South China Sea, India, Vietnam and China

Competing claims over islands in the South China Sea has been in news in recent few months. It got an India angle when China objected to ONGC Videsh Ltd.’s plans of oil exploration in the Vietnamese areas of South China Sea.

The increasing powerful China has displayed a habit of aggressively over asserting its claims when it comes to territorial disputes.

But China and Vietnam have stayed away from confrontation over disputed waters in the South China Sea. Both the Communist neighbours signed an agreement that will include the setting up of a hotline between the two countries’ capitals to resolve crises and the creation of semiannual talks aimed at finding ‘a mutually acceptable basic and long-term approach to solving maritime disputes’, reported The Diplomat.

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang simultaneously negotiated another agreement in New Delhi on Wednesday that will ensure India’s oil interests and support for Vietnam’s maritime claims.

Vietnam has been trying a complex balancing act. Despite China warning India about getting involved in the South China Sea, both the Indian and Vietnamese leaders have dismissed suggestions that the new agreement is a rebuff to China.

Vietnam has maintained that the projects between Vietnam and other partners, including ONGC, in the field of oil and gas are located on the continental shelf within the exclusive economic zone and under the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of Vietnam, entirely in conformity with international laws, especially the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

However, there is hardly any doubt that energy is playing a critical role in fueling the dispute among the various stakeholders. According to a recent , China estimates potential oil resources as high as 213 billion barrels of oil (bbl) in the South China Sea. Other estimates suggest that the area holds about 900 trillion cubic ft (25 trillion cubic m) of gas reserves.

That is the reason of conflict across a host of areas in South China Sea including the Spratly Islands which consist of about 170 plus land features that are spread over a sea area of about 240,000 square kilometres.

South China Sea countries have resorted to the strategy of confiscating the islands. China has so far confiscated 12 geographical features in the Spratlys, Taiwan one, Vietnam 25, the Philippines eight, and Malaysia five.

The approach of these nations has stalled all hopes of any bilateral or multilateral resolution of the territorial disputes. These territorial disputes, which were hitherto a sovereignty issue, have now grown to encompass a race for natural resources, thus adding another complex dimension to the imbroglio, reported IDSA.

The territorial claims might have a spill over effect on the high seas area in the long term. Legitimacy given to any of the claims over the islands would effectively eliminate the high seas area (see map below) thereby diluting the US and Indian stance on freedom of navigation, erasing the global commons in the region from the map and abrogating UNCLOS both in letter and spirit, reported the IDSA article.

Given China’s interest in maintaining the instability vis-à-vis its weaker maritime neighbours, countries like Vietnam are having a tough time managing the growing challenge of a powerful and assertive China. This is why the Communist Vietnam, comrades tried hard to have India into strategic alliances aimed at balancing and possibly containing the rising superpower.

Vietnam has been showing guts of late. After getting India on board, it did try to appease China, recommitting to joint oil exploration is a bold step. China in any case is critical to Vietnam being its largest trading partner, with a total volume of $27 billion in 2010 – about ten times its $2.7 billion volume with India.

For India, given its issues with China due to China’s deep involvement in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, India has to meet the China challenge by targeting its sensitive spots. Precisely there comes the necessity for India to deepen its engagement with South China Sea countries like Vietnam, the strategy that China follows towards India.



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