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By Dev Bhasin

New Delhi, October 20: South China Sea is a region of great importance on account of its geostrategic position resulting in economic control as one third of the world’s maritime follows the route. It has strategic geographical positioning with huge oil reserves and natural gas, with potential fisheries to provide food security across the region.

This has led to various claims of sovereignty by many countries. The dispute regarding the territory along the South China Sea has still not been resolved stopping the path of peace and security in the Indo Pacific region. China and Southeast Asian nations, primarily Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines, have been at odds since the 1970s. These nations assert that China has been invading their sovereign territories and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) through aggressive land reclamation and island-building activities.

China has also started a lot of military exercise along this area and has built logistical infrastructure in this area which is a threat to international trade. Many countries who are not present in this region but have interest have also raised red flags against the drills that are being conducted by China in the waters, particular. Countries like the USA and India have stakes in protecting the South China Sea, because it has resources like natural gas and oil reserves and most importantly undiscovered.

India is committed to maintaining the rules-based order and freedom of passage in the sea routes of communication even if it is not a state (UNCLOS). Since roughly 55 per cent of India’s trade with the Indo Pacific region travels through these waters, India has greater interests in the South China Sea. The main goal of New Delhi is to maintain regional stability and freedom of navigation by protecting the region’s economic routes.

Having a stable maritime order and maintaining open sea routes is essential for both India’s economic growth and that of the region. Given that any military engagement in the South China Sea will have effects on the Indian Ocean region, India has justifiable strategic concerns. It might worsen the regional security situation, which would impair India’s relations with South East Asian nations. Therefore, from a strategic perspective, the South China Sea is crucial for India.

A stable maritime order with open sea lanes is necessary for both India’s economic growth and that of the surrounding area. It is hard for either India or any other country to overlook Chinese actions in the South China Sea because the Indo Pacific is a unified maritime region. This sea cannot be ignored in Indian strategic thought any longer. India has been promoting a law-based order in this region towards this aim particularly by maintaining the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

According to recent comments made by the Ministry of External Affairs it is evident that India has decided to move away from the historical balanced approach towards China and the South China Sea disputes. It has decided to be more proactive which is guided by the policy of ‘Act East’. As seen by its recent deployment of Indian Navy vessels, New Delhi is ready to reciprocate and do its part. In order to “ensure good order in the maritime domain and to expand existing ties between India and countries of the Indo Pacific”, India has attempted to showcase its “operational reach, peaceful presence, and solidarity with friendly countries”.

India has been worried about the safety of its energy interests and economic flows in the South China Sea. Vietnam has given India seven oil blocks in the SCS, but China took issue with this offer. Likewise, Brunei and India have struck energy agreements. The joint statement that the governments of the United States and India released in September 2014, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington, reflected the fact that India has been taking a higher position at the international high table as a result of the “Look East” policy. The concerned parties were urged by the joint statement to pursue peaceful resolution of their territorial and maritime issues, in accordance with generally accepted principles of international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

There have been important geo-political steps taken by different countries with respect to the issue of Indo Pacific region and the growing dominance of China in it. One such step was the formation of QUAD which is an informal strategic forum consisting of four members that is Japan, India, Australia and the USA. The primary objective of QUAD was to work towards a free an inclusive Indo Pacific region. Quad summit in 2022 resulted in various initiatives for maritime domain, security and other unilateral challenges being faced by the member nations. The conference is thought to be a tactical counter to China’s economic and military hegemony. Interestingly, India can enlist the assistance of the other Quad states to confront the communist country if Chinese hostilities increase on the frontiers.

India may also conduct strategic research in the Indo Pacific area with the aid of its naval force. India understanding the need to take stern measures to counter act Chinese military dominance in the Indo Pacific region or the South China Sea to maintain the stability in the region emphasised on adherence of international law as per UNCLOS. India has reiterated its shared vision for a free and prospers South China Sea region working together fundamental values and principal.

(Author is a New Delhi-based lawyer)

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