India Sails Into Troubled South China Sea

Global Geopolitics & Political Economy / IPS

Richard Heydarian

MANILA, Feb 04 (IPS) – With territorial tensions in the South China Sea entering a new phase of confrontation, there are signs of growing Indian involvement in regional affairs.Aside from its anxieties over China’s expanding naval capabilities, India has direct economic and strategic interests in Southeast Asia. For many years, India’s state-run Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) has been involved in joint ventures with TNK Vietnam and Petro Vietnam, conducting exploratory/offshore hydrocarbon projects in the disputed waters of South China Sea.

Meanwhile, India has also been expanding its strategic ties with the booming economies of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), hoping to raise bilateral trade to as much as 200 billion dollars in the next decade.

As ASEAN’s major dialogue partner, India has repeatedly underscored its commitment to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, cautioning against rising threats to maritime security.

During the recently-concluded ASEAN-India Summit, many Southeast Asian states, in response to China’s provocative actions, have sought greater role for and involvement of India in ensuring regional stability and deterring Chinese aggressive posturing.

"While the centre of the global economy is shifting eastward, the Indian and Pacific oceans have been and will become even more important in providing the vital sea routes for trade and commerce,” Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared during the summit.

Both India and the ASEAN seem to share growing concerns over China’s increasing maritime assertiveness and naval capabilities.

November of last year – when Chinese (paramilitary) vessels allegedly harassed the Vietnamese Binh Minh 02 seismic survey vessel in the hydrocarbon-rich blocks where India’s ONGC is directly invested – marked a turning point in India’s disposition towards the South China Sea disputes.

“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,” Indian navy chief Admiral D.K Joshi declared in response to the incident, warning China against further provocations.

His comments coincided with a new round of Sino-Indian negotiations over long-standing border disputes, which sparked a war back in 1962 and have embittered bilateral ties since then.

Recent years have witnessed a precipitous escalation in regional maritime disputes, pitting China – which claims almost all features in the South China Sea and continues to prefer bilateral dispute-settlement mechanisms – against Southeast Asian states such as Philippines and Vietnam.

However, last year marked a further deterioration in regional security, with ASEAN failing to adopt a common position on establishing a binding regional Code of Conduct (CoC) to settle maritime disputes.

The situation worsened when the new Chinese leadership engaged in a series of provocative actions, ranging from the issuance of a new Chinese passport, featuring the full extent of Beijing’s territorial claims across Asia, to the recent announcement by Hainan authorities to search and intercept foreign vessels straddling China’s claimed maritime territories, and the new Chinese official map featuring territories within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

In response, the Philippines and Vietnam sought deeper strategic and defence cooperation with sympathetic Pacific powers such as the U.S. and India. Vietnam, Philippines, and Taiwan formally protested against China’s passport design, while the ASEAN bloc expressed deep concerns over new maritime regulations by Chinese provincial authorities in Hainan.

There is also the bigger issue of India-China rivalry. Traditionally, the Indian Navy (IN) has focused on patrolling and safeguarding the country’s interests in the immediate waters stretching from the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean and the Strait Malacca. Yet, China’s rapid rise as a regional naval powerhouse has encouraged continental rival India to speed up its naval modernisation and develop an expeditionary outlook.

Between 2000 and 2012, the IN’s share of annual military expenditures has increased from 15 to 19 percent, while joint exercises with other regional allies, especially the U.S. Pacific Command, have intensified accordingly. An armada of new aircraft carriers, modern French submarines, indigenously designed nuclear submarines, and state-of-the-art aircraft are slated to boost the IN in coming years.

With one of Asia’s most formidable navies, dwarfing all of those in the ASEAN, India’s new naval arms race with China has gained even greater significance in light of rising frictions in the strategic, hydrocarbon-rich waters of South China Sea. Back in 2011, Chinese forces even challenged an IN ship that was patrolling off the coast of Vietnam.

The U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region has been followed by renewed strategic-military commitments with regional partners, but the Philippines and Vietnam are also eagerly seeking India’s muscle to deter China.

“I hope that India supports ASEAN and China in full implementation of the declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea and ASEAN Six-Point Principle on the South China Sea…” Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung emphasized during the ASEAN-India summit.

In fact, the summit’s concluding ‘vision statement’ underscored, in the most unequivocal terms, the importance of maritime security: “We (ASEAN and India) are committed to strengthening cooperation to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation and safety of sea lanes of communication for unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS."

Although India has historically stood up to China over territorial disputes as well as the Tibetan issue, in addition to its expressed commitment to defend energy investments in the disputed waters and challenge China’s new passport design, India has actually struck a moderate tone in numerous official pronouncements.

India is not a direct party to the disputes and a bulk of its strategic interests still lie in the Indian Ocean, while its booming bilateral trade with China – hovering above 70 billion dollars annually – means that it has little appetite for risking direct confrontation with Beijing in behalf of ASEAN.

"There are fundamental issues there (South China Sea) that do not require India’s intervention," India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Kurshid stated in relation to the maritime disputes during the ASEAN-India summit. "(The disputes) need to be resolved between the countries concerned."

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