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India and the South China Seas: The Need for a Second Look

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • September 23, 2011

    A recent article in the Chinese newspaper ‘Global Times’ by the columnist Liu Sheng cautioning India against going ahead with collaboration with Vietnam for oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, is a timely reminder of the dangerous pitfalls that still exist in the Sino-Indian relationship. The Global Times quoted Jiang Yu, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, to state that ‘as for oil and gas exploration...we are opposed to any country engaged in the waters under China’s jurisdiction. We hope foreign countries do not get involved in the South China Sea dispute’. Although India was not directly named, yet the finger clearly pointed towards India. The paper also said that the oil reserves in the South China Sea were not an insignificant 28 billion barrels. Understandably, this homily from the Chinese, although vaguely worded, has received widespread coverage in the print and visual media in India. ONGC has an investment of about US$ 225 million in Vietnam.

    The question uppermost in the minds of most Indians is how should we react to this piece of bluster? Should we just ignore this gratuitous ‘advice’ and go ahead with exploration in collaboration with Vietnam or should we listen to Chinese ‘advice’ and stay out of disputes that exist in the South China Sea? The Chinese media quoting well known personalities from university ‘think tanks’ in China seem to suggest that we are being pushed into such a course of action by the ‘active support of the US’. While the columnist scrupulously avoided attributing any malevolence to Vietnamese intentions, it pointedly referred to the existence since June this year of a bilateral agreement between China and Vietnam to settle all such disputes, ‘through negotiations and consultations.’ A clear hint to India that China’s line to Vietnam was still open!

    It goes without saying that the most popular reaction would be to simply ignore the Chinese and go ahead with the bilateral arrangement with Vietnam. After all if India is considering an agreement with Vietnam, it would automatically follow that India does consider these waters to be within Vietnamese jurisdiction. That seems to be the position adopted by the government of India when Foreign Minister Krishna told his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh that India would ‘go-ahead’ and that India’s position was based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. However, the real test would be if the rest of the countries involved in the South China Sea disputes such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei or even Taiwan also consider these waters to be Vietnamese. If none of them have protested to either India or to Vietnam over the proposed agreement, then China’s case becomes that much weaker and would be pure bluster. And what is the legal position of the US, Japan and perhaps South Korea? Not much is known publicly. Nevertheless, we cannot simply dismiss China’s protests as irrelevant, for the implications for India–China relations can be rather disturbing, including the security of our borders. Nor should we base our reactions on jingoism, but conduct a cool, calculated analysis of the emerging situation.

    It goes without saying that when China protests we should always pay very close attention. In this case we would have to keep in mind the range of possibilities that exist and the options available should China decide to take its protests to the next stage; thereby triggering a confrontation. In the past China has demonstrated that when it comes to her own backyard, particularly the South China Sea, she is very sensitive and overtly aggressive. Often recourse has been taken to not only physically harassing the offending party, but cables and wires where work is in progress have been deliberately cut. Should ONGC-Videsh, the contracting party in this case, suffer a similar fate, what would be the reaction of the government of India? It is extremely problematical whether the Indian Navy can do a power projection just yet in the South China Sea to ward off the Chinese Navy. Nor are the Vietnamese in any position to do so. To fold our tent after the Chinese have initiated action would be a serious blow to our prestige.

    We would do well to keep in mind that we have a long unsettled border with China. It is not possible to police every inch of this border. Therefore the Chinese at present retain the option, if they do wish to exercise it, of intruding several kilometres across the ‘Line of Actual Control’. As the LOAC is not demarcated on the ground, both India and China have different perceptions as to its actual alignment. The ground for creating mischief is therefore available.

    The crux of the matter would be the role and attitude of the US and the only force capable of thwarting the Chinese in the South China Sea – the US 7th Fleet. In the recent past on Sino-Indian issues the attitude of the US has been rather ambivalent. Even in the aftermath of the 1962 conflict Robert Komer, an influential National Security Council staff member, wrote a memo for President Kennedy on December 16, 1962 which highlighted the following:

    ‘That it is as much in our strategic interest to keep up a high degree of Sino-Indian friction as it is to prevent from spilling over into a large scale war’. [FRUS 61-63 Vol. xix.]

    In the present times the US is beset with economic problems with its public debt which was US$ 6.4 trillion in 2008 constituting about 60 per cent of its GDP, now having climbed to US$ 14.2 trillion or 98 per cent of its GDP. Only Italy and Japan are worse off amongst the major powers. China is one of the biggest holders of US debt. According to the well known US economist, Joseph Stiglitz, the Iraq war alone cost the US some US $3 trillion and there is still no end yet in sight for US involvement both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its armed forces are unduly stretched. It is for this reason that the US turned down the pleas of its close NATO allies France and the UK and refused to militarily intervene in the recent crisis in Libya.

    Given the present predicament of the US, Indian policy planners would do well to pay due heed to caution when dealing with a potentially explosive situation that might develop in the South China Seas. There is no point in acting with bravado when we do not have the necessary military capacity to take on the Chinese in the South China Seas. It would be very wise indeed to take a hard second look at our involvement in the disputed waters of the South China Sea!

    RS Kalha is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi and a former Member of the National Human Rights Commission.