INDIA’S POTENTIAL ENGAGEMENTS IN THE EAST SEA/SOUTH CHINA SEA

Van Ngoc Thanh

Hanoi National University of Education – Vietnam

Along with achievements of the 1991 reform, India has increasingly affirmed its position in the region and in the world as well. India advocates to cooperate with nations, supports the balance of power in the region in order to create a peaceful and sustainable environment for its reform, and clearly manifest the responsibility of a ‘rising power’. However, China’s recent actions and attitude have raised the anxiety that the East Sea/South China Sea (ES/SCS) would become a competition theatre of main powers, especially since China has regarded the ES/SCS as its ‘core interest’ at par with Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. As a result, the ES/SCS becomes an arena of big powers, is it necessary for India to have its presence there? In all respects, the answer is ‘yes, very necessary’.

India’s Recent Actions in the ES/SCS Are on the Right Track But Insufficient in the Face of China’s Decisiveness

India marked its presence in the ES/SCS in April 2000 when Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes publicly stated that India’s area of interest… extends from the north of the Arabian Sea to the ES/SCS. Since then, India has started expanding the capability of its Navy’s actions in the ES/SCS and increasingly taken interest in building forces and sending ocean fleets to this region conformable to the demands of countries involved in disputes with China over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and of some other big countries in the region.

Indian navy’s first activities in the region has mainly focused on anti-piracy, bilateral joint exercises and friendship visits to ports, actually to indirectly confirm India’s viewpoint that the ES/SCS is an international maritime region and each country has right to protect its economic interests by using naval force. Almost 55 per cent of India’s total good has been transported through the Straights of Malacca which destined to China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the US and other important markets. Thus, India is one of the core factors of maintaining peace and stability in the ES/SCS where China has arbitrarily seen as its territorial water. Since China began its sovereign claim over the ES/SCS, Indian Navy and other naval powers have raised their objections to China’s claim and considered this region as international water.

The ES/SCS disputes have been discussed at ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July 19, 2010 in Hanoi where India for the first time publicly announced its policy. Then, India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao stated in a conference in New Delhi that ‘the ES/SCS is an important maritime route. India supports freedom of navigation in the ES/SCS’.

At the ARF meeting in July 2011 in Bali (Indonesia), India stated that concerned parties participated in discussing resolutions for the ES/SCS disputes and the Guideline on the Implementation of the DOC between ASEAN and China.[1]

In recent years, India has implemented a cautious strategy to mark its military presence in the ES/SCS by engagement in the region where China has arbitrarily seen as its interests. Indian navy started sending warship fleets to the ES/SCS since the beginning of this decade and has participated in joint exercises with navy of countries involved in disputes with China over Spratly Islands. India has also marked its presence in the ES/SCS and built defense relations with countries concerned the disputes. From Vietnam to the Republic of Korea, India has signed military cooperation agreements besides countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. India has had joint exercises with some countries in South East Asia. India has also annually sent warships to Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea and Southeast Asian countries claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.

India has been making use of the membership of ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+). India sees ADMM+ as a necessary effort to establish an open and exclusive security mechanism in the region. India’s policy is to encourage and participate in approach methods which allow all countries in the region to deal with traditional and non-traditional challenges and to secure the openness and safety of important maritime routes.

India’s participation in ADMM+ and other Asian fora is a part of its progressive and multifaceted partnership with East Asian region. Simultaneously, India has also clearly understood the impacts of opponent situation among major powers and its influence on this region and interests of the region. In this context, China’s plan of enlarging its Mobile Strike Force-MSF has made India anxious because the plan would made other countries claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands enhance their measures to deal with.

Though its naval operations, India has also wanted to announce that the ES/SCS in fact is international water and no countries can monopolize this extremely important maritime exchange region. China’s attitude and actions however have followed a different direction. In November 2012, many countries have raised objections to China when the latter introduced passport containing the illegal nine dash line. In November 30, 2012, Chinese fishing boats again defying international laws cut cable of Ship Binh Minh 02 when the ship was located at 17.26 degrees north latitude and 108.02 degrees west longitude, about 43 nautical miles southeast of Vietnam’s Con Co Island and 20 miles west of the median line between Vietnam and China. Those illegal actions of Chinese State and fishing boats clearly demonstrate China’s defiance of international laws and the Law on the Sea of Vietnam.

