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Should India get embroiled in the South China Sea?

The mercurial nature of South China Sea has yet again led to tension and acrimony between various nations that are claiming sovereignty over islands in this region. On 5August 2012 China summoned the US embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission, Robert Wang in Beijing and expressed “strong dissatisfaction and staunch opposition” on the press statement by the US Department of State released last Friday on the South China Sea. The US had voiced opposition to China setting up Sansha city and a military garrison in the Zhongsha islands. The US statement pointed out that “China’s upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha city and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang said on Saturday that the US statement “completely ignored the facts, deliberately confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong signal, which is not conducive to the efforts safeguarding the peace and stability of the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific region.” China has also warned the concerned countries, especially Vietnam and Philippines to respect 2002, Association of the South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and has warned other countries not to meddle in the troubled waters.

Why has South China Sea attracted so much attention in recent years? South China Sea encompasses an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan, and consists of Dongsha, Xisha (known as Paracel in English, and Hoang Sa in Vietnamese), Zhongsha (Huangyan in Chinese) and Nansha (Spratly in English and Truong Sa in Vietnamese) islands. At present, of these Zhongsha and Xisha are under the actual jurisdiction of China; in fact the Paracel were jointly controlled by both China and Vietnam, however, in 1974 China in a show of military strength ejected the Vietnamese from here. Dongsha is under the jurisdiction of Taiwan. As far as Nansha is concerned, the western, northeastern and southwestern areas are under the jurisdiction of Vietnam, Philippine and Malaysia respectively. According to China, the focus of the South China Sea lies in Spratly. Of these islets 8 are controlled by China, 1 by Taiwan, 29 by Vietnam, 8 by Philippine, 5 by Malaysia and 2 by Brunei. Various claimants have been passing legislations claiming certain islets. Early this year in February, Philippines Senate and House of Representatives passed Baseline Bill and declared its ownership over Scarborough (Huangyan in Chinese) island and some others in Spratly. In June Vietnam also passed a Maritime Law declaring indisputable sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands. China claims the entire South China Sea and has expressed outrage on these declarations, and further reinforced its claims by increasing the level of governance on the disputed islands; the establishment of Sansha city, a garrison in Zhongsha, and the bids invitation to some of the disputed islands is the manifestation of China’s show of strength and above all the assertion of its sovereignty in the region.

The reason why the area is so ferociously fought over is that one-third of the world’s shipping transit through these waters; therefore, the archipelagos are of great strategic importance to all the claimants. Secondly, it is believed that the area holds huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. Thirdly the region is a treasure house of fishery. In Sansha alone, it the annual fishing potentials are estimated at two million tons, almost 25 times more than the entire annual potential of Hainan Island. China is considering the tourism potential of the area. It is precisely the second reason that India has been there in the Spratly islands. Indian presence in the Spratly is not new, however, has been seen as a hostile act by China owing to the recent spat in the region between China and Philippine one the one hand and China and the Vietnam on the other. The Indian presence in the area started in 1988 when India and Vietnam signed an agreement covering aspects such as the exchange of information on the petroleum industry. Under the ambit of this agreement Vietnam permitted ONGC Videsh to explore oil and gas in Block 06.1 in partnership with BP, which now contributes to almost 50% of the gas requirement of Vietnam. In June 2006, Petro Vietnam awarded two more blocks called block 127 and 128 for exploration to the Indian company. India handed over the block 127 back to Vietnam in 2009 after the company failed to discover any oil and gas. As regards the block 128, India renewed the deal for another 3 years. It was at this time that China’s reaction to India-Vietnam agreement was ferocious.

It is in recent years that China has started to define South China Sea as an area of core interest in addition to Taiwan and Tibet. India’s presence in the area has been challenged by China by resorting to various ways. For example on 22 July 2011, one of India’s amphibious assault vessels, the INS Airavat on a friendly visit to Vietnam, was reportedly contacted by the Chinese navy and told that it was in Chinese waters. In June this year when four Indian naval ships left the Philippines for South Korea, they were greeted with “Welcome to the South China Sea, Foxtrot-47 [INS Shivalik]” by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigates and later escorted for next 12 hours. The message was clear that the Indian ships were entering the Chinese waters. In September 2011,when, the ONGC Videsh extended the agreement with Petro Vietnam by three-year for block 128, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, reiterated China’s ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the South China Sea and warned India without naming it that the ‘relevant countries respect China’s position and refrain from taking unilateral action to complicate and expand the issue.’ The nationalistic Global Times was more aggressive in its editorial published on 14 October 2011 when it wrote, “Both countries clearly know what this means for China. China may consider taking actions to show its stance and prevent more reckless attempts in confronting China in the area. By inking pacts with Vietnam, India probably has deeper considerations in its regional strategy than simply getting barrels of oil and gas. India is willing to fish in the troubled waters of the South China Sea so as to accumulate bargaining chips on other issues with China. There is strong political motivation behind the exploration projects….. China’s vocal objections may not be heeded. China must take practical and firm actions to make these projects fall through. China should denounce this agreement as illegal. Once India and Vietnam initiate their exploration, China can send non-military forces to disturb their work, and cause dispute or friction to halt the two countries’ exploration. In other words, China should let them know that economic profits via such cooperation can hardly match the risk.”

