India’s Strategic Entry in Dragon’s Backyard

In a major message to Beijing, Indian Navy made its presence felt in the waters of the South China Sea in August when a task force of four warships sailed on a two-month deployment that included Malabar 2021 naval exercises with India’s QUAD partners

Issue: 4-2021 By Saloni SalilPhoto(s): By US Navy
Indian navy frigate INS Shivalik sails into Apra Harbor, Guam, as part of exercise Malabar 2021

The disputes along the South China Sea (SCS) whether territorial and maritime continue to remain unresolved and therefore, making this region a sphere of global conflict. China’s sweeping claims on the SCS under its sovereignty—and the “sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—have antagonised competing claimants Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam”.

As per some sources, visuals from satellite imagery reflects China’s heightened activities “to reclaim land in the South China Sea by physically increasing the size of islands or creating new islands altogether. In addition to piling sand onto existing reefs, China has constructed ports, military installations, and airstrips—particularly in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, where it has twenty and seven outposts, respectively. China has militarised Woody Island by deploying fighter jets, cruise missiles, and a radar system”.

China’s belligerence threatens freedom of navigation, innocent passage and safe overflight over the region. Considering SCS as global commons has led major powers in the region as well as foreign powers those who have economic, political and strategic interests in the region to consolidate; Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and Malabar and other exercises being some examples apart from bilateral engagements.

India too has walked a tightrope with China for a while now, however, in the face of growing Chinese threat as well to secure its own economic interests, India is now going East instead of just looking East. Simply put, “the South China Sea is becoming a factor in India’s own strategic calculations and strategic debates, and India is becoming a factor in the strategic calculations of South China Sea states”.

India Going East

As Harsh V. Pant notes – “Signalling is important international relations. How a nation is perceived by its friends and adversaries, in large measure, shapes its role in strategic spaces. India, through its actions, had given an impression that it remains reluctant to challenge China, while China, through its actions, had been categorical in challenging India’s vital national interests”.

India for a long time has been a neutral spectator and has tried to balance the many competing interests in the South China Sea so as not offend Beijing. India’s concern is that if it engages too deeply in the regional affairs, China might heighten its own naval operations in the Indian Ocean. As per an Analyst in recent times, “China exhibiting its ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’ in the South China Sea, East China Sea (ECS) and Ladakh is a serious concern not only for the countries directly affected by overlapping EEZs or unsettled borders, but also for the rest of the world. There is rising incidence of Chinese intelligence ship sightings in the Indian Ocean Region. Chinese Dongdiao class intelligence-gathering ships – known earlier to stalk US, Australian and Japanese warships in the Western Pacific – are now operating in the waters of the Eastern Indian Ocean, keeping an eye on India’s naval movement”.

In a major message to Beijing, “the Indian Navy made its presence felt in the waters of the South China Sea in August when a task force of four warships sailed on a two-month deployment that included Malabar 2021 naval exercises with India’s Quad partners, the United States, Japan and Australia, but also bilateral exercises with naval forces from South China Sea littoral states, including Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines”.

“Maintaining a high operational tempo during its ongoing deployment to South East Asia, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, the Indian naval taskforce has now conducted a major exercise with Singapore”.

Furthermore, “the Indian Air Force (IAF) is set to dispatch six Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft to Japan for joint exercises in the coming months as the two nations seek to strengthen their security and diplomatic ties under the four-nation QUAD pact”.

As China continues to flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean region, threatening India’s security, India is finally “waking up to the challenge by trying to increase its presence and influence in China’s backyard — the western Pacific. This will annoy Beijing, but rattling China is necessary if India is to suitably protect its interests from the Himalayas to the maritime domain”.

Moving Forward

The South China Sea has become a hotbed of naval activity in recent times. China’s rising assertiveness against counter claimants in the East and South sea has resulted in unprecedented agreement across the Indo-Pacific.

China often decries the presence of foreign naval forces in the South China Sea and to push back the foreign powers in its backyard, China has been holding military drills in the Bohai Strait, the Yellow Sea, and other locations in the South China Sea.“In a classic manoeuvre of what is called “lawfare”, China announced a new set of maritime regulations last week that require ships carrying certain types of cargo to provide detailed information to the Chinese authorities when transiting through Chinese “territorial waters”. China has hunting rifles ready against the wolves.

These new maritime rules are anticipated to intensify the tensions if China firmly enforces them in the disputed South China Sea and the Taiwan straits where the US and its allies have been conducting naval expeditions, challenging Beijing’s claims to assert the freedom of navigation.

As tensions in the South China Sea continue to soar high, the strategic retrenchment of the US from Afghanistan can be seen as a master stroke to keep China engaged in the region. The obsession of the United States to contain the Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan gave China the room to extend its claws in the Indo-Pacific, thus, the “US military will increase its presence in the South China Sea after pulling out of Afghanistan, in a move that will counter Chinese militarisation of the disputed water”.

South China Sea is the region of the New Cold War between the US and China as well as the ultimate theatre of superpower rivalry. “If there is one geopolitical flashpoint with the potential to ignite a truly global conflict, it is undoubtedly the South China Sea. This is where the unimaginable is beginning to look like the inevitable, as a whole host of nations sleepwalk towards a cataclysmic showdown”.

Saloni Salil, is an independent Geopolitics and Security analyst. She has held honorary positions in various organisations and has a number of published works among her credentials. She has also been associated with Future Directions International, as a Visiting Fellow in the Indo Pacific Research Programme since 2012. Saloni Salil contributes to the growing discourse on the concept of the Indo-Pacific and major power intentions in that region.