India's South China Sea Warning
Image Credit: US Navy

India's South China Sea Warning


An influential Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper has warned that ‘every means possible’ should be used to stop India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh engaging in exploration projects in the South China Sea.

‘A Global Times editorial described the deal between ONGC and Vietnam as reflecting India’s rising ambitions, and a likely Indian move to “counter China’s behaviour in the Indian Ocean,”’ noted India’s The Hindu newspaper. ‘Chinese society has already been indignant about India's intervention in the Dalai (Lama) problem…India should bear in mind that its actions in the South China Sea will push China to the limit,’ it quoted the editorial as warning.

Exploration in the resource rich South China Sea is a complicated issue, not least because countries including Vietnam don’t recognize the sweeping claims that Beijing has made to the waters in the region. Indeed, the two countries looked at one point in the summer to be allowing tensions to spin out of control, with Vietnam claiming that China was deliberately trying to cut undersea cables deployed by a ship hired by PetroVietnam.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Hanoi called for foreign involvement to resolve the dispute. This idea, though, is resisted by China, and goes to the heart of the Global Times’ warning. China is keen to avoid other countries wading in on the territorial disputes, preferring to deal with disputants on bilateral terms, where it has significant leverage over its smaller neighbours in both economic and military terms. India’s plans for exploration projects with Vietnam will be seen by some in Beijing as Delhi meddling where it isn’t wanted.

‘We should not leave the world with the impression that China is only focused on economic development, nor should we pursue the reputation of being a “peaceful power,” which would cost us dearly,’ the editorial said. ‘China has been peaceful for so long that some countries doubt whether it will stick to its stated bottom line. China should remind them of how clear this line really is.’

Such rhetoric risks raising the stakes at a time when Sino-India ties are already strained. As Nitin Gokhale noted earlier this year in The Diplomat, while Indian policymakers have been publicly worrying over China’s so-called ‘String of Pearls’ strategy in the Indian Ocean, Indian military planners have been quietly boosting alliances in Asia.

‘Located on the edge of South-east Asia, Vietnam is ideally placed to help counter China's expansion into the South China Sea. With this in mind, and for the past decade, India has been providing Vietnam with assistance in beefing up its naval and air capabilities in an attempt to deny China supremacy in the South China Sea,’ Gokhale noted.

‘But India also has an eye on bolstering ties in East Asia – and not just with Japan. Last September, A.K. Antony, who is fast emerging as a quiet but effective player in India's military diplomacy, became the first-ever Indian defence minister to visit South Korea.’

This comes as India has been beefing up its Navy and Air Force to counter China’s rapid military rise in recent years.

‘India will need to meet (high) expectations if it is to face its biggest challenge – an increasingly assertive China, which India’s strategic planners believe will increasingly venture into India’s neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean, which has until now been regarded as India’s backyard,’ Gokhale noted this month.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief