By: Prof. SRIKANTH KONDAPALLI, East Asia Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University
India’s Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) Rajnath Singh addressed the 8th ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting (ADMM) Plus meeting last week. It was virtually organised by the current chair Brunei. Mr. Singh not only expressed India’s concerns in the region but laid down concrete plans for pursuing not only national interests but also for the public good of the region.
The ADMM was established in 2006, while it came into being in 2010 with eight dialogue partners including India. However, some dialogue partners such as China were seen as dividing, due to the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. Even though the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 gave a verdict against any “historical” claims over the sea reefs and islands, China not only rejected the verdict but also intensified militarization of the region.
Moreover, the recent China-organised ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting early this month at Chongqing has been pushing for a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea that excludes other stakeholders of the region in terms of maritime trade. While the previous Declaration of Conduct of 2000 remained ineffective as it has no enforceable provisions, the proposed Code is expected to further consolidate China’s grip over the region, without conceding its sovereignty claims.
This has led to acute problems in freedom of navigation, as China has been insisting on a “territorial sea” concept of potentially blockading entry and exit through the South China Sea waters. This has negative consequences to international maritime trade of several countries and hence the other dialogue partners such as the United States, Japan, Australia and India have been insisting on uninterrupted freedom of navigation and overflight guaranteed by international law.
India’s national interests in the region are firstly related to maintaining peace and stability through freedom of navigation as half of its maritime trade passes through the South China Sea; secondly to pursue the goals of its “Act East” Policy that began in 2015 replacing the 1992 Look East Policy with emphasis on physical connectivity through the BIMSTEC process in the region and enhancing commercial and cultural contacts; and thirdly to counter-terrorism, piracy and cyber threats that disrupt civilian lives and peace.
These interests are legitimate and do not divide the ASEAN countries. Besides, while India has no historical claims or sovereignty disputes with the region having resolved these with maritime neighbours like Indonesia and Thailand in the 1970s, the Defence Minister reiterated support to the ASEAN unity and centrality.
The Indian Defence Minister’s reiteration of the rule of law must be seen in the consistent policies of India in upholding such universal principles for proper and predictable functioning of the international system.
As the world today is ravaged by the virus that originated in Wuhan in late 2019, the Defence Minister reiterated the suggestion that vaccines should be made available without getting encumbered with patents. India and South Africa have been at the forefront as the World Trade Organisation is pushing this aspect and received partial success with the Biden Administration providing a one-time waiver on vaccines. As the ASEAN region is seeing a spike in epidemic cases, this initiative of India is beneficial to the region.
Another concrete proposal is the reiteration by Mr. Rajnath Singh of the Prime Minister’s 2019 proposal for the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative at the East Asian Summit. As this new initiative draws from the existing regional cooperation mechanism and architecture, it is conducive to regional interests as well. As against some dialogue partners efforts to weaken the ASEAN or even divide them, based on the sovereignty claims over the islands in the South China Sea, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at Shangri La Dialogue advocates inclusivity, which again is conducive to the ASEAN as a whole.
That India’s proposals and concrete action plan are gaining ASEAN’s support is reflected in the grouping’s intensive participation in the Indian initiatives, besides the attendance of all ASEAN leaders at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi a couple of years ago. This trend needs to be further strengthened and institutionalised.