For something that probably never took place, the July encounter between Indian and Chinese naval units in the South China Sea has created a stir. Most recently, King’s College London scholar Harsh Pant, a well-known commentator on Indian diplomatic and military affairs, reviewed the situation in the Japan Times. Journalist Gwynne Dyer wrote about it in the Korea Times. Operating in international waters off the Vietnamese coast (waters claimed by both Hanoi and Beijing), amphibious transport INS Airavat received a radio message from a caller identifying himself as the ‘Chinese Navy.’
The sender informed the Indian vessel that ‘you are entering Chinese waters’—implying, presumably, that the Airavat should withdraw. A correspondent for the Associated Press emailed shortly afterward to inquire whether the incident had really transpired. My response: no. Whoever contacted the Indian ship evidently did so on Channel 16, the international distress frequency monitored by ships plying the world’s seaways.That’s a VHS frequency, meaning line-of-sight communications only. Yet the Airavat’s crew reported seeing no People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships or aircraft. If Indian crewmen sighted no Chinese units, the transmission originated elsewhere.
Chances are, some Chinese fisherman with a ship-to-ship radio and nationalist leanings sent the message, maybe for the sheer fun of it. No one enforces discipline on radio frequencies at sea. Accordingly, you hear all manner of things coming through the loudspeakers. One of our favourites while enforcing the maritime sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq 20 years ago was someone calling himself ‘Filipino Monkey.’ He was quite the ladies’ man, full of stories about making the rounds with our wives back home. We nicknamed another ‘Baghdad Betty.’ This Iraqi Cassandra described the grim fate awaiting us should we attack the Iraqi military juggernaut. Such banter helped us while away bridge watches on dark, steamy Middle Eastern nights. It meant nothing.
So Beijing’s official denials ring true in this case. On the other hand, such a confrontation is hardly implausible. The anonymous caller’s challenge conforms to official Chinese policy in Southeast Asia. China claims ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over most of the South China Sea, including the waters where the Sino-Indian face-off purportedly took place. It considers these seas Chinese property by virtue of history. They rouse passions. Asked why Beijing has been so strident about its claims there, PLAN commander Adm. Wu Shengli retorted, ‘how would you feel if I cut off your arms and legs? That’s how China feels about the South China Sea.’ As China’s military expands and matures, Beijing may back such sentiments with steel.
A more forceful approach could abridge freedom of the seas. China’s leadership has long voiced scepticism toward freedom of navigation. This applies not only to its ‘territorial seas’—the 12-mile belt immediately offshore, where coastal states exercise full sovereignty and jurisdiction—but also to the 200-mile ‘exclusive economic zones’ (EEZs) apportioned to coastal states under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As early as the 1970s, Beijing proposed restricting foreign warships’ right of ‘innocent passage’ through territorial waters, insisting that ship commanders obtain permission beforehand. It has never really accepted innocent passage, even though the concept is codified in UNCLOS. China has projected its legal views outward into the EEZ, asserting prerogatives similar to those it claims in the territorial sea. Officials routinely demand that US Navy forces desist from surveillance, flight operations, and military surveys in China’s EEZs—much as UNCLOS forbids such activities in territorial waters, where they could prejudice the security of coastal states.
It’s far from unthinkable, then, that a Chinese military unit might someday try to chase off a foreign vessel like the Airavat. Because the details were so sketchy, Indian officialdom wisely refrained from raising a diplomatic ruckus over the affair. Even so, there are unmistakable signs that New Delhi is acting on the ‘Look East’ policy it articulated two decades ago. Look East mainly envisages expanding economic and political ties in Southeast Asia, but it does not rule out military engagement there. Meanwhile, the 2007 Indian Maritime Strategydesignates the northern Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the sea lanes crisscrossing the ocean, and the ‘narrow seas’ providing access to it as ‘primary areas’ of interest. New Delhi deems the South China Sea (alongside other bodies of water) an outer, or ‘secondary’, theatre for the exercise of sea power.
‘Areas of secondary interest,’ declares the Maritime Strategy, ‘will come in where there is a direct connection with areas of primary interest, or where they impinge on the deployment of future maritime forces’. The South China Sea meets both tests. It adjoins primary zones of interest in the Malacca Strait and the Bay of Bengal. And Chinese efforts to enforce its maritime claims vis-à-vis other navies would clearly influence how India deploys seagoing forces in Southeast Asia. The next encounter on the high seas may involve real warships—on both sides.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.