India and the South China Sea: To act or not is the country’s dilemma

New Delhi | Published: September 2, 2019 2:49:20 PM

In the current tussle between China and the Southeast Asian nations on the energy-rich, strategically located South China Sea, India is caught between protecting its “legitimate” interests and medium to long challenges.

India from the beginning declined to enter into any sovereignty debates despite long historical linkages to the region since the Chola Empire

By Srikanth Kondapalli

In the current tussle between China and the Southeast Asian nations on the energy-rich, strategically located South China Sea, India is caught between protecting its “legitimate” interests and medium to long challenges.

On the raging Vanguard Reef incident where China deliberately positioned its Haiyang Dizhi (HD) 8 survey ship backed by heavy coast guard ships against the already existing Vietnam contracted oil rigs, India’s foreign ministry statement appeared to be cautious weighing options to reinforce its Act East policy while at the same time concerned about the regional stability issues.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesman stated India’s “standard position” on the current controversy of HD-8 vessel thus in early August:

“We have significant economic and trade interests passing through this region, almost 55 per cent of our trade, and accordingly we have genuine interests, legitimate interests, in the peace and stability and reliability of the access to the major waterways of the region. And in any normal activity when we engage in such waters, we expect that normal international laws should be followed”.

Like other countries who are not disputants to the reefs or islands in the South China Sea, India from the beginning declined to enter into any sovereignty debates despite long historical linkages to the region since the Chola Empire. Unlike China’s “historical claims” argument, India steered clear of this aspect, earning goodwill among the Southeast Asian countries. India also suggested -with some music to the Chinese years – that the dispute should be resolved bilaterally.

Secondly, India called for peaceful resolution of the disputes in the region, given its foreign policy ethos but also due to the strategic nature of the region through which nearly $5 trillion worth of goods pass through.

Thirdly, India has also been concerned about its commercial interests in the region. India’s “legitimate interests” are reflected in the energy contracts that its public sector giant Oil and Natural Gas Commission’s Videshi Limited (OVL) had acquired through legal and global norms in the South China Sea.

The OVL today has two oil blocks under its operation currently in the South China Sea. The first one is Block 128 which is over 7,000 sq km in area, acquired in 2006. In July 2017, Vietnam extended OVL’s contract for two more years.

The second is Block 0.61 – which is less than 1,000 sq km in area – roughly coincides with the current Chinese escalation. OVL acquired this way back in 1988 when China hardly pushed its “nine-dashed line” discourse in the region. On the other hand, Beijing as well frantically was trying to find its feet in the region by grabbing Philippine controlled Mischief Reef around that year with no comments on the OVL acquisitions.

However, in 2009, China’s foreign ministry warned – as it does now as well- that “foreign” energy companies should not operate in the South China Sea. China’s strategy is to drive away all foreign energy firms from the region and acquire energy resources from the region solely for its purposes.

Initially, OVL had 100 per cent stakes in 0.61 Block, but gradually divested its shares, with currently Russian energy giant Rosneft having 35 per cent shares and currently the operator and the rest 20 per cent with PetroVietnam. In April 2018, the OVL concluded an MoU with Russian and Vietnamese firms.

Fourthly, given India’s rise in recent times, and the attendant dependence on the high seas for commerce, New Delhi is concerned with China and other disputants strategy to convert the South China Sea into their “territorial sea” – thereby blocking or even increasing political and economic costs for any country to trade through this region. Any effort to constrain international commerce through this region – although not an explicit vow of the disputants at the moment – is detrimental to a rising India.

Hence, India – along with a host of countries have been advocating freedom of navigation and overflight in the region – a demand well preserved in international laws especially in the United Nations Conventional of the Law of the Sea. China had walked away from a ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in July 2016 in this regard.

In pursuing this objective of freedom of navigation, India had put forward unilateral, bilateral and multilateral efforts in protecting its interests in the South China Sea. Indian Naval forces – which considered Indian Ocean as their “primary” area of attention and the South China Sea as “secondary” – nevertheless, paying attention to the South China Sea by conducting “group sailing”, bilateral and multilateral naval exercises, port calls, berthing at Nah Trong and Haiphong in Vietnam or construction of Sabang port in Indonesia.

Nevertheless, given the militarisation efforts of China and its near dominance of the South China Sea, Indian as well as other countries responses so far have been cosmetic in nature and leaving the weaker countries in the South China Sea to the mercy of Beijing.

(The author is Professor in Chinese Studies at the JNU, Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)

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