The last two years have seen increasingly combative rhetoric and muscle-flexing by China in its offshore island disputes with proximate neighbours in the South China Seas (SCS). These islands, together with the seabed underneath have significant strategic and economic value. Hence none of the claimant countries, including China, have compromised on sovereignty issues over control of these islands. By refusing to call off the joint exploration by ONGC Videsh with Vietnam around an island group controlled by the latter in the Paracels, India has shown that it is up to the plate in protecting its vital economic stakes in the SCS.
Apart from important marine life and other natural resources, the Paracel and Spratly group of islands are rich in gas and oil. India imports 80% of its energy requirements and needs to diversify its oil supply sources. As per the EIA's International Energy Outlook, April 2011 predictions, the global economy will continue to remain critically dependent on oil, at least up to 2035. In both India and China, energy use will rise by 118%. With its population set to grow to 1.57 billion by 2050, India needs an abundant supply of oil that fuels its economy.
The SCS straddles the most important Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), with the world's largest trade passing through it. It houses the world's most rapidly developing economies and markets. The importance of these offshore islands in the SCS grew in the 1970s when the first oil explorations commenced. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS) conferred maritime rights and assertion of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) based on the control of offshore islands. Ever since, these islands have become more important as territorial markers with claimant nations rushing to 'fix' their sea borders and grab maximum EEZ for themselves. There have been clashes between claimant countries in the last four decades in 1974, 1988 and 1994. China has been the common factor in all these clashes.
The last three months have seen the SCS becoming a hotspot again; on May 26, three Chinese patrol boats damaged the cables of a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship off the coast of Phu Yen province; Philippines objected to Chinese ships depositing construction material around the Amy Douglas Band in the Spratlys; in the wake of tensions, the US deployed USS Chung-Hoon in the Western Pacific. Incidentally, the US Department of Defence in its 2012 view of strategic challenges, has put Korea-Taiwan-SCS as its second biggest challenge.
Meanwhile, Philippines decided to rename the islands it claims as 'West Philippines Sea'. China, on its part, warned the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) not to include SCS in the East Asian Summit to be held in Indonesia on November 19, 2011, where the US is participating for the first time.
Commensurate with its growing economic and maritime denial and control capabilities, China has been ratcheting up its intransigence, adding SCS to its growing list of 'core interests'. It maintains it has 'indisputable sovereignty' over these offshore islands. It agreed to a code of conduct in 2002, without forsaking its 'sovereignty rights' over them. It agreed to joint development without prejudice to its 'sovereignty rights'. It agrees to bilateral discussions with individual countries but not Asean as a whole. It steadfastly warns Asean from bringing in the US as a negotiator in the dispute.
India must be mindful that the SCS represents an uncertain but dynamic environment, where the Chinese People's Liberation Army armed with lethal arsenals of anti-ship cruise and anti-ship ballistic missiles, attack submarines, patrol boats and missiles destroyers is playing an assertive role.
It will have to watch whether this upward spiral by China is a temporary phase, coinciding with US distraction in other issues. It will have to indulge in consummate diplomacy and use its considerable trade leverages with China, besides crafting a credible and deterrent maritime strategy in cooperation with some of the Asean countries in the event that China does not play ball. India should also seek greater participation in the various multilateral institutions in South East Asia.
(Rohit Singh is an associate fellow at Delhi's Centre for Land Warfare Studies. The views expressed by the author are personal.)