Unlock South China Sea Via Commonwealth


New Delhi may use Commonwealth platform to strengthen voice against South China Sea

By Mridu Kumari

When Prince Charles landed in India along with Duchess of Cornwall and his wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles in November 2017, his objective was to convince New Delhi about Commonwealth’s importance in the world and that India should lend its hand in strengthening the group, representing 52 countries which were once part of the British colony. Britain is holding the next Commonwealth countries’ summit in April, 2018 and if India does not attend it as it has been doing so since 2011 onwards, it would be embarrassment for 91-year old Queen Elizabeth-II who will host the summit. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had skipped the last gathering of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) in Malta in 2015. Instead, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had represented the meet in Malta, while his predecessor Manmohan Singh gave it a deliberate miss in 2011 and also in 2013 when it was held in Sri Lanka. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had, in fact, boycotted the Colombo held CHOGM summit following allegations of war crimes against then Mahinda Rajapaksa government. But such developments gave birth to a feeling that New Delhi is distancing itself from the group. While this could be partly true assessment, there are several reasons for such non-enthusiastic approach towards Commonwealth and one of them is the group’s perceived tilt towards Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain.

India is also not happy with incumbent Secretary-General of Commonwealth Patricia Scotland, a Dominican who is a British citizenship as well. Her alleged profligacy with the group’s fund is also the reason behind unhappiness of India which had joined it after signing the London Declaration in 1949. Economic slowdown has already impacted members’ contribution to the group.  With the passage of time priority of the group changed. Though it supported its small members, but it distinctly choreographed its action around those countries where British migrants had settled down.

Besides, Commonwealth has become synonymous with effete, worn out school club. In fact, decline in Britain’s political, strategic and economic influence in Europe and other parts of the world, has also impacted Commonwealth. Already, there is palpable anxiety among Britons on economic consequences that their country may face after March 2019 when Britain will exit from the European Union. London’s effort to infuse life into the group by bringing India into it, is seen as a last ditch effort to compensate the loss it will suffer on account of Brexit. Otherwise, Britain’s ambition in making Commonwealth as powerful group can be seen in Charles’s speech in Kuala Lumpur. He said “the Commonwealth should, and does have a pivotal role” in resolving contemporary global problems like climate change, urbanisation and sustainable development.

Since these issues can’t gain weight without the backing of India, Britain is trying all its tricks to ensure the Indian Prime Minister’s participation in the next Commonwealth meet which in all likelihood would be addressed by Prince Charles, rather the Queen.   Proponents of India’s participation in Commonwealth say that this international platform where China is not involved would help New Delhi in lending a strong voice against China on its South China Sea and One Belt One Road issues. It should be noted that by reclaiming land and coral islands, China has developed a large tract of artificial island in the South China Sea which will be used by Beijing for its military activities. China has laid sovereign claim over the area, even as international tribunal in its judgment has ruled out Beijing’s claim. There is a fear that China may infringe on the free movement of ships passing through the South China Sea route to India, Japan, America or other countries to settle disputes with them. As a part of the Pacific Ocean, the South China facilitates more than 50 percent of international ships’ passage through it; India also uses this sea route for the shipment of goods. India has been raising its concern on the South China Sea issue on various bilateral and multilateral forums.

A strong Commonwealth will prove to be best bet for New Delhi in putting Beijing on back foot is what many experts argue. It is to be remembered that some of Commonwealth members like Australia are going through a bad patch in their relationship with China. In June 2017, at a Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not bite his tongue while lashing out at China. “China’s growing power continues to be the topic of the most intense debate. China will play a larger role in shaping the region. It is natural that Beijing will seek strategic influence to match its economic weight. But we want to see China fill the leadership role it desires in a way which strengthens the regional order that has served us all so well. Some fear that China will seek to impose a latter day Monroe Doctrine on this hemisphere in order to dominate the region, marginalizing the role and contribution of other nations,” Turnbull said in his statement.

However, before closing his hard hitting statement, the Australian Prime Minister did not forget to add that “Such a dark view of our future would see China isolating those who stand in opposition to or are not aligned with its interests, while using its economic largesse to reward those toeing the line.” Their relations further soured after the Turnbull government released a foreign policy whitepaper, which was critical of China’s behavior in the South China Sea. Chinese scholars and experts saw anti-China remarks from Australia as the latter’s desire to increase its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. But Chinese scholars who usually get hawkish in their observation on foreign policy front, also saw in Australia’s anti-South China Sea rhetoric a commonality in India’s e issue. That way they saw it a coming together of Australia and India against China. Therefore, it would not be surprising at all if India uses Commonwealth to raise voice against China. Before this, however, it has to be seen whether Prime Minister Modi joins the CHOGM meet in April or not?