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India Wades Into Troubled Waters

India Wades Into Troubled Waters

Source: Wall Street Journal

In his critically acclaimed book on the Indian Ocean last year, author Robert Kaplan warned that with growing Sino-Indian rivalry, the “the Indian Ocean and its adjacent waters will be a central theater of conflict and competition.”

It seems that Kaplan’s prophetic claim was made none too soon. Last week, an editorial in the Global Times, China’s main political mouthpiece, warned Indians against moving forward with their plans of exploring two offshore blocks in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. China alleged that the joint project between the Indian and Vietnamese state-owned oil firms included sections that were under China’s jurisdiction. According to Reuters,

“The report said that if Vietnam and India pursued any joint interest that damaged relations with China “as well as the stability and peaceful economic development of the entire South China Sea region, the losses will outweigh the gains.”

India is seemingly ignoring the rebuke and pushing forth with its plans to drill in the region. New Delhi maintains that the blocks are well within the territory of Vietnam and adhere to all international rules and conventions. Similar sentiments were echoed by Vietnam, which said that such joint projects were “within the sovereign rights and jurisdictional rights of Vietnam.”

The Chinese warnings on Indian involvement in the South China Sea have slowly been escalating over time. In July, an Indian vessel leaving a Vietnam port was contacted by the Chinese navy and cautioned that it was now entering Chinese waters. While the Indian government has played down any talk of confrontation, the Indian Foreign Minister was quick to make a friendly visit to Vietnam – a move that could be construed as a not-so-subtle message to China that India was not backing away from the alliance.

The ongoing drama probably has every realist and balance of power theorist salivating at the prospect of witnessing the 21st century’s version of the ‘Great Game’ in real-time. India has slowly been strengthening her military and economic ties with Vietnam and other South East Asian countries as a buffer against a rising China. As China increases her influence in South Asia – namely, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, New Delhi fears being encircled by the Asian hegemon.

This fear is actively shared by China’s neighbors, including Vietnam and Philippines, who are wary of Beijing’s expansive territorial claims on the South China Sea – an area rich in natural resources, including oil and gas. As the Washington Post recently reported in an article describing the rising feud between the Philippines and China, “China’s insatiable thirst for energy has injected a highly combustible new element into long-running quarrels over cartography, arcane issues of international law and ancient shards of pottery that Beijing says testify to its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.” Beijing would prefer bilateral agreements to settle claims with each of its neighbors, but many are smartly holding out for regional settlements. What Beijing really doesn’t want happening is India nosing around in these already troubled waters and complicating matters.

While the Indian government is standing firm, the view of Indian defense experts seems to vary on the appropriate Indian response. In a lengthy commentary on the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, R S Kalha, a former Secretary with the Ministry of External Affairs, warned against antagonizing China too much, especially since India lacked the military capacity to take on China if push came to shove. Kalha opined:

“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.”

On the other side, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Harsh Pant, a professor of defense studies at King’s College in London, urged India to continue her defiant stance. A firm India and Vietnam, according to Pant, would “force Beijing to moderate its expansionist claims on the South China Sea and adopt a more conciliatory stance on other regional matters.”

While Mr. Pant’s view may seem overly optimistic, perhaps there is still some value in countries standing firm against China. While China may be increasingly playing the role of the school yard bully, it has much to lose economically in the event of an armed conflict. One can only hope that as China notices that its territorial claims are straining its relationship with all its neighbors, some type of introspection will ensue.



Aarti Ramachandran

Aarti Ramachandran is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in International Affairs at Columbia University, New York, where she is specializing in energy policy with an emphasis on South Asia. She previously worked as public and government affairs advisor in the energy industry for five years. She holds a Masters degree in environmental engineering from Northwestern University and a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia.