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SOUTH CHINA SEA: Indian Defence Minister Makes Strong Assertions

Paper No. 5496                                        Dated 20-May-2013

By Dr. Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

The South China Sea region has been converted into a militarily turbulent one due to the illegal claims by China declaring sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.

China in the process has not only resorted to escalated military brinkmanship but also resorted to use of armed force and coercion against its less powerful South East Asian neighbours, namely, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Asian security as a whole today stands endangered by China’s military adventurism not only in the South China Sea against Vietnam and the Philippines, but extending to the Himalayan Borders of India with China- Occupied Tibet. Chinese military adventurism to reinforce its sovereignty over disputed borders is by now a well-established pattern.

 India has a legitimate strategic interest in the South China Sea region encompassing political, economic and strategic factors. At the ASEAN-India Summit in New Delhi in December 2012, India had declared its position on the South China Sea disputes in consonance with the global sentiments.

Reiteration of India’s stand on the South China Sea conflicts should be a pointer that India stands firmly against any Chinese actions that violate international laws and UN Conventions. The recent assertions by the Indian Defence Minister, A K Antony were a welcome reiteration and reassurance and should go down well in South East Asian countries that look upon India as the regional balancer against China’s hegemonistic inclinations against its Southern neighbours.

Indian Defence Minister’s Assertions on South China Sea Security

Voicing concerns over China’s actions in the South China Sea region, the Indian Defence Minister addressing media persons on May 11, 2013 made the following assertions:

  • “There should be freedom of navigation as per the UN conventions.”
  • “India has commercial interests and though it is not a party to the dispute, it believes that disputes should be settled as per UN laws.”
  • “The protection of Sea-Lanes of Communication is becoming more and more important. Economic development, trade and commerce depend on the security of Sea Lanes of Communication”

Indian Defence Minister’s Assertions Analysed

Taken at face value, the assertions made by the Indian Defence Minister’s may not count much and may not be counted as strong assertions. But coming from the Indian Defence Minister who is noted for his reticence and measured words, there are a lot of implicit messages for China on its aggressive postures on the South China Sea issues. Political signalling can therefore be read in these assertions.

Emphasis on UN Conventions and dispute/conflict resolution as per UN Laws (read UNCLOS) by the Indian Defence Minister clashes diametrically with China’s rigidly stated positions that the South China Sea disputes will be resolved by China only through “bilateral negotiations” with the other disputants. This simply because in a bi-lateral process China can bring to bear its awesome military coercion in play against small countries like Vietnam and the Philippines.

India’s opposition to China’s declaratory stands is therefore noteworthy. It is more noteworthy in the sense that such assertions by US dignitaries earlier drew strong protests from China as interference in its internal affairs. The United States ignored these protests. It is time that India too discards its deference to Chinese sensitivities.

Further, the assertion on freedom of navigation is in keeping with international pronouncements of commitments to “defence of global commons” Implicit in such international stands is the message for China that the South China Sea is a global heritage which cannot be consigned to the ‘full sovereignty over the whole South China Sea’ as declared by China. The Chinese stand apparently is being challenged by India in an implied manner along with the rest of the Asian community.

Protection of Sea Lanes of Communication that pass through the South China Sea can be read as India fears genuinely, as the rest of the world does, that China could threaten these vital maritime lifelines and that the global community has to take initiatives to forestall that threat. Can one read in this assertion by the Indian Defence Minister that India would be inclined to join any international effort to ensure that the South China Sea maritime arteries remain open without any restrictions or impediments by China?

More significantly, what needs to be considered is the contextual backdrop where the Indian Defence Minister was making the above assertions on the South China Sea.

These assertions by the Indian Defence Minister were not made at any Seminar or discussion event on the South China Sea conflict but these Indian concerns were expressed to media-persons after commissioning the first ship-deck based super-sonic jet fighter, the MIG 29K Squadron at Goa comprising 18 jet fighters for the Indian Navy. A total of 45 MIG 29K supersonic jet fighters have been purchased from Russia at a cost of over $ 2 Billion.

Contextually, these assertions by the Indian Defence Minister were made on the eve of the Chinese Prime Minister’s visit to India. Also they coincide with recent media reports of India upgrading its maritime surveillance and operational capabilities and infrastructure in South India for extended coverage of the Indian Ocean sea-lanes and threats.

The Indian Defence Minister also informed the media that India’s first indigenously built Aircraft Carrier would be launched on August 12 this year and the INS VIKRAMADITYA would arrive from Russia before the end of 2013.

In a context other than the South China Sea, but at the same event and with China still in mind, it was reassuring to hear the Indian Defence Minister declare that “As China has the right to improve, increase and strengthen and other facilities on its land; India has the right to develop its own infrastructure.”  

India’s Commercial Interest in the South China Sea.

While on the subject of India’s legitimate strategic interests in the South China Sea, it needs to be remembered that India’s energy security quest led it also to set up a joint exploration project with Vietnam in two oil exploration blocks numbered 127&128 in Phu Khanh Basin.

 Some quarters have wrongly reported that India’s oil-exploration projects are in disputed waters. That is the Chinese version. It needs to be clarified that these Indian oil exploration projects which China protested against are located in South China Sea waters in Vietnam’s jurisdiction and not Chinese jurisdiction. Hence China’s protests are not tenable when the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas are kept in mind.

China neither has de-facto nor de-jure jurisdiction over the entire South China Sea. By unilateral and illegal declarations of its Nine Dashed Line, China cannot order all international oil-prospecting projects in the South China Sea region to stop their operations.

 Concluding Observations

India may not be a party to the dispute in the South China Sea as regards the sovereignty of the disputed islands is concerned, but India should consider itself as a legitimate stake-holder in the security and stability of the South China Sea.

In the above context therefore, India as a major maritime power in the Indo-Pacific Region must consider that no major power including China is allowed to resort to aggressive military brinkmanship to redraw maps to establish China’s full sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. Tomorrow China would start claiming some portions of the Indian Ocean on historical grounds that some Chinese Admiral’s fleet traversed those areas centuries ago.

India to begin with may not be able to perform this task single-handedly. In tandem with its preparations for building up its maritime power, India must politically be more vocal in embedding in international consciousness that Asian stability and security stands endangered if China is allowed a free run in riding rough-shod over the sovereignty and legal claims of its smaller neighbours like Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

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