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India's growing interest in the South China Sea

December 07, 2012 14:13 IST

At a time when China's bullying behaviour has been evident in its actions and pronouncements, India is signalling that it is ready to emerge as a serious balancer in East Asia and Southeast Asia, says Harsh V Pant.

Indian Naval Chief Admiral D K Joshi has staked India's claims in the waters of South China Sea much more powerfully than the government by suggesting that with the security of nation's economic assets at stake in South China Sea, "we (the Indian Navy) will be required to be there and we are prepared for that."

He made it clear that the Indian Navy had been exercising for such an eventuality even though governmental approval would be needed if the navy is to provide protection to India's economic assets in the South China Sea.

His remarks come at a time when China is escalating tensions in the region with its decision to empower the police in the Hainan province to mount foreign ships and seize vessels in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The rules will come into effect from January 1 and the police cane take necessary measures to stop ships or "to force them into changing or reversing course." It is in Hainan province that India's ONGC Videsh Ltd has been given the oil block number 128 by Vietnam for joint exploration.

The conflict between India and China over the South China Sea has been building for more than a year. India signed an agreement with Vietnam in October 2011 to expand and promote oil exploration in South China Sea and then reconfirmed its decision to carry on despite the Chinese challenge to the legality of Indian presence.

By accepting the Vietnamese invitation to explore oil and gas in Blocks 127 and 128, India's state-owned oil company ONGC Videsh Ltd, or OVL, not only expressed New Delhi's desire to deepen its friendship with Vietnam, but ignore China's warning to stay away.

After asking countries "outside the region" to stay away from the South China Sea, China issued a demarche to India in November 2011, underlining that Beijing's permission should be sought for exploration in Blocks 127 and 128 and, without it, OVL's activities would be considered illegal. Vietnam, meanwhile had underlined the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to claim its sovereign rights over the two blocks being explored.

India decided to go by the Vietnam's claims and ignore China's objections. China has been objecting to the Indian exploration projects in the region, claiming that the territory comes under its sovereignty. Whereas India continues to maintain that its exploration projects in the region are purely commercial, China has viewed such activities as an issue of sovereign rights.

India's moves unsettled China, which views India's growing engagement in East and South-east Asia with suspicion. India's decision to explore hydrocarbons with Vietnam followed a July 2011 incident during which an unidentified Chinese warship demanded that INS Airavat, an amphibious assault vessel, identify itself and explain its presence in the South China Sea after leaving Vietnamese waters. Completing a scheduled port call in Vietnam, the Indian warship was in international waters.

After an initial show of defiance, India showed second thoughts. Earlier this year in May, India's junior oil minister R P N Singh told Parliament that OVL had decided to return Block 128 to Vietnam as exploration there wasn't commercially viable. Hanoi publicly suggested that New Delhi's decision was a response to pressure from China.

In July 2012, after Vietnam gave OVL more incentives in terms of a longer period to prove commercial viability, India decided to continue the joint exploration. Vietnam decided to extend the OVL contract for hydrocarbon exploration in block 128, reiterating that it valued India's presence in the South China Sea for regional strategic balance.

In June 2012, state-owned China National Offshore Oil Company, or CNOOC, opened nine blocks for exploration in waters also claimed by Vietnam. Oil block 128, which Vietnam argues is inside its 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone granted under the UN Law of the Sea, is part of the nine blocks offered for global bidding by CNOOC.

By putting up for global bidding a Vietnamese petroleum block under exploration by an Indian oil company, China has forced India into a corner. That India would not be cowed by Chinese manoeuvres came during the July ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh. There, India made a strong case for supporting not only freedom of navigation but also access to resources in accordance with principles of international law.

New Delhi, which so often likes to sit on margins and avoid taking sides, must assume it can no longer afford the luxury of inaction if it wants to preserve credibility as a significant actor in both East Asia and Southeast Asia.

The navy chief's remarks have underlined New Delhi's ambitions to expand its footprint in the region which has so far been viewed as outside India's core interests. At a time when China's bullying behaviour has been evident in its actions and pronouncements, India is signalling that it is ready to emerge as a serious balancer in the region.

The regional states have often complained about Indian diffidence and its lack of seriousness. Now India is getting serious though it is still not clear if it is well prepared to take on China.

Apart from the fact that Indian military modernisation lags far behind that of China, the Indian government needs to urgently articulate when and under what conditions would it be willing to use its military assets. This is important not only to bring armed forces and their civilian masters in sync with each other and also to make the Indian military fit to tackle the tasks set by the policy objectives of their government.

Harsh V Pant