With India’s growing trade ties with the East, ensuring navigational freedom in the strategic South China Sea has become important for the country just as it is to other trading nations, a former top Indian diplomat has said. Navigational freedom is a concern for all of the world’s trading nations that use the South China Sea route, whether it is Japan, China and the US, said former National Security Adviser Shivshanker Menon. In 1991, about 15.6 per cent of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as external merchandise trade, went to the West through the Suez. But by 2014, half of 49.3 per cent of the GDP, as external merchandise trade, was shipped through the South China Sea to the East. As such, the South China Sea now has become more important for India unlike earlier, said Menon after delivering a public lecture on ‘Asia’s New Geopolitics’. China claims almost all of the South China Sea but Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have counter claims over the waterway.
The US is periodically deploying its naval ships and fighter planes to assert freedom of navigation. “We have a common interest in the navigation there, it is in nobody’s interests to see freedom of navigation affected in the South China Sea,” said Menon, who is a Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), a think tank here. It seems there is enough of common interest all around for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, India, Japan and the US to make sure that this trade goes through the South China Sea “peacefully”, he said.
The ASEAN is a regional intergovernmental organisation comprising ten Southeast Asian states. Its members include Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. China, he observed, wants to solve the problem and is asking concerned parties to talk to her. The old system to relying on the US to solve the problem is not going to be there, he believes.
China is negotiating a code of conduct directly with the ASEAN for the South China Sea, he noted. It has already worked out a declaration of conduct in the South China Sea with the South East Asian regional grouping for easing of tension.