India and Japan on Friday sought a peaceful solution to the territorial disputes in the strategic South China Sea, saying parties involved in the matter must not resort to “threat or use of force”, in remarks that could anger China which is opposed to any outside interference. After their comprehensive talks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe also reiterated their commitment to respect freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded lawful commerce, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Watch: PM Modi, Shinzo Abe Hold Delegation-level Talks
“In this context, they urged all parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoid unilateral actions that raise tensions,” according to a joint statement issued after their talks. “Regarding the South China Sea, the two prime ministers stressed the importance of resolving the disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law including the UNCLOS,” it said.
The remarks may not go down well with China, which has been asking countries to refrain from “interfering” in the disputed South China Sea. Ahead of Modi’s visit, a Chinese state media report on Wednesday warned India it may suffer “great losses” in bilateral trade if it joins Japan in asking China to abide by an international tribunal’s ruling quashing Beijing’s claims over the SCS dispute.
As the leaders of the state parties to the UNCLOS, Modi and Abe “reiterated their view that all parties should show utmost respect to the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans”. This assumes significance given that China had rejected a verdict given by an international tribunal striking down Chinese claims over the SCS.
China has been making aggressive advances in the strategic region – parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei – by rapidly building artificial islets that experts fear could be potentially used as military posts. China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
China has also objected in the past to India’s Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) undertaking exploration at the invitation of Vietnam in the SCS, which is believed to be rich in undersea deposits of oil and gas. India and the US have been calling for freedom of passage in the international waters, much to the discomfort to China.