By Saroj Mohanty, New Delhi, March 11 IANS | 5 months ago

India is concerned about the possible effect of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea on trade and investment and would like more "effective engagement" with the ASEAN countries to keep the sea lanes and communication lines open.


"India stands for freedom of navigation on high seas," says Anil Wadhwa, Secretary, East, in India's External Affairs Ministry. "We would like to ensure that all countries in the region adhere to the international conventions on the Law of the Sea in this issue."

The bulk of the external trade of both India and ASEAN by volume and by value is ocean borne. And their energy security is linked to maritime sea lines of communication. Countering transnational crimes such as piracy and terrorism are important priorities.

The economic dynamism of the region and the rise of China in recent years have generated a whole set of uncertainties and anxieties among countries of the region.

"We, therefore, support the ASEAN view which calls for greater ASEAN-India collaboration on political-security issues," External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said, opening the Delhi Dialogue, an annual forum for diplomats, academics and the business community from India and ASEAN, last week.

"India's naval footprint is essentially that of a net security provider even as it is set to expand. There is also potential for greater engagement between ASEAN and India in the ARF, ADMM+ and ASEAN Maritime Forum," he added.

Earlier this month, National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon said, "What happens in the South China Sea or the East China Sea concerns and affects the entire region...Conflict would roll back the gains to each of our countries of 40 years of stability and peace."

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping territorial claims. China has been conducting maritime patrols in disputed areas and has enacted a law requiring foreign fishing boats to seek its permission before operating in the sea.

"On the two issues of principle, history and territory, there is no room for compromise," Foreign Minister Wang Yi asserted at a news conference this Saturday. "We will defend every inch of territory that belongs to us."

Some ASEAN countries have been asking for a multilateral and rule-based approach to resolving the dispute. The Philippines has even filed a case against China before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.

China, however, insists that the dispute should be addressed through bilateral negotiations. It thinks international arbitration could complicate the issue.

Tan Sri Rastam Mohd. Isa, head of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia, said the regional architecture faced challenges and an "urgent rethink of the assumptions" was needed.

"A rising power like india should not be reluctant to assert itself as a regional power," added Wilfrido V. Villacorta, professor at De La Salle University, Manila.

Indian officials say New Delhi would like all parties to maintain restraint and the dispute to be settled peacefully. India supports the centrality of ASEAN in negotiations on a proposed code of conduct for claimants.

"Maritime security is India, ASEAN priority. There is a need to look at an Indo-Pacific code of conduct in the maritime domain," said Vo Xuan Vinh, head of international relations department of the Vietnam Academy of Social Science.

S.D. Muni, distinguished scholar at Indian Defence Studies and Analyses, thinks India has to reduce the "delivery deficit in the security and strategic front to meet expectations."

What actually underpins India-ASEAN engagement is what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called sustaining "an arc of prosperity" in the region. And the ASEAN wants India to play a more active role and help create an "inclusive, pluralistic and balanced architecture that ensures that no single power gets to set the agenda.

"With ASEAN concerned about shielding their growth dynamism from a host of transnational, non-traditional security threats, including drug trafficking, transnational crime, maritime security, disaster management and mitigation and non-proliferation, there is considerable scope for expanding India-ASEAN partnership in these areas," says Wadhwa.

The ASEAN participants urged a deeper Indian engagement with the 10-nation grouping - based on the strategic partnership the two sides clinched last December - across a broad range of areas, from people-to-people exchange to trade to security.

"Strategic partnership needs predictability, accountability, transparency for growth. India should go East, and not just Look East," said Laura Q. Del Rosario, deputy minister for international economic relations, The Philippines.

(Saroj Mohanty can be contacted at saroj.m@ians.in)

(Posted on 11-03-2014)