The joint statement[i] that was issued after the recently concluded visit to New Delhi of the Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Philippines (SFA), Enrique A. Manalo, covered a wide range of issues. Some of the themes dealt with cooperation in the field of digital space, mutual support for each other’s candidatures in multilateral forums and also recognising the need for reforming the United Nations Security Council.
What was significant about the joint statement was the reference to maritime cooperation in the form of an institutionalised Maritime Dialogue, Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the White Shipping Agreement between the Indian Navy (IN) and the Philippines Coast Guard and fostering greater synergy between the Coast Guards of the two nations and, as well as expanding the collaboration on fisheries and marine culture.
The statement also made a specific reference to the South China Sea, wherein a call was made for all parties to adhere to the “2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea” and also called for “a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”. The significance of this joint statement lies in New Delhi explicitly calling for concerned all parties to abide by the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) 2016 award for the first time by India. It is to be noted that China has not recognised the PCA award.
The importance of this statement is to be seen not in isolation but in context of the growing synergies between India and the nations of Southeast Asia. In recent years, the ties between New Delhi and its extended eastern neighbourhood have gone beyond the traditional sphere of engagement and now have come to include defence cooperation too. Resultantly, India has been positioning itself as a source for defence platforms and has seen some success. The unique aspect of India’s defence engagement lies not only in the reliability and cost of the platforms but also in the fact that the nature of engagement in this regard does not come with strings attached as the partnership in this domain is apolitical.
However, what is of significance is the fact that India’s engagement with the nations of Southeast Asia is one that is based on principles and not governed by politics. It was for this very reason that New Delhi has been consistently calling for all the parties to the South China Sea maritime territorial dispute to respect and adhere to both the letter and spirit of international law, ‘as reflected notably in the’ United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[ii]
India’s Growing Interest in the Region
Since the onset of the territorial dispute in the South China Sea region, New Delhi has been consistently called for a peaceful and amicable resolution based on the letter and spirit of UNCLOS. In the same vein and in keeping with the spirit of UNCLOS, New Delhi attaches equal importance to the freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce. The reasons for this lie in the fact that the waters of eastern Asia have now come to play a dominant role in international commerce and trade, as the centre of gravity of the global economy has shifted from a trans-Atlantic construct to an Indo-Pacific construct.
This Indian approach is a continuation of New Delhi’s earlier Look East Policy and the now Act East Policy. One of the tectonic shifts between the two policies has been the nature of India’s engagement with the region, which has seen greater security-related ties between New Delhi and its eastern neighbours. Resultantly, there has been a number of points of engagements that ranges from institutionalised dialogues, joint exercises and training, transfer of defence platforms and equipment’s.
Some of the notable aspects of this relationship includes the first ASEAN India Maritime Exercise that was held in May 2023. Other notable engagements are the Singapore-India-Thailand Maritime Exercise (SITMEX), Army Exercise ‘Garuda Shakti and naval exercise ‘Samudra Shakti’ with Indonesia, and Harimau Shakti with Malaysian Army. Additionally, assistance in form of grants to Cambodia for demining and Line of Credited to Vietnam too have been extended by India.
New Delhi has also been transferring defence platforms to the nations of the region. Until recently, such transfers were in from of small arms and small vessels. However, India has now stated to transfer larger platforms like the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile to the Philippines in 2022, and talks about the procurement of a second batch of this system by the Manila is under works.[iii] India has also gifted the serving missile corvette INS Kirpan to Vietnam to strengthen the latter’s capabilities in the maritime domain.[iv]
Principle and not Geopolitics
What adds greater importance for India in the waters of the Indo-Pacific region is its overall economic engagement, wherein more than half of the nation’s international commerce traverses the regional sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). This region is also important for both inward and outbound investments for New Delhi.
What is interesting about India’s approach since the days of the Look East Policy that was first put forth in 1991 is that a similar template has been used in shaping its Indo-Pacific vision. This has been best summarised by the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his Confluence of the Two Seas[v] speech that was delivered to the Indian Parliament in 2007. The Japanese premier’s address identified “broader Asia” as a region “of freedom and of prosperity”.
This Japanese articulation can be considered a curtain-raiser of sorts that brought to the forefront the growing importance of the Asian region, which now has largely come to be addressed as the Indo-Pacific. And it has been within this context that New Delhi’s overall approach towards this region has been shaped. What has changed in the recent past is the steady acceptance of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a regional construct by a number of nations and the growing synergy between the four QUAD nations. Apart from this, the need for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region has become a common theme in the discourses regarding this region across the world.
New Delhi’s reference to the 2016 Arbitration Award is to be seen in the context of the need to uphold the existing global norms-based order with respect to the global commons and that any disputes that arise between nations in the global commons are to be addressed with in the farmwork of the established global normative architecture.
*Dr. Sripathi Narayanan, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Joint Statement on the 5th India-Philippines Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation, Ministry of External Affirms, Government of India, June 29, 2023, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/36743/Joint_Statement_on_the_5th_IndiaPhilippines_Joint_Commission_on_Bilateral_Cooperation, accessed on 3 July 2023.
[iii] Philippines To Acquire HIMARS, More BrahMos Missiles In Coming Years
Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, “Philippines To Acquire HIMARS, More BrahMos Missiles In Coming Years
”, Naval News, 01 Jul 2023, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2023/07/philippines-to-acquire-himars-more-brahmos-missiles/, accessed on 4 July 2023.
[iv] In a first, India gifts active warship to Vietnam, Reuters, June 28, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/first-india-gifts-active-warship-vietnam-2023-06-28/, accessed on 4 July 2023.
[v] "Confluence of the Two Seas", Speech by H.E.Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan at the Parliament of the Republic of India, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Government of Japan, 22 August 2007, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html, accessed on 4 July 2023.