The recent trip to India by Xi Jinping, the President of China, seemed to effectively offset the impression of strong India-Japan ties that was demonstrated during Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan several weeks prior. The new Indian Prime Minister invited Xi to his hometown in Gujarat on 17 September, and held a summit meeting in New Delhi next day. His hospitable treatment, including traditional Indian dance, entertained Xi – but it might have disappointed Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, who appealed to an Indo-Japanese “special relationship” with Modi during the latter’s visit to Tokyo. Nevertheless, it is still early to judge if India and China can maintain good relations as in the famous slogan “Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers)”. As a matter of fact, before the summit, Beijing sent over 1,000 troops across the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between India and China, while New Delhi sent President Pranab Mukherjee to Vietnam, one of the claimants of South China Sea disputes. The China-India border conflict is still one of the three hottest Chinese territorial disputes along with South and East China Seas islands issues. Although India traditionally does not engage with other regional matters actively, New Delhi often uses security cooperation with China’s neighboring countries as a diplomatic tool to counter Chinese aggressions. In this context, those three disputes are linked with each other politically.
How New Delhi becomes involved in the territorial disputes in South and East China Seas will depend on Sino-Indian relations. Since he became Prime Minister in May 2014, Modi has sent two opposite signals regarding his China policy. He met the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi – who attended Modi’s investiture as Xi’s special envoy – in New Delhi in June 9 2014, soon after Modi took power. On other hand, the newly-elected BJP government announced Japan as the country for Modi’s first visit. In the event the India-Japan summit was postponed to September, as Modi chose Bhutan for his first destination in June and Nepal in August – both countries where India is concerned about expansion of Chinese influence. Nevertheless, during this 5-day tour in Japan, Modi avoided sending any aggressive signal to Beijing. Finally, Mukherjee’s Vietnam trip before Xi’s visit resulted in further security cooperation between New Delhi and Hanoi, including the sale to Vietnam of BrahMos cruise missile, which India and Russia develop together.
Similar to his predecessors, Modi will face a dilemma on how to deal with China. Considering his priority is economic revival, it is wise to improve relations with China, with which India’s bilateral trade volume exceeds USD 65 billion. Nonetheless, he has to show a strong stance if Beijing continues to allow its military to cross the LAC. In fact, it is reported that Modi and his External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraji took a strong line on the border incursions during their talks with Xi and the Chinese delegation. The security cooperation with Vietnam and Japan could be evidence that India is now ready to poke China with its involvement with other Chinese territorial disputes. The ancient Indian philosopher Kautilya, in his strategic treatise the Arthashastra, also explains that “your enemy’s enemy is your friend.”
Moreover, today, New Delhi cannot afford to overlook problems in East Asia, especially in the domain of maritime security. India’s trade with Northeast Asia is rapidly increasing. For instance, according to the Indian Department of Commerce, Indian exports to ASEAN totaled $33. billion and imports stood at $41 billion in 2013-14. Those numbers were only $8.4 billion and $9.1 billion respectively in 2004-05. In addition, India’s state-owned energy company, ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL), has gotten involved with oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea through a joint venture with PetroVietnam. In 2011, India and Vietnam signed a three-year deal covering investment and cooperation in energy exploration, production and refining, despite of Chinese objection. This cooperation was “consolidated” with a further letter of intent between OVL and PetroVietnam during Mukherjee’s trip to Hanoi. On 21 September, Modi also answered a question from the media on China’s role in maritime disputes in its near seas by saying, “we can’t close our eyes to problems.”
How will Indian active involvement in other Chinese territorial disputes influence the security environment in East Asia? First, New Delhi’s involvement will remain indirect in the near future. It is unlikely that the Indian Navy or other forces will be mobilized in defense of other countries in East Asia to counter China. Second, even as India strengthens its presence in this region, it will neither reduce tension between China and neighboring states nor solve those territorial disputes. Third, nevertheless, we can still expect active Indian involvement will enhance deterrence against Chinese aggressive action. It will be a great opportunity to enhance unanimous action against Chinese assertiveness regarding territorial claims. Today, the claimants of territories which China also claims do not act unanimously against Beijing. While some of the countries try to pressure Beijing, others – including previous Indian governments – have taken a weak stance to Chinese assertive actions. This is not and effective way to counter China. The BJP’s strong stance against incursion by the PLA is welcome in this context. If India chooses to strengthen its presence in other regions, it is time for New Delhi to cooperate more with other claimants to dissuade Beijing’s escalation.
Tomoko Kiyota is a Resident Sasakawa Peace Foundation Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.