NEW DELHI: While a lot of what India and Japan discussed at the Modi-Abe summit was intended to address Chinese expansionism in the form of its OBOR (One Belt One Road) initiative, the two countries also allowed a concession to Beijing by avoiding any explicit mention of South China Sea (SCS).
This is particularly significant as the previous two summit declarations specifically referred to SCS while reaffirming commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight. This time though the successful resolution to the Doklam dispute, which saw China agreeing to India’s demand to stop road construction to where Beijing believes the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction is, and Japan’s preoccupation with North Korea meant a more restrained response in their joint statement to the security challenge in SCS.
The Modi government introduced explicit mentions of SCS in its joint declarations, first with the US in 2014, in line with a more assertive Act East policy and to maintain a deliberate ambiguity in its position on China’s maritime territorial disputes with its neighbours. This was also in keeping with exhortations by several Asean nations for India to increase its profile in the region.
The omission of SCS may also partly have resulted from what many see as the indifference of the US under President Donald Trump to the situation in SCS . As strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney says, India and Japan are now faced with very difficult choices on SCS with Trump effectively giving Beijing a “free pass” to act in whatever manner it wants to. “The omission is especially significant given the reference to the SCS in the 2015 and 2016 joint statements. India and Japan cannot ignore the fact that the US has no clear policy on SCS,” says Chellaney.
There is, however, a view that North Korea’s provocations may force Trump to rethink his options. To be sure, the US is now said to be planning regular freedom of navigation operations in SCS. However, reports from Southeast Asia suggest that, with Trump and the international community focused on North Korea, China is quietly consolidating its territorial claims in SCS.
According to Chellaney, under Obama, the US allowed China to change the status quo by force in the SCS without incurring any international costs, thereby emboldening Chinese actions in the Himalayas and the East China Sea, and Trump has shown no inclination to challenge Beijing in SCS. “Under Trump, the US has no desire to seek a return to status quo ante in the SCS. As a result, China is consolidating its position in the SCS, even as the US symbolically undertakes freedom-of-navigation operations in the region,” he says.
There was a mention of UNCLOS in the 2017 India-Japan joint statement for sure and the same paragraph also reiterated the determination to work together for stability, peace and development in the Indo-Pacific. It’s still a dilution though of the 2016 document which said the two PMs “regarding the South China Sea” stressed the importance of resolving the disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law including the UNCLOS. This time foreign secretary S Jaishankar said the Indo-Pacific reference addressed the issue without mentioning specific geographies.