The South China Sea issue – and China’s position on it – have been the subject of much deliberation, especially since the ASEAN Regional Forum Meeting in Hanoi last July. Indeed, it’s widely believed that the South China Sea will likely emerge as a conflict hotspot in the coming years.
Evidence of this can be found in the heated rhetoric exchanged between parties to the dispute – most notably, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. A declaration by the United States that it has a ‘national interest’ in the region, meanwhile, was seen as a commitment to take an active part, much to Chinese chagrin. In recent weeks, statements by Chinese officials reasserting China’s ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the South China Sea, and warnings for India against investing in the region, are seen as signs of Chinese aggressiveness that could precipitate conflict.
Suggestions for greater Indian involvement in the South China Sea disputes are made on the grounds that India must be forceful in its dealings with China. The continuation of ONGC Videsh Limited’s (OVL) investments in Vietnamese energy fields is certainly advisable. In fact, there’s nothing to indicate that the Indian government is thinking otherwise. OVL’s presence in Vietnam isn’t a recent phenomenon. Its first joint venture for offshore oil and natural gas exploration in Vietnam’s Lan Tay field, along with Petro Vietnam and BP, became functional in 2003. Deals for the investments now in the headlines were signed in May 2006; this is a project that won’t be halted because of oblique Chinese statements.
But what’s worrying is the suggestion that Indian involvement should extend to taking an active part in the territorial disputes themselves, and that India should actively extend its naval presence – either to protect OVL’s investments or to protect the sea lines of communication. A closer bilateral relationship with Vietnam, Vietnamese rhetoric on the South China Sea disputes and its history of standing up to big powers are offered as the rationale for India to engage and arm Vietnam to win a war in the South China Sea.
These suggestions to recalibrate Indian policy towards the South China Sea and its relationship with Vietnam are premature at best. Despite the rhetoric, conflict in the South China Sea may well not be inevitable. If the history of dialogue between the parties is any indication, then current tensions are likely to result in forward movement. In the aftermath of statements by the United States, and skirmishes over fishing vessels, ASEAN and China agreed upon the Guidelines on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea at the Bali Summit in July 2010. And recent tensions may well prod the parties towards a more binding code of conduct. This isn’t to suggest that territorial claims and sovereignty issues will be resolved, but certainly they can become more manageable to prevent military conflict.
There’s a common interest in making the disputes more manageable, essentially because, nationalistic rhetoric notwithstanding, the parties to the dispute recognize that there are real material benefits at stake. A disruption of maritime trade through the South China Sea would entail economic losses – and not only for the littoral states. No party to the dispute, including China, has thus far challenged the principle of freedom of navigation for global trade through the South China Sea. The states of the region are signatories to the UNCLOS, which provides that ‘Coastal States have sovereign rights in a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with respect to natural resources and certain economic activities, and exercise jurisdiction over marine science research and environmental protection’ but that ‘All other States have freedom of navigation and over flight in the EEZ, as well as freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines.’ The prospect of threats to SLOCS thus seems somewhat exaggerated.