The ongoing disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have been regarded as one of the most enduring and complicated regional conflicts in the Asia-Pacific. The disputes involve China along with several states in the region and encompass issues such as overlapping territorial claims and access to critical resources like energy and fisheries. Within this turbulent environment, India has been expanding its influence through implementing its Look East Policy (LEP). This has not been taken well by China, who has for years tried to curb New Delhi’s growing involvement in the SCS. India’s decision to involve itself in such a complex environment, even at the risk of provoking its giant neighbor, demonstrates the significance it places on the region and its sea lanes.
The SCS is located in a region of great strategic interest for India. Geographically, it connects the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea via the Malacca Straits, which is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. This important waterway serves as a vital economic artery for the South Asian state. Up to 97 percent of India’s total international trade volume is sea-borne, half of which, passes through the straits. In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) constitutes one of India’s largest trade partners, with total trade valued at $71 billion in 2016/2017.
Energy is another component of India’s interest in the SCS. In 2015, India became the third largest oil consumer in the world, with industry experts predicting that its energy consumption would continue to grow by 4.2 percent annually. Already importing up to 80 percent of its total oil requirements, India will likely need to secure new energy sources as domestic demand rises. The potential energy deposits in the SCS have thus drawn New Delhi’s attention. In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated the region to contain up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserves. As such, India has been continually involved in offshore energy development projects in the SCS since the early 1990s, bidding for new oil and gas blocks and conducting oil exploration in the region.
The region’s economic importance translates into national security interests for New Delhi. With half of its maritime trade passing through the Malacca Straits, any instability in the SCS would adversely affect the shipping lanes and have a knock-on effect on India’s economy. Similarly, should a potentially hostile power come to control this region, it could threaten India’s access to this vital waterway. New Delhi’s involvement in the SCS thus, focuses on three objectives. First, to ensure peace and stability in the region and keep the vital sea lanes open; second, to maintain cordial relations with regional powers; and third, to ensure that no potentially aggressive external power comes to dominate the region.
Through the LEP, New Delhi has pursued these objectives by seeking to intensify its engagement with ASEAN states. Besides increased economic engagement, strategic cooperation was expanded through joint naval exercises, generous lines of credit, military training, and sales of military hardware with regional states. Moreover, the enhanced presence of Indian military assets in the area not only served to protect the sea lanes, but also provided ‘domain awareness’ of potential regional developments.