New Delhi: Seven years after the order by an international tribunal, India has upgraded its position and for the first time, it has explicitly called for abiding by the 2016 arbitration award that had struck down China’s territorial claims in South China Sea.
The change in India’s posture was mentioned in a joint statement issued by India and the Philippines after the fifth Joint Commission on bilateral cooperation on Thursday.
In July 2016, an arbitration tribunal set up under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea had ruled in favour of the Philippines government that had petitioned against China’s aggressive actions in the disputed oil-rich waters.
China had not participated in the arbitration process and has refused to recognise the judgment.
India’s response in July 2016 had been a cautious one, having merely “noted” the award.
This has remained India’s position till the latest edition of the Joint Commission chaired by external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and the Filipino secretary for foreign affairs Enrique A. Manalo held in New Delhi.
Saying that both countries have a shared interest in an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, the joint statement said, “They (the ministers) underlined the need for a peaceful settlement of disputes and for an adherence to international law, especially the UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea in this regard.”
Sources confirmed to The Wire that India’s position on the arbitral award has “evolved” and that the joint statement was the first manifestation of this change. They added that the evolution was based on a request from the Filipino side.
While President Rodrigo Duterte had put the implementation of the 2016 award on the backburner as he courted China, the new government of Ferdinand Marcos Junior that took over in 2022 has signalled a more confrontational position.
At the six-year anniversary of the award last year, Filipino foreign secretary Manalo said Tuesday that the arbitration ruling would be a pillar of his new government’s policy and actions in the disputed region. “These findings are no longer within the reach of denial and rebuttal and are conclusive as they are indisputable. The award is final,” Manalo said in a statement.
He repeated the Philippines’ position in a speech delivered at the Indian Council for World Affairs on Wednesday.
“We successfully won the case in 2016. Unfortunately, China does not recognise the award. We and many countries across the world consider the arbitral award as final and binding,” Manalo said.
He said that China’s activities in the South China Sea constitute a “major challenge” for the Philippines but added that bilateral relations are not exclusively defined by the difficulties posed by China’s actions in the disputed region.
In numerous joint statements with other countries over the years, India has endorsed a language that supports freedom of navigation and flight in the region, and it has criticised unilateral use of force that could impede peace and called for abiding by the UNCLOS.
Therefore, this is the first time that the India-Filipino joint statement directly calls for adherence not just with the UNCLOS, but with the 2016 Arbitral award.
Sources said that the change was also a reflection of the “changing geopolitics” as well as the evolving views in New Delhi and Manila vis-à-vis China.
Meanwhile, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Kritenbrink on Wednesday said that Washington sees a growing role for India in the disputed South China Sea and there will be a collaboration between Washington and New Delhi in this strategically vital region.
Speaking at the 13th Annual South China Sea Conference by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, he was asked whether he sees a growing role for India in the South China Sea and if there will be US-India collaboration in this area.
“Yes, I do. And yes, I think we will,” he said.
An article in the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times responded to Kritenbrink’s remarks by quoting Chinese analysts as saying that India’s extended presence in the South China sea “complicate[s] the situation and jeopardize[s] the hard-won stability and peace by increasing their footprint in the region”.
It cited Chinese analysts as saying that it would be an overstretch for India to get involved in the South China Sea issues given its insufficient military strength and its limited number of warships, but that indirect arms sales and military assistance to the regional countries is also concerning.
India has handed over an active duty missile corvette to Vietnam this week. Last year, India signed an agreement with the Philippines for the sale of Brahmos missiles.