Out of the 80 percent of the international trade transported via sea-routes, South China Sea is the thoroughfare for 20 percent to 35 percent of global trade.
By Milind Kulshreshtha & Don McLain Gill
The Indo-Pacific region includes some of the world’s largest economies viz. United States, China and Japan, with the region contributing 60 percent of the global GDP. Out of the 80 percent of the international trade transported via sea-routes, South China Sea is the thoroughfare for 20 percent to 35 percent of global trade. This makes it essential to maintain free and open maritime trade routes in this region. However, the freedom of navigation and peaceful cooperative use of the seas in the South China Sea is being challenged by China. China already has ongoing overlapping territorial disputes with Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. To maintain a free, open, inclusive and a rule-based order to protect people, assets and other interests in the region, the US, UK, France and Germany have gradually commenced deployment of war fighting units in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, China has been installing military infrastructure on various artificially created islands in the South China Sea to unilaterally enhance its EEZ restrictions and objecting to freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) as recognised by the International Law. The 2016 judgment by an international tribunal in The Hague in favour of claims by the Philippines over strategic reefs and atolls has been rejected by China since it limits Chinese control over disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Changing Stance of Philippines with China
The Philippines is situated at the intersection of the South China Sea, the Indonesian archipelago, the Philippine Sea, and the Pacific Ocean. It forms the outer edge of maritime Southeast Asia and is a gateway between the Pacific and the rest of Asia. The proximity of the Philippines to China and Japan also provides it with access to vital sea routes for commerce. Being at the entrance of maritime Southeast Asia, the Philippines has clearly cemented its geopolitical role not only in the sub-region but also in the greater Indo-Pacific. As the geographical heart of the Indo-Pacific, the Philippines continues to carry a critical role in shaping the future of the region.
The Philippines and China have been sharing a rather tumultuous relationship throughout much of history due to the latter’s provocations towards Manila’s legitimate claims in the South China Sea. Moreover, the construction of Chinese military and civilian infrastructure on the islands claimed by the Philippines continues to serve as an added layer of challenge to the Southeast Asian country’s sovereignty and national interests.
However, as President Duterte took office in 2016, many suspected that Philippine-China relations would be taking a significant U-turn. Rightfully so, President Duterte decided to downplay the 2016 Arbitral Award and considered to dismantle the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. After 18 months of continuous uncertainty towards the fate of the VFA, recently the Philippines eventually decided to restore this agreement, which stands as a major pillar in the Philippine-US alliance. Despite the assumptions made that the Philippines has jumped into the Chinese bandwagon at the expense of its partnership with the US, Manila has illustrated its position amid the overarching power competition between Washington and Beijing. This decision therefore signals a potentially significant shift in the country’s policy in the South China Sea. Furthermore, this also signifies that China’s over bearing influence over its neighbours in the South China Sea region is not absolute, as Philippines overlooked few short-term strategic interests vis-à-vis maintaining a stable and rules-based seas around it.
UK Carrier Battle Group in South China Sea
As tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea, the power equation among regional and extra-regional powers is yet to emerge clearly. On July 27th, the UK led Aircraft Carrier Battle Group under the Flag Ship HMS Queen Elizabeth, in consort with warships from US and Dutch, entered the South China Sea region. It was observed that so far, the British stood true to their emphasis to avoid a confrontationist stance with China in the South China Sea. Moreover, according to the Chinese foreign ministry, the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group did not sail near Beijing’s artificial islands when it was in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, in early August 2021, in an independent move, Germany deployed its frigate, Bayern, for a seven-month-long voyage through the Indo-Pacific, which interestingly also includes the South China Sea. Berlin has claimed that the warship has been deployed for FONOPs in the South China Sea but shall avoid the Taiwan Strait disputed passage. Germany’s ambiguous strategy towards China, including the specific purpose and role of its warship in the South China Sea is yet to emerge and this aspect shall be closely watched in the near future.
It may be presently opined that the perception that key European countries that seek to increase their military presence in the Indo-Pacific, aim to solely construct some sort of anti-China group seems unlikely in the near future, especially given the reality of geo-politics and economics. For any European force, the geographic distance to deploy power in the South China Sea while establishing a growing economic interdependence with China shall continue to be a dichotomy and a major barrier towards any kind of military engagement plans against China. Furthermore, during the ongoing difficult pandemic times, the priority and practicality of interest shall continue to play a pivotal role in any country’s decision-making.
