The Broad Mind | Playing the Game in South China Sea

The reported decision of India to ‘press ahead’ with the participation of ONGC-Videsh Limited (OVL) in the oil exploration in two blocks offered by Vietnam in the South China sea has evoked mixed reactions. China’s official reaction was nuanced “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.” While some analysts have reacted cautiously, warning that India should not antagonize China in an area where even US fears to tread, some have lauded the firm manner in which India has stood its ground on its own geo-economic interests. Only time will tell whether this uncharacteristically hard posturing in the Sino-Indian context will work in India’s favour or will further precipitate the shrill point scoring that has jaded the Sino-Indian relationship over the past few years. However, the development makes one thing amply clear – the Indian establishment has started running out of patience with an assertive China. If the reported presence of Chinese soldiers in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir(PoK) was not good enough a hint, the latest White Paper titled ‘China’s Peaceful Development’ ,released by China last fortnight, made it implicitly clear – China is in no hurry to resolve its border dispute with India. The ever rising trade figures can take a break!

China knows that the Spratly islands related dispute at its door step will define its strategic relations with South East Asia and indeed other world powers like Japan and United States, in the coming century. Even if you were to take Robert Kaplan’s prediction that ‘South China sea is the future of conflict’ with a pinch of salt, you cannot ignore the fact that in addition to its traditional support to Taiwan, the United States has embarked upon an aggressive diplomatic initiative to woo most of the parties in the South China sea dispute to buy American arms and accept US military training. So the stage is all being set for a show down that could occupy much of the present century. On its part, China is intensifying its own diplomatic efforts to reassure its neighbours like Vietnam and Phillipines through accomodative diplomacy, backed by enhanced economic engagements. China’s White Paper singles out the South China sea issue for a specific mention, in terms of ‘peaceful settlement through dialogue’, though it keeps every other bilateral issue (including the border problem with India) ambiguous and unstated. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and Manila’s third largest. There are periodic mechanisms in place bilaterally between these parties to conduct talks. But that has not dissuaded these countries from seeking engagements with other powers like US, India and Japan.

It is obvious that India’s decision regarding OVL, reportedly taken during the 14th India-Vietnam Joint Commission Meeting on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation, has to do more with signalling and posturing rather than long term intentions. As noted analyst B Raman has rightly warned, “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”. Moreover, it runs the risk of India falling into the US trap of setting the two Asian powers against each other at sea,in addition to the land frontiers. India knows well that at present it lacks the military capacity to sustain a confrontation or a conflict in the South China sea. The occasional forays of Indian Naval ships in the South China sea have been mostly aimed at power projection and towards conducting goodwill visits and exercises, devoid of the posturing that underscores an expeditionary military intention. That being true, India seems to be looking at its emerging partnership with Vietnam seriously, just like China looks at Pakistan or Myanmar as long term hedging investments against India. Given the complications and differing positions of involved parties, the South China sea dispute is an intractable situation and looks like India is in for a long sojourn with Vietnam, if the recent developments are anything to go by. Much before the alleged incident of a Chinese ship ‘confronting’ INS Airavat, as it moved in the South China sea after visiting Nha Thrang port in Vietnam , Indian Coast Guard Ship Sankalp had paid a visit to Ho Chi Minh city on 22 March this year. Before that, the Indian Air Force presented 20 sets of computers, printers and accessories to Vietnam People’s Air Defence and Air Force in February 2011.The Indian Army Chief paid a visit to Vietnam in July 2010.

In the best case scenario, China may draw down its anti-India activities and send positive signals of reconciliation. In the most plausible scenario, this will not happen. Which means, India will have to look at long term options towards playing the game in the South China sea. India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands serve as India’s frontiers to the East and their strategic utility in terms of future military operations and even economic engagements with South East Asia, was never more apparent. The islands give us that extra leverage in monitoring the approaches to the strategic Malacca Straits that serve as the artery to China’s oil and gas flowing from the Persian Gulf/Africa to the South China sea and thence to its ports. So there are many innovative possibilities that these islands create for us in playing the geo-economic game in South East Asia, not in the least the staging avenues they offer for marine and aerial assets.  In terms of capabilities, it will at least take two more decades for us to acquire a nascent expeditionary capability to defend our economic interests in the South China Sea in a sustained fashion.OVL has already invested in three blocks of Vietnam ( Block 06.1,Block 127 and Block 128).The new invitation could lead to more investments and thus more stakes. Moreover, the India-ASEAN FTA, which is likely to be operational soon, will create more economic opportunities for Indian investors in the Far East. So should not India’s military prepare to defend India’s energy and economic security interests? Wherever they be?

The Financial Times of London has shown increasing interest in reporting on military issues relating to India-China rivalry. Why the London based Financial Times for a vested PR effort? Your guess. That is symbolic of the pitfalls which India should watch for. Its legitimate actions in securing its own security and economic interests should not appear to be taken at the behest of a third party, particularly from the West. Third parties, usually posing as ‘friends and masters’ have left unforgettable lessons in history to teach Asians that they best resolve their disputes bilaterally lest they soon be turned into sparring cats, fighting in vain for the pound of butter. India has accommodated China enough since the events of 2006, when days before Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in India for a state visit, the Chinese ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, announced during an interview with a television channel that China unequivocally viewed Arunachal Pradesh as part of its territory. Since then we have been deferential to China on many counts – stapled visas,visit cancellations,ADB loan,Tibet issue,the works.Now it rests on China to bring the mercury down. With OVL all set to prospect in the troubled waters of the Spratlys, the dice has been cast afresh. Will India like to position a warship at Vietnam to escort the OVL oil rigs and Offshore Support Vessels? Only time could tell. Looks like it will be the Vietnamese Ginseng which will determine the strength of Indian vitality in the days to come.