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Tightrope walk for India on South China Sea

A decision by the UK and France to send warships to the South China Sea has further muddied the already turbulent waters in the region. Caught in the cross-fire is India, which is forced to do some strategic tightrope walking so as to avoid antagonising China without irking the US. Two back-to-back military exercises in the Pacific this month, both of which exclude China but include India, have forced New Delhi to juggle its intensifying strategic relationship with the US, its major trade and energy interests in Southeast Asia, and the recent ‘reset’ of relations with China.

Operation Malabar, a naval exercise with the US and Japan, began off the Guam coast on June 7. India has deployed its multi-purpose stealth frigate INS Sahyadri, anti-submarine warfare corvette INS Kamorta, fleet tanker INS Shakti and P81, a Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft, to take part in the exercise that is being held for the first time near the key US naval base in the western Pacific.But in a nod to Chinese sensitivities, New Delhi had earlier rejected Australia’s appeal to join the exercise, setting the tone for the informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping in Wuhan April 27-28.

From Guam, INS Sahyadri will sail east to take part in the massive Rim of the Pacific Exercise off the Hawaii coast from June 28 to August 4. With 26 participating nations, it is billed as the world’s largest naval exercise. Earlier this month, to express its displeasure over Beijing’s aggressive militarisation of islands in disputed regions of South China Sea, the US ‘disinvited’ China from the exercise.

Similar Indian juggling was evident at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore June 1, where PM Modi delivered the first inaugural address by an Indian Prime Minister. In his speech, Modi reiterated India’s position on freedom of navigation and adherence to a stable rules-based international order.At the same time, he also warned against the return of great power rivalries, took a dig at US protectionism and cited his summit with Xi as an example of working together, saying that “strong and stable relations between our two nations are an important factor for global peace and progress. Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests”.

Earlier this month, Beijing had reacted sharply to reports that India was planning to jointly develop ports in Indonesia, where Modi had signed several agreements including a defence and maritime pact during a visit before he reached Singapore. Beijing worries that Indian warships in the port of Sabang, on the tip of Sumatra island, would be able to dominate the entrance to the crucial eastern end of the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest shipping channels for global trade and a key route into the South China Sea.

A day before the Singapore dialogue, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis formally renamed the US Pacific Command as the US Indo-Pacific Command. While many see it as a symbolic but important acknowledgement of India’s key role in the region, others view it as a tactical move against Chinese military and economic hegemony.

But New Delhi, which is hoping to consolidate its relations with Beijing at the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in China and revive its flagging relationship with Russia, is lukewarm about the idea of sending Indian ships to patrol the South China Sea. Denying that India was indulging in any juggling act, a senior official claimed, “Our position on the South China Sea has been very consistent. The French and British decision to send warships is based on their individual assessment of how to deal with the situation in the region. But in international relations, there are times when you have to politely agree to disagree, without getting into a war, of words or otherwise.”

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