South China Sea: India sends warships as ‘subtle reminder’ to Beijing

India have sent warships to South China Sea this month, in a move designed to send Beijing “subtle reminders” of the importance of upholding international law, analysts say.

Although there is a danger that the ships could provoke an “aggressive response” from China, New Delhi-based observers told This Week in Asia that the region welcomed India’s presence “with open arms”.

Indian guided missile destroyer INS Delhi, naval tanker INS Shakti and submarine hunter INS Kiltan arrived in Singapore May to strengthen “friendship and cooperation”, Indian Navy spokesman Commander Vivek Madhwal said at the time.
INS Kiltan then proceeded to Vietnam‘s Cam Ranh Bay, arriving May 12 for exchanges and a joint maritime exercise with the Vietnamese Navy. On the same day, INS Delhi and INS Shakti arrived at Malaysia‘s Kota Kinabalu to participate in maritime exercises.
separately, Germany deployed two warships on May 7 to demonstrate a “presence in the Indo-Pacific in support of the international rules-based order” amid rising regional tensions, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said.
Fighter jets fly over the Berlin-class replenishment ship A 1412 Frankfurt am Main of the German Navy as it leaves its home port on May 7 for deployment to the Indo-Pacific. Photo: AFP

Such naval deployments served as “subtle reminders to Beijing of the importance of adhering to international norms and respecting the law of the sea”, said Abhijit Singh, head of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank’s Maritime Policy Initiative, adding that they were “important signals “. of international concern regarding violations”.

“Without a united front among like-minded nations to counter Chinese aggression, Beijing is unlikely to perceive isolated deployments as a significant threat,” he said.

“Given its limited naval resources and strategic interests primarily focused on the Indian Ocean, India would be ill-advised to pursue a confrontational strategy alone in the South China Sea.”

To create “a more meaningful impact”, Singh said a concerted effort would be needed with partners such as United States, Japan, Australiaand Phillipines – the last of which has been locked for a long time stand-off with China in recent months over the disputed South China Sea.
However, despite the timing of the deployment, Singh said it was not a confrontational move aimed at Beijing, but rather part of “a broader strategy to improve maritime security and promote peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific” that fit with India’s decade- old “Act East” policy.
Visitors walk past a model of India’s Brahmo supersonic cruise missiles at a defense exhibition in 2022, the year it signed a deal with the Philippines on the weapons. Photo: AFP

Increased acceptance

India’s ties with Southeast Asia have improved in the years since its Act East policy was launched, but it was the signing of an agreement with the Philippines on Indian-made anti-ship cruise missiles in 2022 it marked a major shift towards strengthening more strategic defense cooperation.
The first batch of BrahMos missiles arrived in the Philippines from India last month and while it has been the most prominent deal so far, there is growing regional interest in acquiring Indian-made defense equipment, according to Sripathi Narayanan, a Delhi-based defense analyst who focuses on India’s military outreach to Southeast Asia.

He said the Southeast Asian nations were “not opposed” to expanding partnerships with countries such as India – especially given the asymmetric nature of their capabilities compared to China.

“India is being welcomed in Southeast Asia with open arms,” ​​Narayanan told This Week in Asia.

India is being welcomed in Southeast Asia with open arms

Sripathi Narayanan, Delhi-based defense analyst
Aswani RS, an Indo-Pacific analyst and assistant professor at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in India whose research interests include security issues, agreed that there was growing acceptance of India’s presence among littoral nations in the South China Sea as a counterweight to China’s growing “grey zone” activities.

“But there is also the risk that this military deployment could provoke an aggressive response from China,” she warned, adding that much would depend on whether recent fighting in the South China Sea escalated further.

“A minor flashpoint could potentially trigger a wider confrontation if not handled carefully by all parties involved.”

Aswani noted that India had been conducting annual bilateral naval exercises with Singapore since 1994 and has similar naval cooperation agreements with other Southeast Asian nations.
Ships from the navies of India, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei are taking part in last year’s week-long Asean-India Maritime Exercise (AIME 2023). Photo: Indian Navy via Facebook/SingaporeNavy
The initiation Asean-India Maritime Exercise was held in May last yearinvolving nine ships, six aircraft and more than 1,800 personnel from across the bloc’s member states.
Building cooperation on other fronts such as the energy transition and climate changemeanwhile, could strengthen India’s relationship with the region and “reinforce its strategic position”, Aswani said.

The German naval ships sent to the region would be on their way to this year’s Rim of the Pacific exercise, a biennial event organized by the United States involving 29 countries.

“Instead of sailing through the Atlantic, the German navy chose the Indian Ocean route,” Sripathi said.

“Everyone is hedging their positions as the evolving global architecture and power dynamics undergo an uncertain transformation.”

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