Eye on China, India signals a larger role for itself in Indo-Pacific | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Eye on China, India signals a larger role for itself in Indo-Pacific

Aug 08, 2023 08:07 PM IST

New Papua Guinea PM James Marape was present at a reception on board multi-role frigate INS Sahyadri and guided-missile destroyer INS Kolkata on Aug 3

NEW DELHI: From sending two warships on a voyage of more than 5,500 nautical miles for a visit to Papua New Guinea to backing the Philippines in a territorial dispute with China, India has in recent weeks signalled a larger role for itself in the Indo-Pacific.

The visit of the warships followed a trip to Port Moresby in May by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a summit of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (HT File Photo/Sanjeev Verma)
The visit of the warships followed a trip to Port Moresby in May by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a summit of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (HT File Photo/Sanjeev Verma)

India has also gifted an active duty missile corvette to Vietnam, another Southeast Asian country involved in a long-standing territorial dispute with China, and sent two military aircraft to Australia’s Cocos Keeling Islands for exercises aimed at enhancing inter-operability between the armed forces of the two countries.

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People familiar with the matter said diplomatic circles in Papua New Guinea were surprised when a reception held aboard INS Sahyadri, a multi-role frigate, and INS Kolkata, a guided-missile destroyer, at Port Moresby on August 3 was attended by Prime Minister James Marape and almost the entire cabinet. Similar receptions aboard other foreign warships were usually attended by only the defence minister or other officials, the people said.

The visit of the warships followed a trip to Port Moresby in May by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a summit of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC). Marape said he hoped the visit would lead to more collaboration between the armed forces of the two sides.

On July 22, the Indian Navy chief, Admiral R Hari Kumar, presided over the ceremony where the missile corvette INS Kirpan was gifted to Vietnam. This was the first time India provided a fully operational warship with its weapons complement to a friendly country, especially one whose maritime forces have repeatedly engaged in face-offs with Chinese vessels in the South China Sea.

Kumar hoped the Vietnam Navy would use the warship to “safeguard their national maritime interests, contribute to regional security and foster peace and stability”.

While India earlier only acknowledged the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling of 2016 in favour of the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, a statement issued after a meeting between external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Filipino counterpart Enrique Manalo in New Delhi on June 29 made it clear the Indian side had revised its position.

 

The statement said the two sides emphasised the need to peacefully resolve disputes and to adhere to international law, especially UNCLOS and the “2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea”. China hasn’t accepted the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s award.

One of the people cited above said the Pacific Island states and Southeast Asian countries are looking to India as a balancing factor amid growing contestation between China and the US in the Indo-Pacific. “Some Pacific Island states, such as Solomon Islands, have thrown in their lot with China but others like Papua New Guinea don’t want to get caught between the two elephants,” the person said.

In a recent article, David Brewster and Samuel Bashfield of the Australia India Institute wrote that the visit by an Indian Dornier maritime patrol aircraft and a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft to the Cocos Keeling Islands in July elevates the islands as a “staging point for Australian and Indian air surveillance of the maritime choke points through Southeast Asia and the entire eastern Indian Ocean”.

Former navy chief Admiral (retired) Arun Prakash said some of the steps taken by India may be symbolic, but are important gestures which “should have been made many years ago”. A compact force such as the Indian Navy doesn’t have the assets needed for prolonged deployments in areas such as the Pacific Ocean, though it is crucial to reach out to such countries, he said.

“We are part of the Quad, which expects us to reach out to these countries. We have gifted a warship to Vietnam and a submarine to Myanmar. These steps are meant to wean them away from China and to reassure them that they have friends,” Prakash said.

He pointed out almost half of India’s seaborne trade heads towards the Pacific Ocean, while ONGC Videsh Ltd has oil exploration interests in a Vietnamese block in the contested South China Sea. At the same time, China, with its so-called “string of pearls” approach, has been building a network of military and commercial facilities that includes Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, an overseas military base in Djibouti and a new naval base in Cambodia.

“India needs to safeguard its own interests and it’s never too late to make these symbolic gestures,” Prakash said.

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