Another newspaper called China Energy News in a front-page commentary published on October 16 raised the pitch further by noting that “India is playing with fire by agreeing to explore for oil with Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea. India’s energy strategy is slipping into an extremely dangerous whirlpool. On the question of cooperation with Vietnam, the bottom line for Indian companies is that they must not enter into the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Challenging the core interests of a large, rising country for unknown oil at the bottom of the sea will not only lead to a crushing defeat for the Indian oil company, but will most likely seriously harm India’s whole energy security and interrupt its economic development. Indian oil company policy makers should consider the interests of their own country, and turn around at the soonest opportunity and leave the South China Sea.” Above all China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) called for bids from foreign companies offering exploration of oil in nine blocks in the South China Sea, including the Block 128. The foreign companies may not be interested in the bids in the disputed region, but the bidding itself is symbolic and assertion of China’s claim in the region.

It was perhaps under such a tremendous pressure from China that India communicated openly early this year that it also wanted to surrender Block 128 albeit for techno-economic reasons. India took a 180 degree turn on 15 July 2012 and agreed to stay on when Vietnam requested the ONGC to hold on in Block 128. It is obvious that India has a rather muddled and incoherent policy as regards its exploration in the South China Sea Region. At the outset, when China reacted to India’s presence in South China Sea, India accepted de jure sovereignty of Vietnam in the contracted areas. According to the spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “the Chinese had concerns but we are going by what the Vietnamese authorities have told us and have conveyed this to the Chinese.” A little later External Affair Minister S M Krishna said India is “purely there for commercial reasons” and for India’s energy security concerns. Of late, India has said that the disputes between different countries in the South China Sea is a matter for them to settle, however, India will undertake commercial activities with governments who exercise actual control over disputed territories.

What should be the Indian policy? Many in India believe that India need to adopt a tit for tat policy as China has also been fishing in the troubled water as far as the Indian claimed Gilgit Baltistan is concerned. Here again, even if China is assisting Pakistan in building military or civilian infrastructure in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir, it has never accepted the sovereignty of Pakistan in the area, albeit it has issued visas to the people of this region on Pakistani passports. China has also started to issue visas to people from Kashmir on Indian passports after the initial spat over stapled visas. The 2 March 1963 border agreement between China and Pakistan is very careful about choosing the words. The agreement was described as Sino-Pak border agreement concerning delimitation of China’s Xinjiang and the contiguous areas, the defense of which is under the actual control of Pakistan. The agreement was said to be temporary and China would renegotiate the above border with relevant sovereign authority after the resolution of Kashmir dispute. Therefore, I believe that India need to be cautious and avoid supporting the claims of countries as regards the sensitive issue of sovereignty even if they are your allies in various spheres. The United States, which is the only super power and with extensive capabilities in the region has so far been following a policy of rejecting Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire Sea while not getting involved in the various disputes over the claims of sovereignty over the island territories. Irrespective of its condemnation for China on the issue of setting up the new city of Sansha, it has not taken sides with Vietnam or Philippines even though it has resolved to strengthen its security dialogues with its partners in the region and amass 60 percent of its naval assets in Asia Pacific region. It already has about 55 percent of the fleet in this region, so a marginal increase in terms of strength.

Can India sustain its position or interests in the region? Do we have the capabilities or are we in a position to match China in sea, air or ground? We must be modest in accepting that India’s power projections are far behind those of China, least to talk about the US. As mooted by the Global Times, if China disrupts the activity of ONGC, can India protect its interests, or can Vietnam protect our interests in these Blocks? Vietnam failed in 1974 when it was forcibly trounced by China from the Paracel island in a small naval conflict; in 1988 in another similar conflict, Vietnam not only lost over 70 marines in Spratly but also the control of a few island. China has repeatedly said that it is the armed conflict that has won it sovereignty in the region, and will not hesitate to resort to the force if dialogue fails. Therefore, what if China resort to force, ad also opens up a few more fronts along India’s international borders? Are we prepared on the land if not at the sea? We know a great deal about China’s border infrastructure building since many years now, and we also know the plight on the Indian side. I know these are the things that may not happen, but has to be factored in any national policy especially when one is chartering into the dangerous waters, if there is no exit strategy, we have definitely not learnt the lessons of previous years!

(Dr. B R Deepak is Professor of Chinese and China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. The views are solely his own. )

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