Besides having illegal behaviors, China’s actions in few years in the ES/SCS were in its gradual rodent strategy, enhancing its unusual actions and its intensity of encroachment. In the eyes of international maritime research circles, this can be seen as a test to Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC)[2] of the world. According to Robert Kaplan, the vital front between China and the US will take place in SLOC and nowhere else.[3] Similarly, the competition between India and China has not only taken place in continent because these two countries are having overlapping interests in regions bordering Indian Ocean and Pacific.

This fact demands India to have harder attitude towards China in ocean. However, ‘in the years ahead China ‘s military might would be in a position to challenge that of the USA, while Indian defense planners will continue to defend their inadequacy by maintaining – as they have been doing religiously since the 1970s – that China remains ten years away from becoming a real military threat to this country.[4]

From the Strategic Importance of the ES/SCS, in All Circumstances, There Must Be India’s Engagements

The ES/SCS locates in the lifeline connecting Pacific-Indian Ocean, Europe-Asia, Middle East-Asia. Five out of ten busiest trading routes relating to the ES/SCS include the routes from Western Europe and Northern America to Mediterranean, Suez Canal, Middle East to India, East Asia, Australia and New Zealand; from East Asia to Panama Canal, Northeast America and Caribbean; from East Asia to Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific; and from Northwest America to East Asia and Southeast Asia. This is seen as the second busiest shipping route of the world. About 150 – 200 ships pass though the ES/SCS everyday in which about 50 per cent of vessels over 5,000 tons and 10 per cent of vessels over 30,000 tons. Many East Asian economies such as Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan and China strongly depend on transportation through the ES/SCS. This is a essential line for transporting oil and other trading sources from Middle-Near East and South East Asia to Japan, the Republic of Korea and China. More that 90 per cent of world trade is sea borne and 45 per cent of those must be transported through the ES/SCS.

Oil and liquefied gas transported through the ES/SCS are 15 times more than those through Panama Canal. The ES/SCS has important straits, 4 out of 16 strategic straights locate in South East Asia (Malacca, Lombok, Sunda, Ombai-Wetar). Especially, Malacca is the second world’s busiest strait (after Hormuz). Piracy and terrorism in the ES/SCS increase at a high level, particularly after a 2002 suicide bombing against a French oil tanker. Thus, the ES/SCS has an important geo-strategic, security, maritime traffic and economic role, especially to the US and Japan. This sea has connection and influence on other regions, particularly the Middle East. If the ES/SCS is controlled by a country or an allied group, it will seriously effects security, political and economic interests of other. Annually, there are about 70 per cent of importing oil and 45 per cent of exporting goods of Japan are transported through the ES/SCS. Twenty nine out of 39 sea lanes, about 60 per cent of exporting goods and 70 per cent of importing oil of China are also transported through this sea.[5]

Islands in the ES/SCS have an important strategic defensive role to many countries. Locating in the centre of the ES/SCS, Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands are among regions having the most sea lanes in the world. In the strategic sea lanes of Asia, there are two essential points. The first one is Straits of Malacca (lies between Sumatra of Indonesia and Malaysia). This location is very important because all goods of Southeast Asian and North Asian countries must be transported through. Three straits Sunda, Blombok and Makascha play a spare role in case the Straits of Malacca is shut down for some reasons. However, if goods carried from Indian Ocean to ASEAN and North Asia must through these three straits, they will get more expensive due to a longer journey. The second one is the ES/SCS with many sea lanes, especially regions around Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.

The above strategic sea lanes are a ‘pharynx’ for trade exchange of many Asian countries. 42 per cent of Japan’s total exporting goods must be carried through this region (Southeast Asian countries-55 per cent. New Industrial Countries-26 per cent, Australia-40 per cent and China-22 per cent with the whole value reaches US$31 billion). If a crisis takes place in this sea, all ships must follow new lanes or South Australia lane and all expenses will increase five times, and therefore, goods in the region will not have enough competitiveness.[6] Moreover, Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands own strategic locations and they can be used to control sea lanes in the ES/SCS and for military purposes such as building radar stations, information stations, fuel stations… Some Western strategists believe that if one country controls Spratly Islands, it will overpower the whole ES/SCS.

