Wednesday 22 September 2021, 02:25 PM
Can India withstand China’s Pressure in South China Sea?
By IANS | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 5/11/2012 12:00:00 AM

New Delhi: Ever since ONGC Videsh signed a deal with Vietnamese government to drill for oil and gas within the Vietnamese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in South China Sea, there have been warnings from China to desist from doing so.  ONGC Videsh won the contract in 2006 to jointly explore with Petro Vietnam, Blocks 127 and 128 in the Phu Khanh basin, in the South China Sea.

The two blocks are well on the Vietnamese side of the median line between Vietnamese and Chinese land mass and by the most accepted principle of demarcating maritime boundaries as enunciated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) lie within the Vietnamese jurisdiction.  

However, the Chinese have come out with an absurd proposition and claim virtually the entire South China Sea to be within their jurisdiction on historical grounds.  Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines have consistently denied China’s claims and have asked China to take the issue to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, which China has consistently refused as it realizes that its claim is legally quite weak.

For a long time the dispute in South China Sea was restricted to the sovereignty of islands within the South China Sea, namely the Paracels and Spratlys. Paracel islands have been historically contested by both China and Vietnam and both occupied parts of the uninhabited islands till 19 Jan 1974, when Chinese expelled the South Vietnamese troops from the islands in a violent military conflict, at a time when the US backed regime in Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) was on the verge of collapse.  Spratly islands comprise of 750 reefs, islets, atolls and islands, which are all uninhabited, but for the military presence of various claimants. 

Although the total land area of the islands is less than four square kilometres, they are spread over 425,000 square kilometres of sea.   The islands are claimed in their entirety by the People’s Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan) and Vietnam, while Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim some of the islands or EEZ.  As on date eight islands are under Chinese control, one under Taiwanese, eight under Philippines, five under Malaysian control and two under Brunei.  Vietnam controls the most - 29 islands, more than half of the occupied islands.  There have been many skirmishes in the waters off these islands primarily between China and the other claimants.

Till 1980s the dispute in the region was primarily confined to the island groups, but later on started encompassing the entire South China Sea.  Chinese claims to the South China Sea are represented by 11 dotted lines that were shown in a Chinese map in 1947.  Subsequently these 11 dotted lines were changed to nine dotted lines.  The lines are not really based on any maritime law, but on some vague unsubstantiated historical claims.  Under these China has claimed seas up to less than 200 nautical miles from Vietnamese and Philippine coast.  

Both Block 128 and Block 127, which was returned by the ONGC after failing to discover hydrocarbons, are within 200 nm of Vietnamese coast, North East of Ho Chi Minh City.  The blocks are also closer to Vietnamese coast than any of the disputed islands in the South China Sea and are within Vietnam’s EEZ by any rational understanding of the Laws of Sea.  However, the Chinese have been claiming even these areas as their territory. 

Last year an Indian warship on a goodwill visit to Vietnam was told by Chinese Navy at a distance of 45 nautical miles from Vietnamese coast that it was entering Chinese waters.  The ship continued on its path as scheduled and a subsequent Indian statement reiterated its right of innocent passage through international waters.

As stated earlier, ONGC has been operating in waters, which according to international norms are within Vietnam’s EEZ.  However, even if one was to grant that China has any reasonable claim over it, the area would be considered as disputed, but under Vietnam’s control. 

However, disputed nature of a territory has not prevented China from exploiting resources or positioning its men and material including military personnel, in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, a territory, recognized by the Sino-Pak agreement of 1963 as disputed. It therefore has no rationale in asking Indian oil exploration companies to pull out of what the world considers as Vietnam’s EEZ.  

It is therefore quite clear that both morally and legally, India is right, but does it have the military muscle to withstand a conflict there and when it comes to South China Sea, it is the maritime forces that matter.  The Indian maritime forces by and large have a qualitative edge over much larger Chinese navy and air force and this could be decisive in any confrontation with the Chinese forces in the Indian Ocean Region.

However, South China Sea, is a different ball game, the ability of India to deploy its forces 4,661 nautical miles away from its shores is severely limited.  On the other hand closer to Chinese coast, the Chinese numbers and air support from its shore based aircraft will become crucial.  Indian shore based aircraft will be ineffective in this region and Vietnam, although it had repulsed the Chinese aggression on land in 1979, does not have any significant maritime capability to counter the Chinese threat.  

There in lies the catch, India can not take on China in South China Sea, but with international support can make the cost of conflict prohibitive for China.  By and large, China has avoided antagonizing India in recent times and has not opposed either India’s entry into Nuclear Suppliers Group or India’s bid for a permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Even on issues concerning Pakistan, it has recently maintained a neutral posture.   It is also our largest trading partner.  Do we then need to unnecessarily provoke it?

To compound matters it has been reported that after Block 127, ONGC Videsh wants to quit Block 128 also, even though it has spent $ 68 million, as its repeated attempts to drill in the deep sea block have been unsuccessful due to hard sea bed in the area.  

Although, it is for purely economic reasons that ONGC wants to quit the block, it might be perceived by the International community as Indian acquiescence in the face of Chinese pressure.  It must however be appreciated that India and ONGC will continue to have presence in the region even if it quits Block 128.  ONGC Videsh has a 45 per cent stake in another offshore field on the Southern Vietnamese coast, which has been producing gas since 2003.  It has an agreement with PetroVietnam to explore for more oil and gas in the region.  

India and Vietnam share very friendly relations and these relations are in the long term interest of the nation.  Yet, it does not make sense for ONGC to sink in more money on a block that is unlikely to yield any hydrocarbons, just to prove a point to the international community. 

It would however, be prudent for India to inform Beijing that while it values its relations with China, it will not feel inhibited in expanding its strategic relationship with its friends in the region, just because China has an irrational claim, not backed by International Laws on the waters surrounding them.
(Alok Bansal is New Delhi based Security Analyst. The views expressed are his own)

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Can India withstand China’s Pressure in South China Sea?

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