INS Vikrant makes Waves
India’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, christened INS Vikrant, undertook critical sea trials on August 4th and signifies India’s intent to remain a major naval power in the Indo-Pacific. The ship is scheduled for commissioning in the next couple of years, and shall team up with INS Vikramaditya (ex-Gorshkov) carrier to provide India a potent naval power projection capability in the region. As and when Government is able to allocate budget, India is expected to launch the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier project, thus ensuring that India shall now onwards always possess a fleet of locally designed and manufactured Aircraft Carriers in the future with a capability to field a Carrier Strike Group in South China Sea, in support of Indo-Pacific countries.
What do these developments mean for the Philippines? Unlike the UK and other extra-regional powers, India’s interests lie primarily in the stability and peace of the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, like the Philippines, India too has been on the receiving end of China’s territorial expansion and assertions. Furthermore, being both democratic Asian countries that seek to preserve the rules and order of the region, India and the Philippines are seen as natural partners.
Since 2014, India has attempted to reinvigorate its partnership with Philippines under the initiative of Act East Policy. In 2017, during the 15th ASEAN Summit at Manila, Indian Prime Minister assured steady support to achieve a rules-based regional security architecture for peace in the region. In fact, as the Philippines seeks to modernise and enhance its military, there have been talks between the two countries for the purchase of a range of defence and weapon systems from India, including supersonic missile BrahMos. Earlier, Indian shipyard GRSE was shortlisted for construction of two frigates (as derivative of Kamorta Class warships) for the Philippines Navy. In March this year, both countries signed a significant enabling pact that will lead the way for government-to-government deals on defence equipment.
India-Philippines Naval Linkup
Indian Navy regularly participates in various annual bilateral and multilateral maritime exercises and coordinated patrols (CORPATS) with friendly navies to gain operational experience, enhance interoperability and carry out improvements in the joint practices with foreign navies. In order to enhance its reach within the Indo-Pacific, India has established Agreements with US, France, Singapore, South Korea, Australia and Japan. The discussions with Russia are being finalised and a defence logistics sharing Agreement with the UK is to be signed.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the US, Australia, Japan and India has been established to promote a free, open rules-based order adhering to international law to advance security and prosperity. The first-ever leader-level summit was concluded in March 2021. The leaders emphasized on rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight and territorial integrity, while supporting QUAD focus to achieve ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as promote the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. A full representation of QUAD navies was achieved during the naval exercise Malabar-2020. This year’s Malabar-2021 scheduled in end August too shall see all the four QUAD navies engaged in the naval Exercise at Guam (a US island territory in the Western Pacific region) located closer to the Philippines Sea.
While India actively concluded about 26 Joint Maritime Exercises between 2018-19 to 2020-21, which included countries bordering the South China Sea viz. Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia. However, to-date Philippines absence from annual or bi-annual Joint Naval Exercise list is conspicuous. Even though the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard ships often formally visit Philippines and such visits are duly reciprocated by Philippines, the conduct of a bilateral or multilateral Naval exercise on the high seas shall strengthen the naval cooperation between the two countries and may also be seen as an opportunity for India to showcase its tactical and technological warfighting capabilities.
India has the capacity to strengthen its resolve to serve as a net security provider in the region and undertake capacity building for smaller countries in the region such as the Philippines. With multiple large-scale Shipyards distributed on the eastern and western coasts, India’s naval ship building industry is now considered mature enough to fully support the Indian Navy. With some enhancements as desired from the Philippines side coupled with a progressive outlook under a strategic partnership programme, Indian Naval Shipyards (along with other efficient private shipyards) are more than capable of supporting Philippines’ shipbuilding ambitions for the next many decades. Such a strategic tie-up has a bearing on the fact that any use of coercion by China in the Indo-Pacific is directly detrimental to India’s own growth and power ambitions, making it mandatory for India to drive towards a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific region. With the firming up of Philippines’ latest stance towards China in the region, time may be right for India to move forward now and formulate a bilateral Naval exercise, shipbuilding plan and Defence Technology transfer mechanism with the Philippines Navy in order to forge a closer relation with Philippines amid the uncertain shifts gradually taking place in the region’s geopolitical landscape.
Milind Kulshreshtha is a Strategic Analyst with a keen interest in technology related to C4I solutions and Multiplatform Multi-sensor Data Fusion (MPMSDF).
Don McLain Gill is a resident fellow at the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC). He is a geopolitical analyst and an author who has written extensively on South Asian geopolitics and Indian foreign policy.
(Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online)