As analyzed by Maj. Gen (rtd) Vinod Saighal, ‘it needs to be remembered that the South China Sea is used by ships, both civil and military, from a large number of countries beyond the region. Large parts of the trade coming from Europe, Africa and Asia passes through the Malacca Straits bound for destinations beyond China or ASEAN. In any case, it is not an inland sea or restricted sea as in the case of, for example, Gulf of Tonkin, but a large expanse on which many countries are dependent for sea-borne trade and passage of their ships’.[7] It means that China and ASEAN member states have obligations to obey the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS 1982). This is also the request from countries in the region and world community but China has parried. As a rising power, India must prove itself as a responsible country of the region and the world.

In fact, as an Asian power, India wants to maintain a strong role in the ES/SCS region where contains rich resources and hold a strategic role. From that basis, it will gradually affirm its role as a power. Since its reforms in 1991, India has become stronger. Along with its economic achievements, India has increasingly enhanced investments in military capabilities. India is the largest importer of weapons in recent years. It has also been making efforts to get a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Therefore, this country needs to manifest it role at par with that of the US, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and France. In order to assert its power role, India must demonstrate itself as a responsible country and having influence on important issues of the region and the world. Asia in general and the ES/SCS are hotspots and important region of the world as well. And, India believes that it has responsibility to raise voice on disputes in the region. Indian Navy chief Admiral D K Joshi’s announcement to protect India’s interests in the ES/SCS, even to send warships to this region[8] in December 3, 2012 and then Admiral Nirmal Verma announced India’s Indian Ocean Policy could be seen as necessary steps for India to enhance its responsibility and protect national interests at both regional and international levels.

In Field of Commercial Interests, India Could Not Stand Apart From the ES/SCS Issue

Cultural-social and commercial links between India and countries surrounding the ES/SCS have long history. Since ancient time, India had trade exchange with Funan, Srivijaya and other kingdoms in the East and the South of China. The ES/SCS has facilitated commercial links, and helped to create a quite developed trade system among China, Southeast Asia and India. Through the ES/SCS, Budhism monks could start the trip from China to Palembang (in Sumatra) and Tamralipti (in India), facilitating cultural exchange.

There are several geo-political and geo-economic reasons which form India’s interests in the ES/SCS. Spatially, the ES/SCS is an open sea space and extending to the greater Asia-Pacific region. About 50 per cent of India’s trade activities pass through the ES/SCS to sites in Asia-Pacific and through Pacific to the Northern and Southern America.

As far as India’s Look East Policy is concerned, India’s relations with the ASEAN countries have acted as catalyst and served as an important driver of economic growth. The bilateral trade has grown from US$ 2.4 billion in 1990 to US$ 44.66 billion in 2008-09. Both partners have expressed their commitment to strengthen economic cooperation to enhance bilateral trade to US$ 70 billion by 2012. In 2009, India and ASEAN signed the FTA that came into force in July 2010. This FTA is believed to be quite extensive covering a market of approximately 1.8 billion people and the plans envisage gradually cutting down tariffs over 4,000 product lines by 2016.[9]

India has engaged in joint offshore energy development projects with Vietnam in the South China Sea since the late 1980s. The state owned ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) in partnership with PetroVietnam and British Petroleum (BP) began exploration in South China Sea in 1992 and 1993 which resulted in the discovery of the Lan Do and Lan Tay gas fields that were estimated to contain reserves of around 58 billion cubic metres that would result in three billion cubic metres of gas a year. However, in the 1990s, due to financial crisis, OVL had to sell its stake to BP. In 2010, due to Gulf of Mexico oil spill liability, BP announced plans to sell its energy assets in Vietnam and this prompted OVL along with Vietnam’s PetroVietnam joined hands to bid for the BP’s stake in Nam Con Son gas fields spread over 955-square kilometre include two offshore gas fields, a pipeline and power project. The upstream part of the Nam Con Son project also referred to as Block 06.1 is about 370 km Southeast of Vung Tau on the southern Vietnamese coast. The Block 06.1 comprises of the Lan Tay (currently produces around 14 million standard cubic metres of gas per day of gas) and Lan To gas fields which are currently under development. Reports indicate that the OVL has invested $217 million on the gas fields and could invest up to $377.46 million. OVL also has stakes in two other exploration blocks 127 and 128 in Vietnam.[10]

In that sense, India is an important party which has common interests in evolving security progress in the ES/SCS and any hazards in the region could affect trade interests and Indian economy as a whole. The strength of Indian economy depends on secured energy supplies and safe trade routes and security in the region, including the Straits of Malacca. India has interests in keeping sea lanes open in the region.

