By Madhuchanda Ghosh / Special to The Japan News As India and Japan deepen their economic and strategic engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, the deteriorating maritime security environment in the South China Sea impinges on the economic and strategic interests of both states in the region. The South China Sea issue has started to figure prominently in the security dialogue between New Delhi and Tokyo because the economies of both states are heavily based on sea-based transport. Sixty percent of Japan’s energy supplies passes through the South China Sea. More than half of India’s overseas trade flows through the shipping lanes of the South China Sea, which is one of the underlying factors behind the Indian Navy prioritizing the issue of ensuring a stable maritime security environment in the South China Sea region. For Japan and India this maritime region does not simply signify unresolved territorial issues among the littoral states but it raises the spectre of direct military confrontation with the potential to destabilize one of the most important international maritime routes and an economically dynamic region. Strategically, the South China Sea region is of global importance due to two factors: first, it is a critical international trade route through which trillions of dollars of global trade flow; second, the region is rich in hydrocarbons and natural gas.
India and Japan’s common concern over the rapidly deteriorating maritime security environment in the South China Sea region is reflected in the joint statements issued by the two states. For instance, in the annual Indo-Japanese Defence Ministerial Meeting on July 14, 2016, the Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and his Japanese counterpart, Gen Nakatani, in a joint statement on the July 2016 South China Sea ruling, called on the parties involved in the territorial disputes to “show utmost respect” for the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is significant to note that during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India in December 2015, the joint statement issued by the two premiers in a similar vein voiced concern over the developments in the South China Sea region and appealed to all parties to “avoid unilateral actions … that could lead to tensions in the region.” India and Japan have also agreed to deepen bilateral maritime security cooperation by initiating Maritime Strategic Dialogue and conducting the India-U.S.-Japan trilateral maritime Malabar Exercise every year.
One of the factors that has contributed to the strategic apprehensions of both Japan and India is the growing military assertiveness of China in the South China Sea region. Beijing has begun to fly bomber and fighter aircraft near disputed islands in the South China Sea. Beijing seems to be testing the bounds of international maritime laws in the region, including some it has explicitly agreed to abide by. For instance, Beijing consented to settle territorial disputes in the South China Sea amicably and in conformity with international law, such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, in recent years China’s frequent standoffs with its littoral neighbors indicate its changing maritime strategy. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s expanding maritime operations in the South China Sea, China’s deployment of missiles in the Spratly islands, and its expanding military assertiveness all indicate Beijing’s intent to go all-out in its efforts at territorial reclamation.
In this context, it can be noted that India’s settling of its maritime dispute with Bangladesh in August 2014 has sent a message to states engaged in maritime disputes, including China, that disputes can be settled amicably. India accepted the arbitration between it and Bangladesh two years ago, even though the verdict went in favor of its smaller neighbor. When the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) rendered its judgment on the India-Bangladesh maritime boundary dispute in the Bay of Bengal in July 2014, India welcomed the tribunal’s verdict, though it lost maritime area larger than the state of West Bengal. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark referring to the verdict, called on China to follow India’s example of resolving its maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh by accepting the tribunal’s ruling.
India and Japan, together with other stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific, need to explore mechanisms for engaging with China through a regional multilateral framework so that China can become a responsible stakeholder that will not try to change the status quo of the region by force. Current multilateral mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific region such as the ARF, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) and the ASEAN Maritime Forum could provide a conducive platform for evolving a comprehensive and sustainable security mechanism in the region. In this context, the adoption of a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus, as emphasized by the ASEAN, would contribute significantly to the maritime security and stability of the region as a whole. Both India and Japan need to support the formulation of the CoC which could play a significant role in settling the unresolved territorial issues, which, if not tackled wisely, could transform the region from a zone of economic dynamism to a theatre of armed combat.
Both India and Japan have reasons to support freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific region, including the South China Sea, and jointly work towards preserving and bolstering regional maritime security and maintaining the regional balance of power. The forthcoming visit of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan and his meeting with Prime Minister Abe is very likely to produce a joint statement that will take a stronger position on the emerging challenges in the maritime security environment of the South China Sea.
The author is assistant professor at the Department of Political Science of Presidency University in Kolkata, India.Speech