India and Japan, anxious to keep Asia’s dominant power Beijing in check, may send patrols into the contested South China Sea or sell arms to rival states following a pair of high-level meetings this month, experts say.
Both Asian countries could sell or donate more weapons to China’s rival maritime claimants, such as Vietnam, so they can build a defense against Beijing. Japan may also use coast guard or naval ships to patrol the sea to show it’s open despite China’s claim to some 90 percent of it.
India will probably continue joint exploration with Vietnam for oil and gas under the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, analysts say.
“Delhi and Tokyo have both been stepping up their capacity-building efforts in the region, with Japan focused mainly on providing patrol vessels and training for Southeast Asian states and India selling arms to and training the Vietnamese navy,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Two High-Level Talks in a Week
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met counterpart Narendra Modi in India Sept. 13-14 to discuss “enhancing maritime security cooperation,” according to a foreign ministry statement from Tokyo.
On Monday their foreign ministers met at the United Nations with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to talk about freedom of navigation and respect for international law, the Indian external affairs ministry spokesman said.
Analysts understood both discussions to be aimed at China, including its expansion in the contested sea since 2010.
Neither India nor Japan claims the South China Sea, but the two have warily eyed China’s ascent to being the largest economy and military power in Asia. And despite the meeting with Tillerson in New York, the U.S. government is seen as preoccupied by the militarization of North Korea.
Arms for China’s Smaller South China Sea Claimants
Japan as well as India could sell more weapons to the four Southeast Asian states whose coastal waters overlap China’s claim to the sea, analysts say.
Japan indicated in January it would give Vietnam six patrol boats to help with maritime security. Vietnam has clashed three times since the 1970s with Chinese vessels. In August last year, Japan began giving the Philippines 10 coast guard boats through a soft loan agreement.
India has talked to Vietnam about supplying it BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, which are co-developed with Russia, among other missiles, leading a state-backed Chinese media outlet earlier this year to accuse India of causing trouble. India in September 2016 offered Vietnam a $500 million line of credit to buy defense hardware, including patrol boats.
Sending Patrol Missions into the Disputed Sea
Japan may test China with low-key patrols of the sea, said Le Hong Hiep, research fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. In May it sent an Izumo helicopter-carrying warship into the sea for port visits in Southeast Asia en route to joint exercises with the United States.
“What they have done is they send a ship to Gulf of Aden and on the way back they do kind of patrol in the South China Sea and do port calls to Vietnam, et cetera,” Le said. “But they do not intentionally design any kind of (freedom of navigation) program in the South China Sea as it may provoke China.
“But in the future I’m not sure, because Japan obviously has some interest in containing China’s ambitions in the South China Sea as well,” he said.
Patrols would show the sea, also packed with fisheries, is open to other countries despite Beijing’s claim of sovereignty to the waterway off its south coast. China has strengthened control and angered rival claimants by using landfill to build artificial islands ready for combat aircraft and radar systems.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines claim all or part of the same sea.
India and Japan might patrol the sea together with coast guard ships, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan. They would occasionally send naval vessels, he added.
“Maybe they will increase the momentum of their joint activities in order to demonstrate that Japan and India are closely cooperating in terms of regulating the so-called rule-based behavior in the South China Sea and the region,” Yang said.
India’s Overtures in Southeast Asia
India, as part of a fast-growing trade and investment relationship with Vietnam, can further assert itself in the South China Sea by working with Vietnamese firms on exploration for oil and gas, Le said.
For the past three years, the overseas subsidiary of India’s government-run ONGC has worked with PetroVietnam Exploration Production Corporation to search for oil and gas in the South China Sea. That cooperation helps Vietnam improve its "bargaining power" with China, Le said.
Since losing a world arbitration court verdict over its claim to the South China Sea last year, China has sought favor with Southeast Asian countries through economic aid and investment. Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are accepting China’s overtures -- along with the same from other major nations.
The Philippines, for example, welcomes Japanese aid because the public and the China-friendly government have long trusted Tokyo, said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman. Filipinos know less about India, she said, but Japan could bridge the gap.
“At least people are not so aware of possible positive relations with India,” Atienza said. “But if it’s an alliance, maybe if Japan can vouch for India, perhaps that can build confidence in terms of the partnership.”