Signalling is important international relations. How a nation is perceived by its friends and adversaries, in large measure, shapes its role in strategic spaces. For a long time, India, through its actions, had given an impression that it remains reluctant to challenge China, while China, through its actions, had been categorical in challenging India’s vital national interests.
This asymmetry had given rise to perceptions of India as a nation that is diffident when it comes to taking on China. Of course, the capability differential between the two nations limits New Delhi’s space for strategic manoeuvres, but perceptions of India walking on eggshells not to antagonize Beijing did not do New Delhi any favours. While the rest of the world saw India as a country unwilling to challenge the status quo, Beijing itself could not be appeased.
Yet, structural challenges like the one India faces with China have a way of resolving themselves. The shock of last year’s border clash and continuing tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has upended most assumptions underlying India’s China policy. One by one, all aspects of India’s approach towards China have been found wanting and New Delhi has had to recalibrate it.
In a major message to Beijing, the Indian Navy made its presence felt in the waters of the South China Sea this month when a task force of four warships sailed on a two-month deployment that included last week’s Malabar 2021 naval exercises with India’s Quad partners, the United States, Japan and Australia, but also bilateral exercises with naval forces from South China Sea littoral states, including Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.
While New Delhi has claimed that these maritime initiatives are aimed at enhancing synergy and coordination between the Indian Navy and friendly countries, based on common maritime interests and a commitment towards freedom of navigation at sea, there is no doubt which country the Indian presence in South China Sea is aimed at.