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Delicate balance

While all the headlines from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at the second annual Raisina Dialogue were focused on his comments directed at Pakistan, his position on China’s growing ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region also caught a lot of eyeballs. Without mentioning the country by name, Modi said that China’s growing military ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, particularly the South China Sea, are fomenting security risks. These remarks are in agreement with US President-elect Donald Trump’s goal to curtail Beijing’s rising clout in the region. “Rising ambition and rivalries are generally visible stress points,” Modi said. 

“The steady increase in military power, resources and wealth in the Asia-Pacific has raised the stakes of security.” During his Senate confirmation hearing, Trump’s pick for US Secretary of State, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson also said that Beijing’s aggressive push towards reclaiming islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea must be brought to a halt. Under the NDA government’s “Act East” policy, trade linkages with ASEAN countries in the Far-East have received close attention. These regions are set to play a vital role in India’s economic development. For example, India’s growing dependence on the Malacca Strait for the flow of goods and services has also compelled New Delhi to take a position. Any potential territorial standoff in the South China Sea would come in direct conflict with India’s interests. About international maritime laws, Modi also called for “open, transparent, balanced and inclusive, and promote dialogue and predictable behaviour rooted in international norms and respect for sovereignty”. 

Once again, the reference to China is not hard to discern. In July, last year, China rejected a verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague on the South China Sea, which went in favour of the Philippines, as “null and void” and devoid of any “binding force”. Irrespective of China’s wishes, many experts believe that India cannot be seen condoning acts of military aggression in direct contravention of the international maritime law. New Delhi, they argue, must take a principled stand on matters surrounding freedom of navigation and commercial access spelt out under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Nonetheless, India should not also be seen as a puppet of the US. Finally, New Delhi has expressed its fears of China’s manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean region by building strategic ports in countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan and deploying submarines. These conflicts are real, although New Delhi must find a way not to isolate China altogether. It’s a delicate balance. And any measure that disturbs this balance would be inimical to India’s interests. 
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