The reported face-off between an Indian warship and a Chinese naval vessel in the South China Sea in July — played down by both New Delhi and Beijing — has brought China's growing maritime assertiveness back on to the centrestage.
The ministry of external affairs on Thursday confirmed that a caller identifying himself as "Chinese Navy" contacted INS Airavat over radio, cautioning that the amphibious assault vessel was entering Chinese waters.
Navy sources said the Indian warship was in international waters, 50 nautical miles (92 km) off China's Hainan island, home to a strategic submarine base. Territorial waters extend only up to 12 nautical miles (22 km).
An MEA official said: "India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law."
He denied any confrontation involving INS Airavat.
The warship was on a friendly visit to Vietnam from July 19 to July 28. It was sailing from the port of Nha Trang towards Hai Phong on July 22 when the reported confrontation took place, 45 nautical miles (83 km) off the Vietnamese coast.
Beijing, which tends to be categorical in its denial, was circumspect. "China has not received representation from any other country," foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu.
Indian officials say New Delhi prefers not to publicly take sides in the South China Sea territorial dispute and has avoided saying whether it thinks the INS Airavat was in the high seas.
Meanwhile, in a separate development, Air force chief Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne on Thursday said India was not worried about US reports on China reportedly deploying nuclear-capable missiles along its borders.