15: India and the South China Sea Crucible: Cautious Inclinations of an Extra-Regional “Leading Power”

On January 26, 2015, in New Delhi, Barack Obama became the first US president to grace India’s prestigious Republic Day parade as its chief guest of honour. A day earlier, President Obama and Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had issued a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. Noting that “a closer partnership between the United States (US) and India was indispensable to promoting peace, prosperity and stability” in the Indo-Pacific region, the two leaders, in their Joint Strategic Vision, affirmed:1

the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea [emphasis added] [and] … call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The direct reference to the South China Sea (SCS) was among the first of its kind in a heads-of-government level communiqué featuring the US and India.

A year and a half later, in the course of an address to a joint session of the US Congress, Prime Minister Modi declared that India and the US had finally shed their “hesitations of history.” Peering ahead ambitiously, he averred that, “[a] strong India-U.S. partnership can anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa and from Indian Ocean to the Pacific.

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