India is challenging Chinese influence in the South China Sea with its outreach to regional powers, including Russia, with which it has agreed to launch a maritime route that would partly go through the hotly contested waters, analysts said.
Under the memorandum of understanding signed by India and Russia – two traditional security allies – during a regional economic forum this week, a new Indo-Pacific sea route will extend from the port city of Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, to Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal in eastern India.
The shipping route will partly traverse the South China Sea, the scene of numerous territorial disputes involving China and neighbouring countries over the years.
In addition to cooperating on the planned maritime route, India and Russia could ramp up their alliance in the military and technological spheres, according to a joint statement released at the economic forum in Vladivostok.
The partnership could “include establishing joint development and production of military equipment, spare parts and components as well as improving the system of after sales services”, the statement said.
The announcement of greater India-Russia military cooperation comes a year after New Delhi agreed to purchase Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile systems.
“This could signal that India’s cooperation with Russia is now coming to a substantial phase,” Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said in an interview.
“As Russia is seeking to expand its influence in Asia, [working with India] could, to a certain extent, counter China’s influence in Asia,” he said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the planned maritime route fit under India’s “Act East” policy designed to deepen the South Asian nation’s political and economic ties with countries in Southeast Asia.
China’s growing military and economic prowess in the area worries the US and its regional allies, Japan and Australia. As part of the cooperation pact, India will give Russia an “unprecedented” US$1 billion loan to develop its resource-rich far east.
With over 55 per cent of its trade passing through the major waterways of Asia and the Malacca Strait, India – the world’s seventh largest economy and Asia’s third largest – has strategic stakes in the South China Sea, which has been the focus of numerous territorial disputes.
India signalled its renewed interest in the region this past week when a joint statement issued by India and Japan during Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Tokyo said the two sides had reviewed the situation in the South China Sea.
The countries also pledged to share military logistics for greater interoperability, according to the statement.
This week, officials with India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd, the overseas arm of Oil and Natural Gas Corp, told the Press Trust of India that the company sought another two-year extension to explore a Vietnamese oil block in the contested waters of the South China Sea.
It would be the company’s sixth extension since setting a contract with Hanoi in 2006 to develop the 7,058 sq km (2,725 square mile) Block 128 in offshore Phu Khanh Basin, though little oil has been produced from the site.
China, with numerous contested claims in the region, has long rejected the notion of any foreign partnership developing oil and gas reserves in the disputed waters. It has occasionally deployed non-military vessels to disrupt foreign gas and oil exploration in the area.
The latest escalation of tension in the region occurred this summer when Chinese and Vietnamese coastguard vessels engaged in a weeks-long stand-off near Vanguard Reef after a Chinese survey vessel sailed across two oil and gas blocks within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam.
Analysts said the move could have been part of a Beijing effort to block Vietnam’s joint gas and oil exploration activity with Russian energy firm Rosneft.
Delhi is uneasy of Chinese ‘new assertiveness’ and Beijing’s forceful affirmation of its territorial claims in the South China Sea - Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
As India’s trade with East Asia increases, Delhi may seek to bolster its presence in the region to reduce its dependence on major powers in the Western Pacific, analysts said.
“Delhi is uneasy of China’s new assertiveness and Beijing’s forceful affirmation of its territorial claims in the South China Sea,” said Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“India’s growing interests in the South China Sea also manifest Delhi’s aspirations for domain awareness in all areas of maritime interests and to track potential developments that could affect India’s national interest.”
But observers said India would refrain from directly confronting Beijing over the South China Sea dispute.
“Indian officials often highlight their country’s significant economic and trade interests in the South China Sea, for which access to the major waterways is a dire imperative,” said Abhijit Singh, head of the Maritime Policy Initiative think tank at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi.
“But beyond emphasising the need for compliance with international laws and the peaceful resolution of disputes, Indian officials aren’t willing to go much further.”
Singh, a former Indian naval officer, said also that India and Beijing appear to share similar interpretations of the maritime laws that the US and its allies often cite to justify their unannounced warship patrols in the South China Sea.
“Notably, India differs with its many of its Pacific partners, especially the United States, in the interpretation of maritime law and the freedoms enjoyed by foreign warships in littoral spaces,” he said.
“Delhi does not concur with US claims that its warships have a right to uninterrupted passage in another country’s coastal zones without prior notification and consent.
“New Delhi’s views on navigation in the South China Sea, in fact, seem closer to Beijing’s – especially on the matter of naval operations through a coastal state’s territorial waters or exclusive economic zones claiming innocent passage,” Singh said.
Hu said that Beijing, though unhappy with India’s joint oil project with Vietnam, would be unlikely to raise the South China Sea issue during President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to India in October.
“This could have potential impact on bilateral relations,” he said.
“But the top priority for Beijing is to lure India to join the Belt and Road Initiative, so Beijing is unlikely to react much to India over the South China Sea issues.”