Originally Published 2013-02-07 00:00:00 Published on Feb 07, 2013
India as an external power is keen to play the role of a credible stabilising factor in the South China Sea region and cannot afford to be ambivalent. The advantages of taking a stand are many. Such a venture in the South China Sea will give India strategic leverage. Hence joining the fray is not an option but an imperative to safeguard our strategic interests and aspirations.
Look East Policy compulsions
The strategic indicators that India may be dragged to become deeply involved in the South China Sea imbroglio and a likely conflict tinderbox waiting to explode were clear and ominous for anyone trying to decipher them. The comments of the Indian naval chief in which he has reiterated that the Indian Navy will be ready to send warships to protect Indian interests in the South China Sea evolved into a major controversy.

The spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry Hong Lei retaliated sharply reiterating the Chinese position. Surprisingly, Manila in direct line of Chinese fire in South China Sea supported the naval chief's stand with the Philippine vice president stating that "...the statement of the admiral is a confirmation that it is a problem that India cannot turn its back to".

The other indicator was provided by the Indo-ASEAN summit that was hosted by Delhi. The event sought to re-affirm India's emerging role in the region with a renewed focus on its 'Look East policy' but equally it was to offset partially the overwhelming shadow of the 'elephant in the room - China'. Hence while trade enhancement was an important issue at the summit it was 'freedom of navigation' and maritime security that struck an important chord with the ASEAN seeking greater involvement of India in the volatile South China Sea.

Currently the South China Sea region has emerged as an area of intense global focus and a likely flashpoint. Claims and counter-claims of contending countries over minor islands or 'rocks' have flooded the region in an atmosphere of mistrust and animosity underscoring the cry for establishing/reasserting sovereignty over these contested areas. In addition there is growing disenchantment with the efficacy of multilateral forums like ASEAN following a failure to issue a joint communiqué at the Pnom Penh meeting. Chinese foreign policy with respect to the South and East China seas seems to have undergone a perceptible shift in recent times raising the debate that this might be a fallout of the change in central CPC (Communist Party of China) leadership that may well have initiated a jostle for power in the lower levels against the projected façade of seamless power transition at the senior-most level.

The Chinese foreign policy changes involve overcoming of the phase of 'biding time' to a stance that has been termed as increasingly aggressive on issues related to their sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas.

China claims about 80 per cent of the South China Sea as its own through its ambiguous 'nine dashed lines', a claim that is vigorously contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. The Chinese aggressiveness has led the United States to join the fray with Hillary Clinton reiterating that the US shared a national interest in free navigation through the seas.

The South China Sea region has proven oil reserves to the tune of 1,2 Km3 (7.7 billion barrels) with an approximate estimate of a total of 4.5km3(24 billion barrels) and natural gas reserves of 7,500km3 (266 trillion cubic feet) making it virtually a fountain head of energy and the main suspected rationale behind the Chinese re-assertion of their claims.

Indian interests in the region are varied and deep. ONGC Videsh (OVL) has been prospecting for oil in the South China Sea region within Vietnam's EEZ since long. In 2006, after having won the international bid to explore Blocks 127 and 128 (Phu Khanh bay) in the territories that are under dispute but within the Vietnamese EEZ. While Block 127 proved unviable and dry, Block 128 had unfavourable geological conditions and hard rock, difficult to penetrate and India decided to 'vacate' only to be requested by the Vietnamese to stay on for another two years.

In the meantime Indian operations of extracting natural gas in Block 6.1 in the disputed region continues from where it got 2 billion cubic metres (BCM) of gas in 2011-'12 for its 45 per cent participating interest.

OVL has so far invested about '1,900 crore in developing three blocks in the region. "Commercial interests take precedence over politics. Wherever there is oil, politics follows," ONGC chairman Sudhir Vasudeva said while commenting on oil exploration in the disputed region.

However on 23 June 2012 the Chinese state company CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Company) offered nine offshore blocks to international oil and gas companies for global bidding in response to the 21 June action when the Vietnamese National Assembly approved a maritime law claiming sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the region. Importantly, these blocks (Blocks 128 to 132 and 145 to 156), on offer by the Chinese overlapped with the blocks that had already been given by the Vietnamese earlier for exploration. Maintaining that CNOOC's invitation for global bids for the blocks was normal business practice and in consonance with international conventions laws the Chinese had upped the ante.

Conforming to a pattern of increasing Chinese assertiveness, the amphibious INS Airavat while returning from Nha Trang port and a successful tour of South-east Asia had to face the Chinese 'challenge' from an unknown Chinese warship on 22 July 2011 while it was about 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast raising alarm bells in Delhi.

Indian interests in the region are not only because nearly 50 per cent of its trade to the east passes through this turbulent area but also since it has made considerable investments in exploration of energy resource. Thus there is a necessity to ensure freedom of navigation through this region as well as to ensure that its legitimate national assets are protected and its national and strategic interests are safeguarded.

India as an external power is keen to play the role of a credible stabilising factor in the region and cannot afford to be ambivalent. Walking the thin line between the desires of the ASEAN to play a more prominent role and safeguarding its own strategic interests, the advantages of taking a stand are many. Given the Chinese foray into India's strategic backyard - the Indian Ocean - such a venture in the South China Sea will give India strategic leverage. Hence joining the fray is not an option but an imperative to safeguard our strategic interests and aspirations.

(P K Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and Co-chair of the CSCAP International Study Group on Maritime Security)

Courtesy: The New Indian Express,

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