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India Flags Concerns on Maritime Security amidst Dispute over South China Sea

Recently the Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had flagged India’s concerns on maritime security in the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ meeting (ADMM). Now in the meeting, the minister called for a rule-based order for Indo-Pacific. The issue of freedom of navigation in international waters specifically the South China Sea was also raised.

Rajnath Singh also termed terrorism as the greatest threat to global peace. India also sought adherence to international rules and laws when it comes to traveling on international waters and dealing in international waters.

The Minister in the meeting said that it needs to be an open Indo-Pacific free of any incumbrances. That means he was talking about the ongoing dispute which China has about claims in the South China sea. Five other countries which are part of the ASEAN are involved in that dispute. Mr. Singh was very categorical when talking about the South China Sea and the aspects which are going on such as freedom of navigation. The South China sea is very rich in hydrocarbons, oil, and gas.

This is the second time that China has been given a lowdown on the South China Sea and the navigation power. At the G-7 recently there was a two-para reference to the South China Sea, freedom of navigation, and overflight. The ASEAN also discussed the same thing with the Indian defense minister in their meeting.

The ASEAN Defense Ministers’ meeting was also conducted a couple of months ago with the same subjects being discussed.

Rajnath Singh’s flagging of the South China sea at the ADMM is indeed significant. This is probably the first time that a defense minister has brought this up in such a frontal fashion. It could be said even in past India’s position on the South China sea has been stated by senior functionaries. For instance, in 2012 former Foreign Minister Krishna had spoken about it and around 2016/2017 General VK Singh had brought up this issue. These, however, were standalone statements. The fact that the Minister brought this up at the ADMM shows that India wants to make its stand on the sea clear.

However, China is going to take this with a grain of salt. In fact, there will be some in the Chinese system who’ll not pay much attention to what India has to say on the matter. This is because firstly at this given moment India has an ongoing situation at the Ladakh border. China knows that during these negotiations India will try and signal to China that it’s not happy with what’s happening at the border. At the moment there’s a consensus between the two neighboring countries that they’re not going to cross each other’s red line at sea. But this may be a sign that India will if not open up a new front, try and put pressure on the maritime side.

This might not make much of a difference to China though. The Chinese know that apart from making statements Indians haven’t shown an appetite to actually expand their deployment in the South China sea. China is more worried about the US and other big players like Japan and Australia etc.

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