(To be read in continuation of my article of September 2, 2011, In Troubled Waters)
China has reacted —moderately through a spokesperson of its Foreign Office and somewhat virulently through the party-controlled Global Times— to reports that India has been considering an offer from Vietnam to award oil and gas exploration bids over two blocks in the South China Sea to India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL). These blocks presently come under the de facto control of Vietnam, which also claims de jure sovereignty over the blocks under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982.
Vietnamese claims of de jure sovereignty have been rejected by China, but accepted by India as would be evident from the following reported comment of a spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India : “The Chinese had concerns but we are going by what the Vietnamese authorities have told us and have conveyed this to the Chinese.”
The Chinese spokesperson, without referring to India by name, has stated as follows: “ China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island. China's stand is based on historical facts and international law. China's sovereign rights and positions are formed in the course of history and this position has been held by Chinese Government for long. On the basis of this China is ready to engage in peaceful negotiations and friendly consultations to peacefully solve the disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights so as to positively contribute to peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea area. We hope that the relevant countries respect China's position and refrain from taking unilateral action to complicate and expand the issue. We hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve the bilateral disputes through bilateral channels. As for oil and gas exploration activities, our consistent position is that we are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China's jurisdiction. We hope the foreign countries do not get involved in South China Sea dispute.”
The Global Times (September 16 ), which does not necessarily represent the views of the Chinese Government and reflects more the views of conservative sections in the Communist Party of China, has been less measured in its comments and has talked of the need to confront the Indian move more vigorously.
As I had pointed out in my article cited above, there are two issues involved in the so-called South China Sea dispute.The first is its status as international and not Chinese waters and the second is the conflicting claims of sovereignty made by China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in the region over the island territories found in the Sea.
The US has so far been following a policy of rejecting Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire Sea while not getting involved in the various disputes over the claims of sovereignty over the island territories. Indian policy closely converged with that of the US. It rejected the Chinese projection of the Sea as a whole as Chinese waters. It took steps to develop its strategic relations with Vietnam. It asserted the rights of the ships of the Indian Navy to transit the South China Sea during their visits to Vietnamese ports without the need to inform China beforehand or ask for Chinese permission.
At the same time, India rightly observed a nuanced silence on the dispute over the island territories. Now, for the first time, India is seeking to take a position on the island territories under the de facto control of Vietnam by accepting Vietnamese claims of de jure sovereignty over them.
This is a position with inherent seeds of an undesirable military confrontation between India and China in the South China Sea itself and subsequently or simultaneously across the land borders between the two countries. India is still in the process of strengthening its military-related infrastructure near the Chinese border. In my assessment, it will take India from five to 10 years to bring its infrastructure on par with that of China in Tibet.
The reach and strength of the Indian Navy in the South China Sea is far behind that of the US. The US is in a position to engage China in a naval confrontation in the South China Sea, but it realises that such a confrontation could be counter-productive. That is why it has been observing a neutral stand on the island territories.
The implications of the reported Indian move to accept Vietnamese claims of sovereignty and to consider favourably the Vietnamese invitation to undertake oil and gas exploration do not appear to have been carefully considered by the Government of India. China has been opposing with determination repeated Vietnamese moves to undertake explorations for natural resources around the island territories under its de facto control. It is likely to oppose any move by the Indian company to undertake exploration in the area.
We have seen that Vietnam has not been able to counter effectively Chinese disruptions of its exploration activities. It will not be able to provide adequate protection to the Indian company. Will we be able to keep a permanent presence of the Indian Navy in the area to protect the operations of the Indian company? Will it be able to counter Chinese attempts to disrupt the operations of the Indian company?
The ultimate result may be a confrontation with China in the seas adjacent to the Chinese mainland which India cannot hope to win and an over-all deterioration in Sino-Indian relations at a time when India is not yet prepared for a full-blown confrontation with China.
Some analysts have projected the Indian move as a tit-for-tat response to Chinese troops moving into the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistani occupation to assist Pakistan in the development of its infrastructure in an area over which India claims sovereignty.
The Gilgit-Baltistan area is legitimately ours. The Chinese have no business to be there. We have many options for countering them and for making their foray into the area prohibitively costly and bloody for them. Instead of identifying those options and undertaking them, we should not try to confront the Chinese in the South China Sea, which is not India’s cup of tea.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.