India crosses a Rubicon in ties with China
India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh with senior army officials during a traditional ‘bara khana’ gathering in Leh. Singh has called out China’s misadventures on multiple fronts at the ASEAN Defence Ministers meeting recently.Courtesy: ANI

India crosses a Rubicon in ties with China

ANALYSIS

Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s call for a free and open Indo-Pacific is probably the first time India has asserted its stance in the presence of Chinese officials. This, and Foreign Minister Jaishankar calling out Beijing for disturbing peace and tranquility seems to point to a hardening of India’s stance on ties with its northern neighbour.

India may have crossed a small geo-strategic Rubicon recently when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh called for a freedom of navigation in the South China Sea at an international meeting in the presence of the Chinese Defence Minister and the US Defence Secretary.

“India calls for a free, open and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific, based upon respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue and adherence to international rules and laws,” Singh said at a meeting of ASEAN Defence Ministers recently.

China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin were also present at the virtual meeting, which was attended by the defence ministers of all 10 ASEAN defence ministers. The bloc’s eight dialogue partner countries – India, China, the US, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Russia – were all present at the meeting.

China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin were also present at the virtual meeting, which was attended by the defence ministers of all 10 ASEAN defence ministers and the bloc’s eight dialogue partner countries.

Although Singh’s assertion is a reiteration of India’s principled stand on the issue, this is probably the first time that a senior Indian minister has asserted this position in the presence of a Chinese delegation. In the past, New Delhi has been careful about taking on China at international forums.

Singh didn’t mince his words

But this time, Singh didn’t mince his words. “Developments in the South China Sea have attracted attention in the region and beyond… India supports freedom of navigation, overflight, and unimpeded commerce in these international waterways,” he said at the 8th ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Plus Meeting (ADDM-PLUS).

The Indian Defence Minister hoped the Code of Conduct talks would “not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of nations that are not party to these discussions” and lead to outcomes in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

Singh addressing the ASEAN Defence Minister’s meeting. The Indian Defence Minister’s assertions come at a time when talks between the two countries on disengagement on the border seems to have hit a stalemate and could be a pointer to a hardening of the Indian position vis-à-vis China.
Singh addressing the ASEAN Defence Minister’s meeting. The Indian Defence Minister’s assertions come at a time when talks between the two countries on disengagement on the border seems to have hit a stalemate and could be a pointer to a hardening of the Indian position vis-à-vis China.Courtesy: ANI

India doesn’t recognise China’s claims over South China Sea

Though he didn’t name China, he left no one in any doubt about what he meant. China has clamed sovereignty over almost all of the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea. This claim, without any basis in history or international law, has been rejected by every country in the region as well as the four-nation Quad comprising India, the US, Australia and Japan.

“Maritime security challenges are another area of concern to India,” Singh said, adding that “the sea lane of communication is critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development of the Indo-Pacific region… It is important for us to understand each other and respect our individual views while we strive together towards a common goal in the evolving security environment.”

The Indian Defence Minister’s assertions come at a time when talks between the two countries on disengagement on the border seems to have hit a stalemate and could be a pointer to a hardening of the Indian position vis-à-vis China.

Developments in the South China Sea have attracted attention in the region and beyond… India supports freedom of navigation, overflight, and unimpeded commerce in these international waterways.
- Rajnath Singh, Indian Defence Minister
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar together. The latter has dismissed any hopes of doing business with China till the tension on the borders cool down. Clearly suggesting that India is ready to dig in for the long haul with China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar together. The latter has dismissed any hopes of doing business with China till the tension on the borders cool down. Clearly suggesting that India is ready to dig in for the long haul with China.Courtesy: ANI

India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has said in so many words that relations with China cannot be treated as business as usual. “If you disturb peace and tranquillity, if there is intimidation and friction at the border, obviously it’s going to tell on the relationship. So, my honest answer to you is that I think the relationship is at a crossroads. The border tensions cannot continue with cooperation in other areas,” he said recently.

The Indian Defence Minister’s assertions come at a time when talks between the two countries on disengagement on the border seems to have hit a stalemate and could be a pointer to a hardening of the Indian position vis-à-vis China.

Difficult phase in ties

“The relationship is going through a very difficult phase, because in violation of agreements and understandings of many, many years, the Chinese have deployed a very large part of their military on and close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) without explanation,” he said on another occasion.

“They continue to be there now for a year. And their actions have disturbed peace and tranquillity on the border areas. We saw bloodshed there last June after 45 years… I can’t have friction, coercion, intimidation and bloodshed on the border and then say, let’s have a good relationship in other domains. It’s not realistic,” he said.

These statements suggest that India is ready to match China statement for statement, stand its ground and dig in for the long haul.

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