Indian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, MJ Akbar recently delivered the keynote address at a workshop in New Delhi - ‘Strategic Stability in the Indo-Pacific’, organized by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) of India and International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) of the UK. He pointed out that India’s ‘Act East’ policy has not just brought it closer to the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) but has also redefined its relations with America. He said that India no longer sees America as a nation to its west but as one that lies to its east, and as a very important part of what has come to be known as the Indo-Pacific.

South China Sea a dangerous flashpoint

In the newly defined Indo-Pacific region, the South China Sea has become one of the most dangerous flashpoints ever since China began claiming almost the entire sea as a part of its territory. In order to buttress its claim over this sea bearing its name, China had been illegally taking over islets of the Spartly Islands archipelago here and even went on to build artificial islands for military bases. This was in complete disregard of all international laws and obligations of which, China is a part. Understandably, other littoral countries around the South China Sea comprising many ASEAN group countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are alarmed.

In a recent ruling, ICJ (International Court of Justice) has rejected the claims made by China in this maritime region in an arbitration involving the Philippines.

The South China Sea is at the crossroads of the critical passageway to East Asia where nations like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China itself have major trade linkages with India and many other countries.

China has been building up rhetoric over its rights on these waters, on the basis of which it wanted all vessels in the region to identify themselves with Chinese patrolling forces. Needless to say that India rejected it outright and so did the US and other major regional powers like Australia and Japan. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that have drawn India into this crisis and unlike earlier, this time New Delhi isn’t reluctant about aligning with other major powers to safeguard freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The annual Malabar Exercise

The annual Malabar Exercise involving the navies of India, the United States and Japan is among the largest in the world and its focus is the Indo-Pacific. Australia would surely be a part of the future editions of the exercise. According to the Financial Express, there’s already a strategic grouping called The Quad comprising India, US, Japan and Australia that have combined to thwart any further Chinese attempt to intimidate international shipping in this maritime zone.

The ball is now in China’s court and it is believed that it got the message. In fact, a recent statement from a high ranking Chinese official stated that it won’t part with even an inch of whatever it has occupied in the South China Sea.

This a climb-down from a situation where it claimed almost the entire sea and even went to the extent of demanding vessels in the area to identify themselves to Chinese patrolling forces.

Clearly, China had overreached itself and realized that very soon. The Quad, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with more dynamic engagement in the Indo-Pacific and for now, it should just be seen as a move by pillars of the democratic world to uphold international maritime law and also to enforce the ICJ ruling against Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea.