Thursday, July 6, 2023

India Revises Stance on China-Philippines Maritime Dispute as New Delhi Looks East


India Revises Stance on China-Philippines Maritime Dispute as New Delhi Looks East
India revised its position on the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration last week in a meeting between Indian and Filipino diplomats that supports Manila’s territorial claims over China.
The revised stance on the arbitration, which countered China’s South China Sea claims, including the Nine-Dash Line and favored the Philippines in a territorial dispute, comes as India increases security engagement with countries in Southeast Asia.
India revealed its new attitude on the 2016 ruling in a joint statement on the 5th India-Philippines Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation, where Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo and Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar met in New Delhi from June 27-30 to discuss a variety of issues between the two countries.
In 2013, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against the People’s Republic of China concerning the latter’s activities in the SCS. The Philippines focused its case on the legal status of maritime features, particularly on the definition of what is and what isn’t an island. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, only islands can extend the reach of a country’s exclusive economic area. This does not extend to artificially made islands, such as those made by China in the Spratlys.
By 2016, the arbitration ruled that many of Beijing’s features in the SCS were not islands, but rather rocks or low-tide elevations.
The award also discredited the Nine-Dash Line, China’s justification for its claims. Beijing has used the Nine-Dash Line to claim SCS features hundreds of miles away from mainland China. One of these features includes Scarborough Shoal, a maritime feature around 120 nautical miles from the Philippines’. In 2012, Scarborough was the site of a Philippine-Sino flashpoint after Chinese vessels occupied the shoal.
One issue the two diplomats stressed was their “shared interest in a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region,” according to the statement. The joint statement called for peaceful dispute settlements, as well as adherence to international law. The two countries specifically referenced UNCLOS and the 2016 arbitral award on the South China Sea.
China does not recognize the ruling despite the Philippines winning the arbitration in an international court. The 2016 arbitration, described by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as “null and void and has no binding force,” has led to no changes in China’s stance and expansion throughout the SCS.
Before India’s call for adherence, New Delhi only acknowledged the outcome of the award. However, with the flareup of the Sino-Indian border dispute in the last few years and its role in the Quad’s vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, India has become more supportive of countries across the region such as the Philippines.
While India has previously “committed to a non-aligned position and is reluctant to take sides in issues involving major power competition,” the country also “recognizes that China is the only major power that poses a direct threat to its security interests, both on its border and in the Indian Ocean,” said Raymond Powell, Project Myoushu lead at Stanford University.
“Supporting the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision enables India to take a principled position in support of international law without aligning with any of the great powers, while still supporting its own national security interests,” Powell told USNI News.
Indian Ambassador to the Philippines Shambhu Kumaran highlighted concerns shared by India and the Philippines about China in an interview with Gising Na. India learned it needs to “have a very firm and robust response to ensure our interests are safeguarded,” he said.
New Delhi’s enhanced security ties with the Philippines is a part of India’s “Act East Policy,” which aims to increase ties with countries across the Indo-Pacific. Many of India’s efforts under this policy, especially regarding defense cooperation, can be seen throughout Southeast Asia.
Manalo and Jaishankar also discussed Indian-Philippine maritime and defense cooperation, which included maritime exercises, enhanced coast guard collaboration, a line of credit for military equipment and the acquisition of naval assets. The Philippines previously bought India’s BrahMos anti-ship cruise missile and is slated to become the first foreign operator of the system outside of India.
Many of the countries that benefit from the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling are India’s customers for Indian defense sales, Powell said. This includes the Brahmos missile systems.
India seeks to export its BrahMos anti-ship missiles to states around the SCS. Reuters reported that the missiles have been pitched to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. BrahMos’ manufacturers also expect the Philippines to procure more missiles for its Army later this year.
One of India’s closest security partners in Southeast Asia is Vietnam. New Delhi’s security assistance to Vietnam has taken a keen focus on the construction and transfer of maritime assets. Previously, Vietnam received a $100 million Line of Credit to procure 12 High-Speed Guard Boats. India also recently announced the transfer of INS Kiripan (P44) to the Vietnam People’s Navy, a first between the two countries. The Khukri-class corvette is currently en route to Vietnam.
Together with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, India held the first-ever ASEAN-Indian Maritime Exercise this year from May 2-8. AIMEX 2023 aimed to enhance “Maritime Cooperation and enhancing trust, friendship and confidence amongst ASEAN and Indian Navies.” However, during the last phase of the exercise in the South China Sea the ASEAN-Indian flotilla passed a China Maritime Militia formation, Powell tweeted at the time.
The Indian Navy also holds several goodwill activities annually throughout the region. Indian warships commonly hold coordinated patrol exercises with the Royal Thai and Indonesian Navies. A month before the arrival of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), INS Delhi (D61) and INS Satpura (F48) visited Danang, Vietnam.



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