In­dia-Ja­pan re­view­ing South China Sea stand?

The Times of India (Mumbai edition) - - TIMES NATION - Sachin.Parashar@ times­group.com

New Delhi: While a lot of what In­dia and Ja­pan dis­cussed at the Modi-Abe sum­mit was in­tended to ad­dress Chi­nese ex­pan­sion­ism in the form of its OBOR ini­tia­tive, the two coun­tries also al­lowed a con­ces­sion to Bei­jing by avoid­ing any ex­plicit men­tion of South China Sea (SCS).

This is par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant as the pre­vi­ous two sum­mit dec­la­ra­tions specif­i­cally re­ferred to SCS while reaf­firm­ing com­mit­ment to free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and over­flight. This time though, the suc­cess­ful res­olu- tion to the Dok­lam dis­pute, which saw China agree­ing to In­dia’s de­mand to stop road con­struc­tion to where Bei­jing be­lieves the In­dia-Bhutan-China tri-junc­tion is, and Ja­pan’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with North Korea meant a more re­strained re­sponse to the se­cu­rity chal­lenge in SCS.

The Modi gov­ern­ment had ex­plicit men­tions of SCS in its joint dec­la­ra­tions, first with the US in 2014, in line with a more as­sertive Act East pol­icy and to main­tain a de­lib­er­ate am­bi­gu­ity in its po­si­tion on China’s mar­itime ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes. This was also in keep­ing with ex­hor­ta­tions by sev­eral Asean na­tions for In­dia to in­crease its pro­file in the re­gion.

The omis­sion of SCS may also partly have re­sulted from what many see as the US’ in­dif­fer­ence to the sit­u­a­tion in SCS. Strate­gic af­fairs ex­pert, Brahma Chel­laney said In­dia and Ja­pan are now faced with very dif­fi­cult choices on SCS with Trump ef­fec­tively giv­ing Bei­jing a “free pass”. There is, how­ever, a view that North Korea’s provo­ca­tions may force Trump to re­think his op­tions.

To be sure, the US is now said to be plan­ning reg­u­lar free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions in SCS. How­ever, re­ports from South­east Asia sug­gest that, with Trump and in­ter­na­tion­ally com­mu­nity fo­cused on North Korea, China is qui­etly con­sol­i­dat­ing its ter­ri­to­rial claims in SCS.

Ac­cord­ing to Chel­laney, un­der Obama, the US al­lowed China to change sta­tus quo by force in the SCS with­out in­cur­ring any in­ter­na­tional costs and Trump has shown no in­cli­na­tion to chal­lenge Bei­jing in SCS. “Un­der Trump, the US has no de­sire to seek a re­turn to sta­tus quo ante. As a re­sult, China is con­sol­i­dat­ing its po­si­tion, even as the US sym­bol­i­cally un­der­takes free­dom-of-nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions in the re­gion,” he says.

There was a men­tion of United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea in the 2017 In­dia-Ja­pan joint state­ment. But it’s still a di­lu­tion though of 2016 doc­u­ment, which talked about re­solv­ing dis­putes by peace­ful means.

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