Friday, September 16, 2011



( To be read in continuation of my article of September 2,2011, titled “INS Airavat Incident: What does it Portend?” at )

China has reacted ---moderately through a spokesperson of its Foreign Office and somewhat virulently through the Party-controlled “Global Times”--- to reports that India has been considering an offer from Vietnam to award oil and gas exploration bids over two blocks in the South China Sea to India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL). These blocks presently come under the de facto control of Vietnam, which also claims de jure sovereignty over the blocks under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982.

2. Vietnamese claims of de jure sovereignty have been rejected by China, but accepted by India as would be evident from the following reported comment of a spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India : “The Chinese had concerns but we are going by what the Vietnamese authorities have told us and have conveyed this to the Chinese.”

3. The Chinese spokesperson, without referring to India by name, has stated as follows: “ China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island. China's stand is based on historical facts and international law. China's sovereign rights and positions are formed in the course of history and this position has been held by Chinese Government for long. On the basis of this China is ready to engage in peaceful negotiations and friendly consultations to peacefully solve the disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights so as to positively contribute to peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea area. We hope that the relevant countries respect China's position and refrain from taking unilateral action to complicate and expand the issue. We hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve the bilateral disputes through bilateral channels. As for oil and gas exploration activities, our consistent position is that we are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China's jurisdiction. We hope the foreign countries do not get involved in South China Sea dispute.”

4. The “Global Times” (September 16 ), which does not necessarily represent the views of the Chinese Government and reflects more the views of conservative sections in the Communist Party of China, has been less measured in its comments and has talked of the need to confront the Indian move more vigorously.

5. As I had pointed out in my article cited above, there are two issues involved in the so-called South China Sea dispute.The first is its status as international and not Chinese waters and the second is the conflicting claims of sovereignty made by China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in the region over the island territories found in the Sea.

6. The US has so far been following a policy of rejecting Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire Sea while not getting involved in the various disputes over the claims of sovereignty over the island territories. Indian policy closely converged with that of the US. It rejected the Chinese projection of the Sea as a whole as Chinese waters. It took steps to develop its strategic relations with Vietnam. It asserted the rights of the ships of the Indian Navy to transit the South China Sea during their visits to Vietnamese ports without the need to inform China beforehand or ask for Chinese permission.

7. At the same time, India rightly observed a nuanced silence on the dispute over the island territories. Now, for the first time, India is seeking to take a position on the island territories under the de facto control of Vietnam by accepting Vietnamese claims of de jure sovereignty over them.

8. This is a position with inherent seeds of an undesirable military confrontation between India and China in the South China Sea itself and subsequently or simultaneously across the land borders between the two countries. India is still in the process of strengthening its military-related infrastructure near the Chinese border. In my assessment, it will take India from five to 10 years to bring its infrastructure on par with that of China in Tibet.

9.The reach and strength of the Indian Navy in the South China Sea is far behind that of the US. The US is in a position to engage China in a naval confrontation in the South China Sea, but it realises that such a confrontation could be counter-productive. That is why it has been observing a neutral stand on the island territories.

10. The implications of the reported Indian move to accept Vietnamese claims of sovereignty and to consider favourably the Vietnamese invitation to undertake oil and gas exploration do not appear to have been carefully considered by the Government of India. China has been opposing with determination repeated Vietnamese moves to undertake explorations for natural resources around the island territories under its de facto control. It is likely to oppose any move by the Indian company to undertake exploration in the area.

11. We have seen that Vietnam has not been able to counter effectively Chinese disruptions of its exploration activities. It will not be able to provide adequate protection to the Indian company. Will we be able to keep a permanent presence of the Indian Navy in the area to protect the operations of the Indian company? Will it be able to counter Chinese attempts to disrupt the operations of the Indian company?

12. The ultimate result may be a confrontation with China in the seas adjacent to the Chinese mainland which India cannot hope to win and an over-all deterioration in Sino-Indian relations at a time when India is not yet prepared for a full-blown confrontation with China.

