India's South China Sea Gambit


India more forcefully asserted itself into the South China Sea dispute on Monday, with a senior naval officer saying New Delhi is prepared to deploy ships to the disputed waters should its oil exploration interests come under threat.

Indian Navy Chief Admiral D.K Joshi said that his country stands ready to intervene in disputes in the South China Sea if Indian state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp’s (ONGC) joint oil exploration venture with Vietnam came under threat.

"Not that we expect to be in those waters very frequently, but when the requirement is there for situations where the country's interests are involved, for example ONGC Videsh, we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that," Joshi told reporters.

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

The admiral went on to say that the Indian Navy has been holding exercises to prepare for such contingencies.

His comments came in response to Vietnam accusing two Chinese fishing boats of cutting the cables of a Vietnam vessel doing seismic oil exploration in the South China Sea on Friday. Vietnam has increased its own naval patrols in the disputed waters in response to the perceived threat.

Last summer ONGC agreed to a Vietnam proposal to jointly develop oil in an area of the South China Sea that China also claims, and one that Beijing had said it planned to auction off exploration rights to.

In response to the Indo-Vietnamese joint ventures, an editorial in China’s official Global Times stated,“It’s clear that such cooperation between Indian and Vietnamese companies in the South China Sea is motivated more by politics than economic interests.”

The editorial went on to argue, “New Delhi wants to further complicate the issue and seeks to pin down China in the area so it could gain dominance in affairs across the region.”

Also of note, in July 2011 an Indian naval vessel making a port call in Vietnam was contacted on an open radio frequency by someone identifying themselves as the "Chinese Navy" stating that "you are entering Chinese waters."

China has taken India's latest comments in stride, exercising uncharacteristic restraint. When asked about Admiral Joshi's comments this week, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry said, "China opposes unilateral oil and gas development in disputed waters of the South China Sea. We hope that concerned countries respect China's position and rights, and respect efforts made through bilateral talks to resolve disputes."

Joshi’s comments came as India and China began two day of negotiations over their disputed land borders, which led to a brief but bloody war in 1962. Tensions were already running high ahead of the talks after Beijing issued new passports that included a map showing the disputed territory with India as part of China. In response, the Indian embassy had printed its own visas showing the territory as falling within the Indian state. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan also objected to the new passports, and the United States has pledged to raise the passport issue with China.

Tensions in the South China Sea between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors had also been rising in the weeks leading up to Friday’s incident with Vietnam’s oil exploration vessel. ASEAN and China failed to make any progress on the South China Sea standoff at the recent ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Cambodia, and many ASEAN nations and its general secretary were irked by new regulations China issued which appear to give Chinese maritime border patrol authorities the right to board and search foreign ships in some of the disputed waters.

It’s unlikely that the Indian Navy will become a formidable force within the South China Sea in the near to medium term. The country, after all, is far more concerned with maintaining its primacy over China in the Indian Ocean amid the People Liberation Army-Navy’s (PLAN) continued build-up and modernization. Furthermore, in the not too distant future New Delhi may have to deploy more of its naval forces to its Western front to protect the transit of its oil imports from the Middle East and parts of Africa should the U.S. reduce its own presence in the Persian Gulf as Washington achieves greater energy self-sufficiency in the decades ahead.

Nonetheless, Joshi’s comments reflect a budding naval rivalry between India and China that some experts, like C. Raja Mohan, have been warning about it. India has long spoke of exercising greater influence in East and Southeastern Asia as part of its “Look East” policy, which is almost certainly to include strengthening ties to Chinese neighbors like ASEAN nations and Japan that are also increasingly concerned by Chinese assertiveness. This is almost certain to play into China’s historic and modern fears of strategic encirclement.

Zachary Keck is assistant editor of The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief