greater collaboration while highlighting the growing convergence of their interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
A media release issued after the meet noted, “They also underscored the importance of international law and peaceful settlement of disputes; freedom of navigation and overflight; and unimpeded lawful commerce including in the South China Sea”. On her part, India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, drives home the points that Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region is strategic for India’s security and economic interests. Swaraj is clear that the sea lanes of communication in the region are the lifeline of India’s trade and commercial externalities. ”We see the first meeting of India-US-Japan as a trilateral partnership for peace, prosperity and stability in the region as an effort to strengthen transparency ,inclusivity and the rule of law in the region and as a commitment to what we can do together for our mutual benefit and also for the larger good of the region,” observes Swaraj.
Because vital sea lanes pass through the Sea China Sea, Beijing’s plan to exercise total control over this oceanic region could have serious implications for the global sea trade. For the South East Asian countries, many of which are a party to the South China Sea dispute, the geo political shift in the region consequent to the rise of China implies the need for a joint strategic vision. With the soaring militaristic ambitions of China reinforcing its push into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India is now slowly realizing the need to align with the other key players in evolving a security architecture covering both the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions.
Clearly and apparently, India’s “Look East” policy focuses on the enhanced “maritime engagement” with ASEAN countries. Indian navy has already established a strong presence in the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s most important sea lanes. As it is, in recent years there has been a growing awareness of the importance of oceans to the strategic security and global trade. As it is, more than 90% of the global merchandise trade worth US$20-trillion are carried out through sea lanes. Specifically, more than half of the oil moves through the sea routes. As such, Indian navy is preparing to expand its area of influence in the Indian Ocean region. However, it is seriously handicapped by the dwindling number of submarines and helicopters in so far as accomplishing the onerous task thrust on it is concerned.
Of course, the Indian navy has a plan up its sleeve to position itself as a three dimension, satellite enabled network centric blue water maritime force capable of taking care of Indian interests in any part of the world. Indian navy has also the distinction of being the first among the services to acquire a full fledged defence satellite. The GSAT-7 advanced communications satellite launched in August 2013 is now being used by the Indian navy to enhance its situational awareness and refine the network centric capability. The 2,250-kg. multi band GSAT-7, designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO), is fully well equipped to provide the Indian navy with a secure and reliable communications channel and in the process help Indian navy boost its blue water combat capabilities. Further, this state of the art spacecraft would also enable Indian navy network all of its resources both on the land and in the sea. More importantly, the robust communications links facilitated by GSAT-7 will substantially enhance India’s maritime security over a wide swath of eastern and western flanks of IOR. By all means, the tech savy Indian navy is more than keen on acquiring a range of spacecraft meant for a variety of end uses in the future.
Last year, Indian navy had deployed its warships at Malaysia’s port city of Kuantan that overlooks South China Sea. This development has been viewed as a reflection of India’s growing interest in South China Sea. According to Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies, India’s interest in the South China Sea region runs deeper than a desire for strategic cooperation with ASEAN region. For in addition to its economic and strategic interests in the South China Sea, India also has a deep rooted maritime interests in the region. As such, India would need to reorient and fine tune its maritime strategy in keeping with the shifting global geostrategic trends.