13. Some analysts have projected the Indian move as a tit-for-tat response to Chinese troops moving into the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistani occupation to assist Pakistan in the development of its infrastructure in an area over which India claims sovereignty.

14. The Gilgit-Baltistan area is legitimately ours. The Chinese have no business to be there. We have many options for countering them and for making their foray into the area prohibitively costly and bloody for them. Instead of identifying those options and undertaking them, we should not try to confront the Chinese in the South China Sea, which is not India’s cup of tea. ( 17-9-11)

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: . Twitter: @SORBONNE75 )


Krishna Kacker said...

Entirely agree that India must weigh its options properly before deciding its course of action in South China Sea.There must NOT be a repeat of 1962, when we decided to "Throw out the Chinese" without weighing our strengths and weaknesses.We do not a Naval presence in that part of the world;nor can we envisage to have one in the near future.In the event of any conflict, how do we propose to tackle the situation there?Any retreat either physical or even diplomatic has a demoralising effect and must be avoided.We should be pragmatic and see if we can use this as an opportunity to get something out of the chinese, say in Gilgit Baltistan, as the article suggests.

ambi said...

arre guruji, yeh pange toh ek na ek din hone hi hain! darna kaisa? i dont think there ll be any conflict from either side right now. bindaas aagey badho. kuch nahin hoga! situation does not leave any scope for chinese aggression right now.

kavaserian said...

i support india's stance. the chinese, on their part, cannot go beyond all the bluster. They have enough troubles in their northwest, tibet and interior to dare think of a confrontation now in the south china sea. -kvk

Esoteric said...

My two cents.

UPA acting against China to continue in good books of US.(US indicating its support to Modi,recalls diplomat etc..)

Confrontation inevitable,just a matter of time.India wont be given 5-10yr to build capacity.

Target is to dent China's hard power and balkanise India.

Paresh said...

China got drilling rights in the Indian Ocean by approaching some United Nations authority on undersea exploration. Why can't India do the same in South China sea? That would give India undeniable legitimacy. If china throws a spanner in that plan, we use the same tactics to stop them exploring in the Indian ocean...

In any case, I support India messing up in China's backyard. Lets prick them without actually confronting them! After all that's what they have been doing to India all these years.......

shaan said...

In earlier articles you have indicated that India has to bring pressure on China in South East Asia. Now you are contradicting yourself.

It is true that it is risky. But are you sure that India would be on par with China after 5 to 10 years? By then China may have at least 3 aircraft carriers and may have built more military infrastructure and railway lines in Tibet. At that time China may have a substantial presence in the Indian Ocean and may have completed a pipeline from the Middle East via PoK and Xinjiang. Now if the Chinese have upper hand in South China sea, we have upper hand in the Indian Ocean. We have the ability to disrupt their trade. But if we wait for 5 to 10 years any pressure on them even in the Indian Ocean may not be effective.

We should make the Chinese understand that interference in Kashmir is costly. If we withdraw now the countries in South East Asia may see it as a sign of weakness by one of the big military powers in Asia and may doubt their own ability to confront the Chinese. As a result they may surrender to the Chinese rather than oppose them. The result will be an unopposed Chinese hegemony in South East Asia. Then China will be free to turn its attention towards India.

Caution is important but cowardice cannot be an option.

vblord said...

Dear Sir,
An excellent article and I completely agree with you that this looks like the forward policy of 1962. We do not have the hardware on land or sea to sustain a war with China.
Army strategist believe in an event of a attack we will have to fall back and will loose many parts of North-east, thus it is bravado bordering on insanity to instigate China.
Plus China is looking for an excuse to start a conflict , if it waits for 5 years, IAF and Indian Army will be too strong thus, I believe it is slowly increasing the stakes and forcing India to react, thus giving it an excuse for war.
Yes if China does come then we shall fight till the last man/women irrespective of the consequence, Chinese will find the summer of 20XX different from 1962.
USA on its part has no strategy to help India out thus forget USA we will be alone against China and most probably its lackey the Pakis