India-Japan reviewing South China Sea stand?
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.