For the first time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulated India’s vision towards the Indo-Pacific region at the Shangri-La dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore in June 2018. He emphasised the promotion of a democratic and rules-based international order to keep “our seas, space and airways free and open; our nations secure from terrorism and our cyber space free from disruption and conflict”. This would require, he noted, “freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law”. He stated that partnerships on the basis of shared values and interests “must equally apply to all individually as well as to the global commons”; these rules and norms were to be based on “the consent of all, not on the power of the few”.
Interestingly, this was only the second time that Mr Modi had used the term ‘rules-based international order’ in a formal statement, the first time being during the India-EU Summit in 2017. The term has also been used in India’s recent official joint declarations with Japan, Australia, the EU, UK, and the Netherlands.
India’s adherence to international law has been a fundamental aspect of its diplomacy. But, what is new is the focus on the promotion of a democratic rules-based order, especially in the maritime domain, with an emphasis on the freedom of navigation and overflight. The reasons for this are not hard to guess. Because half of India’s trade passes through the disputed areas of the South China Sea, the freedom of navigation and overflight are critical. More importantly, this serves as an increasingly useful diplomatic tool for consensus among democratic states to utilize for India’s concerns over China’s assertiveness towards it, although not now made as public in the aftermath of the Modi-Xi Wuhan summit of 2018.
In January 2015, during former President Obama’s visit to India, the two countries published a document that outlined their joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean. This included a paragraph affirming ‘the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea’ (my emphasis). This was widely perceived as implying that the two parties had reached consensus on the need to counter Beijing’s assertive approach to territorial disputes in the region.
A key aspect of Mr Modi’s 2015 vision of the future of the Indian Ocean was to seek a climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms and the peaceful resolution of maritime issues. India’s maritime strategy of that year emphasised the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and strengthening the international legal regime at sea, particularly UNCLOS. New Delhi also supported the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague on the dispute in the South China Sea, which rejected almost all of China’s expansive territorial claims.
In this context, in a landmark ruling, India also accepted international arbitration over its own maritime dispute with Bangladesh in 2014. A UN tribunal awarded Bangladesh which had started the arbitration process in October 2009 over the delimitation of the maritime boundary under UNCLOS, almost four-fifths – 19,467 of the 25,602 sq km sea area – of the Bay of Bengal under contention.
At times India has issued official statements that appear contradictory to its bold official assertions. In terms of dispute management, for example, in 2016, the foreign ministers of India, Russia and China issued a joint communique which stated that ‘Russia, India and China are committed to maintaining a legal order for the seas and oceans based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in UNCLOS. All related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned’ (my emphasis). Some observers viewed the latter sentence as a departure from its earlier Obama-Modi position. Again, at the first revived meeting of senior foreign ministry officials of the ‘quad’ group of countries – India, the US, Japan and Australia – in November 2017, India was the only country that did not formally state its commitment to “uphold the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific”, instead highlighting the need for “cooperation based on their converging vision and values for promotion of peace”. This was then amended in line with other joint statements in the subsequent two meetings that have taken place so far.
Yet, this is an important reminder that as India continues to promote the issue of shared values and adherence to a rule-based international order, primarily for use as a diplomatic tool against China, its own policies and practice need to be scrupulously consistent.