India and the South China Sea
Image Credit: US Navy

India and the South China Sea


China has warned India against collaborating with Vietnam over oil and gas exploration in the disputed South China Sea. The warning comes as reports suggest an Indian state-owned oil producer is about to start joint exploration of gas resources despite protests from Beijing, the official Global Times has reported.

It’s a reminder of the dangers that still exist in the Sino-Indian relationship.

Global Times quoted Jiang Yu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, as stating that ‘as for oil and gas exploration…we are opposed to any country engaged in the waters under China’s jurisdiction. We hope foreign countries do not get involved in the South China Sea dispute.’

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The finger is clearly being pointed towards India. The paper also said that the oil reserves in the South China Sea were a not insignificant 28 billion barrels. Understandably, this homily from the Chinese, although vaguely worded, has received widespread coverage in the Indian media. ONGC has an about $225 million investment in Vietnam.

The question in the minds of most Indians is how we should react to this piece of bluster? Should we just ignore this gratuitous ‘advice’ and go ahead with exploration in collaboration with Vietnam, or should we listen to China and stay out of disputes in the South China Sea?

The Chinese media, quoting well known analysts from domestic university think tanks, suggest Delhi is being pushed into this with the active support of the United States. While the Global Times columnist avoided attributing any malevolence to Vietnamese intentions, the piece pointedly referred to the existence since June this year of a bilateral agreement between China and Vietnam to settle all such disputes, ‘through negotiations and consultations.’

It goes without saying that the most popular reaction in India would be to simply ignore the Chinese and go ahead with the bilateral arrangement with Vietnam. After all, if India is considering an agreement with Vietnam, it would automatically follow that India considers these waters to be within Vietnamese jurisdiction. That seemed to be the position adopted by the Indian government when Foreign Minister Krishna told his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh that India would ‘go-ahead’ and that India’s position was based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

However, the real test would be if the rest of the countries involved in the South China Sea disputes, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei or even Taiwan, also considered these waters to be Vietnamese. If none of them have protested to either India or to Vietnam over the proposed agreement, then China’s case becomes that much weaker and would be pure bluster. And what is the legal position of the United States, Japan and perhaps South Korea? Little has been said publicly. Still, we can’t simply dismiss China’s protests as irrelevant, for the implications for India–China relations are rather disturbing, including over the security of our borders.

Of course, when China protests, we should always pay very close attention. But in this case, we should also keep in mind the options available should China decide to take its protests to the next stage, thereby triggering a confrontation. In the past, China has demonstrated that when it comes to its own backyard, particularly the South China Sea, it’s very sensitive, sometimes to the point of being aggressive. For example, Chinese fishing vessels have taken to harassing the ‘offending’ party, while cables where work is in progress have been deliberately cut.

So what would the Indian government do if ONGC-Videsh, the contracting party in this case, suffered a similar fate? It’s questionable whether the Indian Navy could project sufficient power in the South China Sea to ward off the Chinese Navy. Nor are the Vietnamese in any position to do so. Yet to fold our tent after the Chinese have taken action would be a serious blow to our prestige.

Yet we would also do well to keep in mind that we have a long unsettled border with China, one that it’s simply not possible to fully police. As a result, the Chinese have the option, if they do wish to exercise it, of intruding several kilometres across the ‘Line of Actual Control.’ As the LOAC isn’t demarcated on the ground, both India and China have different perceptions as to its actual alignment. There’s clearly room for creating mischief.

As a result, what happens next could hinge on the role and attitude of the United States, which is the only force capable of thwarting the Chinese in the South China Sea. The US has generally been ambivalent over Sino-Indian tensions. Such ambivalence dates back at least as far as 1962, when Robert Komer, an influential National Security Council staff member, wrote a memo for President Kennedy that stated:

‘That it is as much in our strategic interest to keep up a high degree of Sino-Indian friction as it is to prevent from spilling over into a large scale war.’

Complicating the US position is the fact that it is currently faced with significant economic, while China remains one of the biggest holders of US debt. This at a time when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars.

With all this in mind, Indian policy planners would do well to be particularly cautious when dealing with the potentially explosive situation in the South China Seas. There’s no point in bravado when we don’t have the necessary military capacity to take on the Chinese.

In the South China Sea, India should beware.

Ambassador R S Kalha is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi and a former Member of the National Human Rights Commission. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( here.

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