Arena of maritime rivalry

Arena of maritime rivalry

While the world focuses on the rising tension between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, Beijing and Delhi are also engaged in a quiet struggle in the contested waters. By putting up for international bidding the same oil block that India had obtained from Vietnam for exploration, China has thrown down a gauntlet. By deciding to stay put in the assigned block, India has indicated it’s ready to take up the Chinese challenge. At stake is Chinese opposition to India’s claim to be a regional power.

The conflict between India and China over the South China Sea has been building for more than a year. India signed an agreement with Vietnam in October 2011 to expand and promote oil exploration in South China Sea and has now reconfirmed its decision to carry on despite the Chinese challenge to the legality of Indian presence.

By accepting the Vietnamese invitation to explore for oil and gas, India’s state-owned oil company ONGC Videsh Ltd, or OVL, not only expressed New Delhi’s desire to deepen its friendship with Vietnam, but ignore China’s warning to stay away. After asking countries “outside the region” to stay away from the South China Sea, China issued a demarche to India in November 2011, underlining that Beijing’s permission should be sought for exploration in Blocks 127 and 128 and, without it, OVL’s activities would be considered illegal. Vietnam, meanwhile, had underlined the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to claim its sovereign rights over the two blocks being explored.

India decided to go by the Vietnam’s claims and ignore China’s objections.

China has been objecting to the Indian exploration projects in the region, claiming that the territory comes under its sovereignty. Whereas India continues to maintain that its exploration projects in the region are purely commercial, China has viewed such activities as an issue of sovereign rights.

India’s moves unsettled China, which views India’s growing engagement in East Asia with suspicion. India’s decision to explore for hydrocarbons with Vietnam followed a July 2011 incident during which an unidentified Chinese warship demanded that an INS Airavat, an amphibious assault vessel, identify itself and explain its presence in the South China Sea after leaving Vietnamese waters. Completing a scheduled port call in Vietnam, the Indian warship was in international waters.

Like other major powers, India is concerned about China’s challenge to the free access to the waters of the South China Sea. The South China Sea passage is too vital for trade and international security to be controlled by a single country.

Meanwhile, China has been doing its best to roil the waters in the South China Sea. Concerns have been rising about China’s claim to the ownership to much of the South China Sea waters and the Chinese Navy’s assertive behavior in the region. China has decided to establish a military garrison on Woody Island in the Paracels in the latest attempt to assert claims over the region. China’s Defense Ministry has openly warned that “combat ready” Chinese naval and air patrols are ready to “protect our maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea.

India’s interest in access to Vietnam’s energy resources puts it in direct conflict with China’s claims over the territory. In an ultimate analysis, this issue is not merely about commerce and energy. It is about strategic rivalry between two rising powers in the Asian landscape. If China can expand its presence in the Indian Ocean region, as New Delhi anticipates, India can also do the same in South China Sea waters. As China’s power grows, it will test India’s resolve for maintaining a substantive presence in the South China Sea.

India has so far been a passive observer amid growing maritime tensions and territorial claims in the region. But now after expanding its footprints in the South China Sea, New Delhi must come to terms with China’s regional prowess. The challenge for New Delhi is to match strategic ambition realistically with appropriate resources and capabilities.

*Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London. This article originally appeared on Khaleej Times online.