Sharon Chen, Bloomberg News, Mar 16
Singapore said it wants India to play a bigger role in the South China Sea as China hastens land reclamation in the disputed waters that carry some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Singapore has been a strong supporter of India’s increased engagement in the region through security forums, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said in an interview on Monday after a meeting with Southeast Asian counterparts in Langkawi, an island in Malaysia. The group declared its commitment to the principle of no first use of force, he said.
“We hope that their presence and participation will increase – that really adds up to engagement and confidence building and mutual understanding,” Ng said, referring to Asia’s third-biggest economy. “India is a big country and it’s an influential country.”
India’s involvement in the region could give Southeast Asian nations a further buffer against China as that country seeks to enforce its claims to the majority of the South China Sea and push back against decades of U.S. military dominance in the Pacific. China is also looking to build a maritime trade route linking a network of ports through the Indian Ocean with Europe via the Suez Canal, a prospect that has unnerved India.
Ng’s comments follow calls for Japan to separately play an enhanced role in the South China Sea. Vice-Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said in January the U.S. would welcome an extension of Japan’s air surveillance into the area, while Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said last month that Japan would consider conducting air and sea patrols. Japan and China are separately embroiled in a territorial dispute in the East China Sea.
China says it’s entitled to about four-fifths of the South China Sea, based on a nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map that loops down like a cow’s tongue to a point about 1,800 kilometers (1,119 miles) south from China’s Hainan island. The area overlaps claims from Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.
Southeast Asian nations are worried about China building multistory mall-like structures on the Cuarteron and Gaven reefs, Philippine Defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez told reporters in Manila last week. The Philippines is relying on diplomatic protests and arbitration to address China’s “blatant disregard” of a 2002 non-binding declaration of conduct in the waters, he said.
China has reclaimed land around Fiery Cross Reef to create an island large enough to enable its first airstrip in the Spratly Islands, IHS Jane’s reported Nov. 20, citing satellite pictures. The Spratlys are a collection of more than 100 islands or reefs that dot the southern South China Sea.
China will have to explain its actions and how they comply with the 2002 agreement, Ng said. The declaration between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations calls on parties to refrain from “inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features.”
China has every right to carry out construction on its territory and won’t accept criticism from others about its “legal and reasonable” work, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on March 8. “We are not comparable to some countries that like to build illegal houses on others’ territory.”
The U.S. has urged China to stop reclaiming land, while the Philippines and China have frequently traded accusations over their territorial claims and encounters between fishing and military vessels.
Greater Indian involvement in the South China Sea would risk raising tensions with China and complicate its efforts to assert control of the Indian Ocean, waters that carry most of the world’s oil trade. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is starting to bulk up his naval forces to assert control in the waters and prevent China from establishing a military foothold.
India last month increased its defense budget by 11 percent to $40 billion and approved the building of six nuclear-powered submarines, triple what it currently has in service, as well as seven new frigates. Modi is concerned that China wants to expand its military presence in the region by establishing naval bases in Indian Ocean ports, a theory first expounded by U.S. consultant Booz Allen Hamilton in a 2005 report for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“We’ve said so to our Indian counterparts, we feel that we benefit from their presence, from their voice, and we’ll continue to take that line,” said Ng. “How they respond to their own interpretation of events in the Indian Ocean is up to them.”