India will not step back in the South China Sea

SCSC - On 1st September 2015, the Chinese Taipei’s Want China Times reported that India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) was ready to move an oil platform into the South China Sea for oil and gas exploration in the sea of Viet Nam.

All of a sudden, China’s media blatantly criticized the Indian project signed with Viet Nam on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, declaring such project an illegal and unwise action that would affect the Sino-India relations[1].

China’s irrationality

The intimidating criticism by China followed the country’s previous reaction to the contract signed between ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) - the affiliate of the Indian national Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, and Viet Nam to explore Blocks 127 and 128 in Viet Nam’s Exclusive Economic Zone in 2006. China lodged the protest through two different channels. Officially, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China addressed the press on 15th September 2011, implying India as he said “foreign companies shall not interfere in the dispute” and the South China Sea is under China’s sovereignty. In the media, newspapers such as the Global Times and Xinhua exaggerated the matter, calling India’s move a agitated political action and OVL’s engagement in the South China Sea an ambition and a move aimed to hinder China.

The above-mentioned criticisms are irrational for two reasons. First, India’s oil and gas corporation has for long been present in the South China Sea. The Indian oil and gas corporation signed a contract on oil and gas exploration in Block 06 in Nam Con Son Basin in 1988; discovered Lan Tay - Lan Do gas fields in 1998 where the exploration are still underway till today. Over the past nearly 30 years, China has produced no reaction to the operation of the Indian oil and gas corporation. Such a sponteneous opposition therefore is so unreasonable. Second and more importantly, China has no rights or sovereign right to the areas where the forementioned oil and gas blocks are located. These blocks are completely located in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Viet Nam and a myriat of miles from the Chinese coastline. According to Article 56 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Viet Nam has sufficient sovereign rights and jurisdiction in her Exclusive Economic Zone. China has no connection with sovereign rights to this area. Therefore, any cooperation that Viet Nam has pushed for with any international oil and gas companies in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf is in compliance with international law.

Aim to exclude India from the South China Sea

As China’s goal is to become a dominator in the region, it has been trying to exclude major countries from the South China Sea. China has put pressure on Japan in the East China Sea so that Japan would not be able to interfere in the South China Sea. China wanted the United States to withdraw the latter’s troops out of Japan and the Republic of Korea as well as remove the presence of the U.S. navy in South East Asia. As a result, China’s blue-water fleet aims to reach out the first island chain and send the U.S. navy off the South China Sea, or at least to Hawaii. China wants to divide the Pacific Ocean into two sections: the East Pacific belongs to China and the West Pacific belongs to the United States. To the South, China has tried to ensure no presence of the Indian navy and economic operation in the area, keeping India far away from the South China Sea, off the Malacca Strait and forcing India to go back to the Indian Ocean limited by Andaman and Nicobar.

Photo: Internet.

In order to send India off the South China Sea, China believed it would need to intensify relations with India’s neighboring coastal states in South Asia, focus all of its diplomatic, political, economic, and military resources on building the so-called “String of Pearls” to encircle India. Through the “String of Pearls”, China has seeked to expand its influence from the South China Sea, reaching the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean, the world’s busiest sea lane. Accordingly, China has increasingly invested in sea ports of countries close to India. In particular, China started to build naval surveillance facilities in Myanmar’s Coco Island. From 2005-2012, it donated Sri Lanka US$ 4.67 for maritime projects, artificial island construction near South Colombo Port. China’s nuclear submarines and Song-class diesel attack submarines docked in Colombo port in September and November 2014. Meanwhile, in Aprile 2015, China took over Pakistan’s Gwada Port and commenced work at the port for a 40-year period.

India’s determination

India is a major country and obviously since it understands that China’s threatening arguments are irrational, India seemed to stay calm. China was so wrong when it believed that expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean would send India off the South China Sea. On the contrary, China’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean made India want to engage even further in the South China Sea as from India’s perspective, once Beijing took control over the South China Sea, Chinese maritime forces would be able to cross Malacca Strait and penetrate into the Indian Ocean. Therefore, India had to extend its presence in the South China Sea as a counter-balance to China. India has closely followed the situation in the South China Sea to ensure aggressive actions by China in the South China Sea will not spread to the Indian Ocean, especially when China considered protecting maritime lanes its core interest.

Accordingly, India has clearly stated its interest in the South China Sea as well as its determination to maintain its presence in this area. The spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs used to make a clear announcement on India’s official position, saying that its “cooperation with Viet Nam […] is always as per international laws, norms and conventions”. The India-Viet Nam Joint Statement signed during the visit to India by Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang on 12th October 2011 stresses that the disputes in the South China Sea must be settled through peaceful means without the threat or use of force and in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Irrespective of the challenges posed by China, India and Viet Nam have agreed to continue the bilateral cooperation on the exploration of the potential oil and gas blocks in Viet Nam. Also during the visit, the Indian ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) and the Vietnamese National Oil and Gas Corporation signed a Memorandum of Understanding on enhancing cooperation in the exploration, exploitation and processing of oil and gas in Viet Nam, India and a third country. Even, India’s Navy Chief Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi announced in December 2012 that India was ready to send warships to the South China Sea if the OVL oil-exploration interest is threatened. He told the media: “It is 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”[2]. Meanwhile, Indian Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid expressed India’s commitment to continue collaboration with Viet Nam in exploration, after a meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh on 11 July 2013 in New Delhi.[3]

In addition, India has intensively expanded its diplomatic naval activities in Southeast Asia, notably in Viet Nam, and enhanced maritime security cooperation with major countries of shared interest in the South China Sea, such as the United States and Japan, as well as upheld the country’s position in ASEAN-led multilateral forums. The common view and position are to support the freedom of navigation and maritime trade without hindrance, call upon parties concerned to settle disputes through peaceful means and in conformity with international law (especially the UNCLOS), to implement the DOC, work towards the conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) and support the central role of ASEAN.

Consequently, the fact that India is ready to move an oil platform into the South China Sea or to enhance its maritime security cooperation with Viet Nam has nothing to do with the will or permission of China because China has no right to prevent India and China has no sovereignty over this area. If China wishes to pursue its hegemony policy in the region, it will have to encounter resistance from parties concerned once their interests are threatened. China simply needs to understand that India is a superpower in South Asia and even India is not involved in sovereign disputes in the South China Sea, the country cannot remain indifferent about China’s blatant actions nor can it allow China to do whatever it wants. Statements made by Indian leaders as well as India’s reaction to the situation in the South China Sea have proved the status and role of a major country with a straightforward behavior and also demonstrated the country’s firm reaction to China’s irrational and blatant actions./.