The Chinese Navy confronted an Indian naval ship in the South China Sea in July, demanding to know why the Indian vessel was in Chinese territory despite the incident appearing to take place in what are widely regarded as international waters, reports today are suggesting.
The face-off, which took place on July 22, is expected to heighten tensions in the often awkward relationship between Delhi and Beijing.
According to reports, the amphibious assault vessel INS Airavat was radioed by an unidentified Chinese naval vessel as it left Vietnamese waters. CNN-IBN reports that the Airavat was 45 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast and heading towards the port of Haiphaong. ‘An unidentified caller who claimed to be from the Chinese Navy, but who was speaking in English, told INS Airavat that the Indian ship was entering Chinese waters and they must leave,’ according to IBN.
China has been engaged in a sometimes intense and long-running row with its Southeast Asian neighbours about ownership of the South China Sea, with China’s expansive claims disputed most notably by Vietnam and the Philippines. Indeed, Vietnam raised the stakes in June, calling on the United States and others to step in and help find some kind of resolution after a number of confrontations. But this may be the first time that China has directly challenged India.
India’s External Affairs Ministry, which normally remains tight-lipped over reported spats with China, moved to play down the incident, saying that the Airavat was in international waters, while denying that a confrontation took place.
The ministry statement said: ‘The Indian Naval vessel, INS Airavat, paid a friendly visit to Vietnam between July 19 to 28, 2011. On July 22, INS Airavat sailed from the Vietnamese port of Nha Trang towards Haiphaong, where it was to make a port call. At a distance of 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea, it was contacted on an open radio channel by a caller identifying himself as the “Chinese Navy” stating that “you are entering Chinese waters.” No ship or aircraft was visible from INS Airavat, which proceeded on her onward journey as scheduled. There was no confrontation involving the INS Airavat.’
Still, news of the incident will be an unwelcome development for an Indian government currently distracted by domestic strife, with the Manmohan Singh embroiled in what seems like an endless stream of corruption scandals and periodic stand-offs with civil society, notably those led by activist Anna Hazare.
The question for the Singh government is how to respond to an increasingly assertive China. This wouldn’t be the first time that tensions have flared in the past couple of years and comes as India has announced plans for the formation of a new strike corps aimed specifically at being able to hit targets inside China in the event of conflict breaking out.
The formation of the new strike corps has been under consideration for the last two years, but has only now been confirmed. According to Trefor Moss, writing here last week, it’s reported that it will focus on the eastern end of the contested border to bolster India’s defence of Arunachal Pradesh (what China calls Southern Tibet), as do the two new mountain divisions numbering 35,000 troops that the Indian Army has already raised. These are based in Nagaland and Assam, just south of the disputed province. However, the strike corps will consist of a further 40,000 troops, and its presence will significantly alter the Himalayan dynamic, with Indian forces in the region previously adopting a more defensive posture.
The July incident, meanwhile, raises key questions about the extent to which China will push its claims in the South China Sea. The United States has indicated that it supports freedom of navigation in the region, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered Beijing last summer with her remarks at an ASEAN meet in Hanoi that the peace and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is in the US national interest.
Certainly it seems to be a view echoed by India. The External Affairs Ministry statement on the July incident also carried a key observation: ‘India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law. These principles should be respected by all.’