China’s Muscle Flexing in the South China Sea

While the India-China relationship has been reasonably stable at the strategic level, it is marked by Chinese political, diplomatic and military aggressiveness at the tactical level. It is well know that Chinese transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas have been fairly common in recent years. Late in July, the Chinese PLA Navy had confronted an Indian Navy ship, INS Airawat, sailing in international waters off the coast of Vietnam asking it to back off from Chinese waters. Some weeks ago, Chinese are troops are reported to have entered Indian territory and destroyed some observations bunkers in the Nyoma sector in Ladakh. The latest manifestation of this incomprehensible aggressiveness is China’s muscle flexing in the South China Sea over the grant of a licence by Vietnam to India’s ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) to prospect for oil and gas in two blocks of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
 

 

China’s state-run news agency Xinhua is reported to have said that India oil and gas exploration activities could ‘poison’ relations between the two countries. According to Xinhua, "Aggressive overseas explorations from the Indian side in the highly sensitive sea, over which China enjoys indisputable sovereignty, might poison its relationship with China, which has been volatile and at times strained. The Indian government should be cool-headed and refrain from making a move that saves a little only to lose a lot." An editorial in the Global Times, a Communist  Party daily, warned India that any cooperation with Vietnam will amount to serious political provocation that could push relations with China ‘to the limit’.

In fact, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its belligerent occupation of some of the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands, are of concern to all its regional neighbours and are a major cause of instability as important sea-lanes of communication (SLOCs) linking Northeast and Southeast Asia pass through the South China Sea. China claims ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the sea and views it as a sea that has special strategic significance because of its location and economic potential.

Since India’s ‘look east’ policy began to take shape in the mid-1990s, India has been gradually enhancing its political, economic and military engagement with Vietnam. Although no major arms transfers have as yet taken place, India has been training Vietnamese officer cadets and NCOs at its military academies and is steadily enlarging the scope of military-to-military cooperation. China views this relationship as a US-India joint effort to contain China and complicate stability around its periphery.

For once the government of India has taken a tough stand, contrary to the normal practice of appeasing China. India and Vietnam have decided to disregard China’s warning of a poisoned relationship and to go ahead with OVL's exploration in accordance with international rules and conventions. S M Krishna, India’s External Affairs Minister and Ms Pham Binh Minh, his Vietnamese counterpart, met in Hanoi last week and agreed to extend their cooperation in the economic and defence sectors.

While China is engaged in the strategic encirclement of India through India’s land neighbours in the north and its ‘string of pearls’ strategy in the Indian Ocean, India has till now had no leverages to pressurise China with a quid pro quo response. Recent military overtures towards Vietnam, including the proposed sale of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile developed jointly with Russia, and the heightened engagement with Japan and South Korea, appear to be aimed at building just such pressure points. Vietnam is a fiercely independent state that brought the Chinese PLA juggernaut to a grinding halt in the border skirmish of 1979 and is an ideal strategic partner for India in South East Asia.