Four months after declaring the South China Sea is not an area of "activation" for the Indian Navy, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Verma has admitted that the navy has undertaken exercises to defend India's energy interests in the sea. On Tuesday, he signalled that the defence of Indian interests in the South China Sea was at the core of the navy's purpose. A parsing of the two statements underline that India's actual view of the South China Sea is not completely set in stone.
Recent statements also indicate that New Delhi has agreed to some core principles about what is shaping up to be the most volatile multilateral problem in Asia today. The continuing escalation of rhetoric combined with the refusal of any of the key participants - most notably China, Vietnam and the US - to modify their naval operations in the region makes it a dormant spark for a pan-Asian military confrontation. This is why the first principle of India's policy is to promote an amicable settlement among the stakeholders in the dispute. One reason for India's aversion to being seen to be close to the US's naval posture seems to be a fear that this would heighten a sense of military containment of China. The second principle flows from the first. To quote defence minister AK Antony, "All states, big and small, are willing to abide by universally agreed laws and principles." The consequence has been the strong Indian support that the maritime practices of countries that abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and, in the case of the South China Sea, that all the involved nations set out and follow a code of conduct regarding territorial disputes.
The third principle seems to be taking form in Admiral Verma's latest statement. This argues that no country, in this case China, should assume that if jaw-jaw breaks down into war-war India would not be prepared to put up a fight. Nonetheless, a declared lack of interest by India would only encourage Beijing to play hardball. The unspoken Indian interest is the need to constrain China to follow a foreign policy path that accepts the rule of law and is open to viewpoints of other nations. What seems evident is that without a strong and united stance by other nations, China's instinct in pursuing its national interests is to be aggressive until told otherwise. That's why India's own South China Sea pronouncements can sound contradictory: it must prepare for war to ensure peace.