11.07.2013 Author: Nina Lebedeva

India in the South China Sea: Interests, Targets and Prospects. Part 1

South-China-Sea-400x299 (1)In recent years India has shown rapid growth and under current conditions of competition exacerbation in the military, political and economic area of Asia-Pacific Region assessment of its position and role in the present events appears to be interesting in respect for objective estimation of the resultant international climate.

South China Sea (SCS) year after year gains crucial importance in the form of strategic access from the Indian Ocean to Atlantic Ocean by virtue of oil-transit three times larger than Suez Canal and will even double by 2020 as the source of oil and gas large stocks. Owing to the specified factors the incompatible interests of too many countries are tightened here since 2008-2009 and as a result the territorial disputes and the conflicts of the regional level become global.

The ships of the Indian Naval Forces appeared here for the first time at a turn of the Millennium. This fact raised a number of questions – why, with what purpose, for what time, etc. The answers for these questions are intimately connected with their presence and the course started by India in 1991 “Look to the East”, which was aimed at the realization of the wide range of the Indian economic, strategic and political interests and tasks in the region. Directly in the South China Sea Delhi assumed to create not just the zone of expanded influence, but also the strategic platform for the specific providing of:

- liberty to navigation for 55% of its goods delivery to North-East Asia;

- access for the Indian companies to the prospecting of oil and gas fields in waters of Vietnam and to production of oil in the shelf of Sakhalin since 2001 that is necessary for the energy security of the country;

- passage to Himandri’s sole research polar base in the Arctic getting the strategic and resource importance, etc.

As far as the purposes of the course “Look to the East” second phase became more involved and profound, there appeared another interest in:

- strengthening of the political and strategic relations with the ASEAN states, a bit later with South Korea, Japan and Australia;

- achievement of sea spaces partial control by means of joint maneuvers mode and strategic passages patrol, ship teams visits exchange and “flag” demonstration, etc. for traditional and non-traditional threats safety in such complex region at the joint of two oceans.

When the course “Look to the East” outgrew into India’s aspiration to enter the level of global, including sea global, state and the formulation of wider East direction providing with the active participation in promising integration trends in the Mediterranean of the XXI century (that is how APR was now called due to the shift of economic development global centers to this region), the interests and the purposes of the country were considerably enriched. After initial participation in the EAS in December, 2005 thanks to support of ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, and India intensified the interest in:

- further activation of strategic interrelations with the countries of North-East and East Asia;

- more effective presence of Naval Forces in the western part of the Pacific Ocean aimed at balancing the Chinese activism in the South China Sea and East China Sea and to realize the principles of the sea strategy of 2007 upgraded version “High Seas Freedom: the Naval Strategy of India”, providing the national interests protection in the World Ocean;

- finally, the overcoming of the existing paradox of India’s expulsion as the third economy of Asia and 8th economy of the world from such largest structure of economic cooperation, as APEC, etc.

Certainly, the SCS is a kind of “window”, the most convenient and, perhaps, the only optimum passage to APR, the absence of which will close the door for the India’s specified purposes solution. India prepared the conditions for APR access here rather successfully, having reached the gateway to a number of ports and bases of the coastal countries (Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, etc.) and having established a mode of strategic partnership with many of them.

India’s measures in respect for the further progress in APR, the gain of the Pacific positions (the first long material stay of the Navy group in the western part of the Pacific Ocean in 2007, the joint maneuvers with the regional countries, and first of all with the USA, including in Alaska, the creation of the post of the officer of communication at PAKOM in Hawaii, etc.) cause the most lively discussions among the experts and specialists in foreign affairs.

Their persuasions are not ambiguous as for the definition of the place and the role of India in APR. So, the American Mac-Dugal limited the role of India to the interaction with APR states in different directions. The Indian H.Pant, professor of London University Royal College, claimed that India is already the chief actor at political arena of APR along with the USA, China and Japan. London University researcher Brunel D. Scott is apt to a more modest assessment – India became the player of the regional international relations. Finally, U.S.Ledvig from Oxford believes that the influence and the presence of India are most significantly felt in the South-East Asia and recently in the SCS.

It is possible to agree with the last conclusion. But it is necessary to recognize that India already gave many unambiguous signals concerning its ambitious aspirations on APR entrance and what is more important – it made actual steps in this direction. And these are not just interactions, but something more significant. It appears that India does not intend to stop here.