The Reality of India-China Relations, Both in History and Present, and China’s Calculations to Monopolize the ES/SCS Shows that India Is One of the Objects to be Targeted

After gaining independence, India and China have had complicated relations. In 1951, Tibet was merged into China. This raised an anxiety in New Delhi that there was a permanent military post of China in India’s Northern border. In 1962, India-China war was broken out in Himalaya region and the occupation of Aksai Chin has made the relations between the two countries more complicated. China has claimed sovereignty over nearly 90,000 square kilometer in Arunachal Pradesh and occupied neary 43,000 square kilometer in Jammu and Kashmir. In 1963, Pakistan conceded 5,000 square kilometer it was occupying in Kashmir to China and the pinnacle was the building of Karakoram Friendship Highway. India and China has made efforts to reduce tension and as a result, two sides signed Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) in 1993 and Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in field of military in 1996. Although army of each side has turned back their rear lines respectively, there have been prolonged border violations from PLA. There are also the creations of military infrastructure, including the deployment of strategic missiles in order to support military actions when needed. Both sides do not trust each other much. India and China have been increasingly apprehensive of each other’s strategies, especially military activities of each side in Himalayas.

China has very adeptly pushed the boundary disputes with India to the backburner and ably started a series of boundary talks so that the disputes can be settled on China‟s terms at a later date after it has built up requisite political, economic and military muscle. Its current approach towards India pivots on cordial relations. The political relations have witnessed an upswing with regular state level visits and their “Shared Visions on the 21st Century,” hopes to push forward the Strategic Cooperative Partnership. The economic and trade relations have improved significantly and the bilateral trade in 2008 was pegged at over US$ 51 billion, an increase of 34 percent over 2007. There have been some positive developments on the military front including joint exercises…. The trends are likely to continue in the near future.[11]

India has also become anxious when China interpreted its concept of new ‘core interests’ relating to territories in India where China claims sovereignty. It can be said that, by announcing that the ES/SCS belongs to so-called “core interest’ at par with Tibet and Taiwan, China has issued a new claim of territory. If this claim is not challenged, China will gradually obtain the real acceptance of the world community. In fact, there have been regular interpretations by Chinese media consonant with this direction. Remarkably, when India Prime Minister visited Arunachal Pradesh in 2009, Global Times of China writes that ‘Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made another provocative and dangerous move. India will make a fatal error if it mistakes China’s approach for weakness. The Chinese government and public regard territorial integrity as a core national interest, one that must be defended with every means’.[12] And recently, China introduced its passports containing the illegal nine dash line.

The Indian Ministry of Defence Report 2008-2009 has expressed concerns over Chinese military capabilities and observed that ‘greater transparency and openness’ is critical but on a conciliatory note also stated that India will ‘engage China, while taking all necessary measures to protect its national security, territorial integrity and sovereignty’. There are fears in India about China’s military modernisation and augmentation of military infrastructure along the borders and should China include the disputed territory, like the South China Sea, could be worrisome for India. China sees India as a potential competitor and has identified several pressure points to contain India.[13]

Along with actions in border disputed land with India, China has been making efforts to monopolize the ES/SCS in order to establish and implement the strategy of ‘String of Pearls’ in which India is encircled. The String of Pearls refers to the maritime line originating from China to Port Sudan. The String is believed to run through Straits of Mandab, Straits of Malacca, the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Lombok as well as other strategic naval interests in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Somalia.[14] Obviously, India is an important object in China’s strategy of ‘String of Pearls’.

Although two sides have established a bilateral ‘Strategic Economic Dialogue’ and China-India economic relations have been regarded to be ready for a notable change in bilateral trade, can be doubled up to US$ 100 billion in 2015. Activities taking place in seas have shown that China is India’s competitor and will become a danger for India in the future when China are enhancing its capabilities. India’s cooperation with Vietnam to explore and exploit as well as the former’s multifaceted relations with ASEAN are the voice to affirm the legal presence of Indian in the international sea as well as measures to defeat China’s String of Pearls.

In general, India needs to enhance its naval capability to deal with China in Indian Ocean, Arab Sea and the ES/SCS. Chinese has rights to legally present in Indian Ocean and in the ES/SCS but they have to obey UNCLOS 1982. However, according to Harsh V.Pant, ‘India has so far been a passive observer amidst 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’.[15]

NOTES


[1] The Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea (DOC) focusing mostly in the Spratly islands was signed in 2002. According the DOC, Chin and ASEAN member states agreed to building trust and confidence, restraint to create a positive environment to seek a final resolution for disputes, and to maintain peace and stability in the region. However, China’s attitude and contents of statements along with its actions in the ES/SCS in recent years have made the disputes become a leading issue in the Asia-Pacific discourses. The DOC is a concrete step to institutionalize regional mechanisms among claimants and plays a role of diminishing military tense escalation but it seems that this step can not dispel ‘the threat of China’. China has always maintained the viewpoint of solving the disputes bilaterally while ASEAN member states have been searching for ‘a legally binding and official code of conducts’ in order to create stability in the region. The ES/SCS is hence the region where conflicts are easy to be broken out in the context of the existence of territorial claims, ambitions and hotspots.

[2] SLOC are understood as main maritime routes connecting trade, logistics and naval ports. See Klein, John J. (2007). “Maritime Strategy Should Heed U.S. and UK Classics”. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings;Apr2007, Vol. 133 Issue 4, pp. 67–69.

[3] Robert Kaplan, The New global politics of Asia Pacific, Second edition, Routledge 2012, p. 50.

[4] Talk delivered by Maj. Gen (rtd) Vinod Saighal* at HANOI 0n 26 November 2009, see at http://www.vinodsaighal.com/a19.html

[5] http://nghiencuubiendong.vn/tong-quan-ve-bien-dong/504-bien-ong-ia-chien-lc-va-tiem-nng

[6] http://nghiencuubiendong.vn/tong-quan-ve-bien-dong/504-bien-ong-ia-chien-lc-va-tiem-nng

[7] See tha paper at http://www.vinodsaighal.com/a26.html

[8] Rajat Pandit, Indian warships ready to sail for troubled S China Sea if required, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Indian-warships-ready-to-sail-for-troubled-S-China-Sea-if-required/articleshow/17469306.cms

[9] See Vijay Sakhuja, India’s Stakes in South China Sea, http://nghiencuubiendong.vn/en/conferences-and-seminars-/the-third-international-workshop-on-south-china-sea/633-indias-stakes-in-south-china-sea-by-vijay-sakhuja

[10] See Vijay Sakhuja, India’s Stakes in South China Sea, http://nghiencuubiendong.vn/en/conferences-and-seminars-/the-third-international-workshop-on-south-china-sea/633-indias-stakes-in-south-china-sea-by-vijay-sakhuja

[11] See Vijay Sakhuja, India’s Stakes in South China Sea, http://nghiencuubiendong.vn/en/conferences-and-seminars-/the-third-international-workshop-on-south-china-sea/633-indias-stakes-in-south-china-sea-by-vijay-sakhuja

[12] Why the Chinese are so upset about Tawang, http://news.rediff.com/slide-show/2009/oct/20/slide-show-1-why-chinese-are-so-upset-about-tawang.htm

[13] See Vijay Sakhuja, India’s Stakes in South China Sea, http://nghiencuubiendong.vn/en/conferences-and-seminars-/the-third-international-workshop-on-south-china-sea/633-indias-stakes-in-south-china-sea-by-vijay-sakhuja

[14] The Washington Times, Monday, January 17, 2005, China builds up strategic sea lanes, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2005/jan/17/20050117-115550-1929r/?page=1

[15] Harsh V. Pant, South China Sea: New Arena of Sino-Indian Rivalry, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/south-china-sea-new-arena-sino-indian-rivalry

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