Several factors work in favor of the East Asian and Pacific player capacity development made by India:

- the efficiency of the course “Look to the East”, which moved the country from the category of the South Asian and Indo-ocean state to the wider range;

- the constructive nature of Delhi participation in EAS and other structures of regional cooperation;

- the depth of the strategic interactions with the leading countries of APR – the USA, Japan, Australia, South Korea and the members of ASEAN;

- the association of the considerable part of the Indian Ocean with APR according to the US new doctrine of 2011 “America’s pacific Century “, that gave the legitimacy to the Pacific status of India – the geographically peripheral state.

Delhi recognizes the complexity of various internal social and economic restrictions overcoming on the way of Indian interests and goals realization, the necessity to expand the geostrategic and political positions in the APR. India should make considerable efforts on strengthening of its role in the SCS, including the fight against pirates and terrorists, and to justify the allowance that was provided to it by the ASEAN countries, Japan and South Korea, having supported its course in many directions, in particular in the entrance to APEC, UNSC, etc.

Meanwhile, the realization of the course found a certain resistance of China. Beijing did not welcome Delhi’s participation in EAS and other multilateral structures (for example in ASEM, probably in APEC in future), along with India’s wish to become the permanent member of UNSC. The Celestial Empire criticized and underestimated the efficiency of the course “Look to the East”, as well as the aspiration of India to become the global power, trying to limit the affected area and interests of India by the borders of the Southern Asia or the Indian Ocean. China showed the displeasure concerning the statement of India in 2011 about its intention to locate in the SCS and to direct a group of destroyers. The contradictions between the parties in the area of energy production where India appeared the participant of the old dispute between Vietnam and China in the SCS were the most significant (the rivalry cases because of resources arose between Delhi and Beijing in other regions of the world as well – in Myanmar, in Central Asia, in Latin America).

The events developed in the SCS with lightning rapidity. The incident with the Indian ship Eravat on July 22, 2011 served the occasion for stirring up a battle. It came back after a good will visit from Vietnam and was in the Vietnamese waters, but was nevertheless stopped and, on some sources, even attacked by fire from the Chinese boats. The similar case repeated 11 months later with the ship of the Indian Navy Shivalik after the same pattern.

It is to be recalled that in 2010 at the ASEAN Forum India was among 12 of 27 participants who supported the position of the USA on the multilateral approach to the solution of the dispute in the SCS. After the specified collision India confirmed again its strong commitment to navigation liberty in the SCS at the end of July, 2011 in the speech of the Secretary General on foreign affairs Nirupama Rao in the National sea fund in Delhi.

In September, 2011 during the visit to Hanoi the Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs declared the India’s decision to continue the search by the Indian Oil and Gas company (ONGC) in blocks 127 and 128 in Nam Kon Son basin at the coast of Vietnam. In October, 2011 India signed the duplicative agreement with Vietnam, which has the similar partner agreements with 60 countries.

In November of the same year the Chinese party responded to this act with a tough claim for the Indian companies obligatory licensing from Beijing on the development of the disputed sites, as it considered the agreement to be illegal and breaking the Chinese sovereignty in these water spaces of the SCS, having declared 80% of them as its own. At the same time the opposition of Hanoi and Beijing ships along with the information war began, the positions of the People’s Republic of China concerning Japan and Philippines on other territorial disputes became also tougher, that is contrary to the common regional interests and interests of the USA.

Indian leaders ignored the demarche of China and decided to continue the prospecting in the SCS at the provided sites according to the principles of its own sea strategy of 2007 and the standard international law on the access to resources. Essentially the developing situation conducted to acts of the “cold war” between the participants of the dispute who could destabilize the situation both in the SCS and in APR.

But in May, 2012 during the session of the Indian Parliament the Deputy Minister of oil and gas R.P.N.Singkh declared the ONGC’s sign off the project at one of the sites because of its economic inexpediency. In June of the same year Vietnam prolonged the prospecting period at other site and offered the joint studying, which was accepted by India. Such decision of Vietnam could mean the comprehension of the importance of India’s presence in the SCS for the strategic balance in conditions when the Chinese National offshore oil company (CNOOC) initiated the granting of 9 blocks for the foreign prospecting in waters of Vietnam as it considered them to be its own. Since 2015 Beijing planned to extract 15 billion cubic meter of gas annually from fields in the SCS.

India was not the direct participant of the dispute, but it indirectly initiated the new stage of the long and inert opposition of Beijing and Hanoi. The admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi declared the readiness of India to send the military ships to the SCS for Indian power interests and specialists working at the field Nam Kon Son protection.

In retort since January 1, 2013 China initiated the introduction of the new rule to examine foreign ships in the waters that it considers randomly enough to be its own. Washington denounced the plans of Beijing about the examination of foreign vessels in the SCS.

(To be continued)

Nina Lebedeva, the leading researcher of the Indian Research Centre of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, especially for the Internet magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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