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South China Sea: New Arena of Sino-Indian Rivalry

A worrisome tussle is underway over the South China Sea. China is preparing to auction off two sections that are widely recognized to fall within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, 200 nautical miles offshore, even after Hanoi turned the exploration rights over to India. The discord between China and India is not limited to maritime border and exploration rights, argues Harsh V. Pant of King’s College, but reflects “strategic rivalry between two rising powers in the Asian landscape.” China is boxing India into a corner, Pant claims, forcing it to defend freedom of navigation, international law, relationships with other East Asian states and its own credibility as a rising power. China’s aggressive moves, reaching far into the Indian Ocean while claiming sovereignty for the South China Sea, could be at odds with its own long-term interests, spreading uncertainty and mistrust among neighbors. It could only cement its reputation as a regional bully and rally other states, reinforcing desire for a trouble-free South China Sea. – YaleGlobal

South China Sea: New Arena of Sino-Indian Rivalry

China ignores India’s exploration, puts Vietnam’s oil block up for global bid
Harsh V. Pant
YaleGlobal, 2 August 2012
Chinese gauntlet: China sends a ‘combat ready’ patrol to the South China Sea, protecting its claimed resources (top); Indian State Oil Company (ONGC) says it will continue its joint venture in exploring oil and gas (below) 

LONDON: While the world focuses on the rising tension between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, Beijing and Delhi are also engaged in a quiet struggle in the contested waters. By putting up for international bidding the same oil block that India had obtained from Vietnam for exploration, China has thrown down a gauntlet. By deciding to stay put in the assigned block, India  has indicated it’s ready to take up the Chinese challenge. At stake is Chinese opposition to India’s claim to be a regional power. 

The conflict between India and China over the South China Sea has been building for more than a year. India signed an agreement with Vietnam in October 2011 to expand and promote oil exploration in South China Sea and has now reconfirmed its decision to carry on despite the Chinese challenge to the legality of Indian presence.

By accepting the Vietnamese invitation to explore oil and gas in Blocks 127 and 128, India’s state-owned oil company ONGC Videsh Ltd, or OVL, not only expressed New Delhi’s desire to deepen its friendship with Vietnam, but ignore China’s warning to stay away. After asking countries “outside the region” to stay away from the South China Sea, China issued a demarche to India in November 2011, underlining that Beijing’s permission should be sought for exploration in Blocks 127 and 128 and, without it, OVL’s activities would be considered illegal. Vietnam, meanwhile had underlined the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to claim its sovereign rights over the two blocks being explored.

India decided to go by the Vietnam’s claims and ignore China’s objections.

Despite a Vietnamese invitation to India, China objects to Indian exploration projects in South China Sea.

China has been objecting to the Indian exploration projects in the region, claiming that the territory comes under its sovereignty. Whereas India continues to maintain that its exploration projects in the region are purely commercial, China has viewed such activities as an issue of sovereign rights.

India’s moves unsettled China, which views India’s growing engagement in East Asia with suspicion. India’s decision to explore hydrocarbons with Vietnam followed a July 2011 incident during which an unidentified Chinese warship demanded that a INS Airavat, an amphibious assault vessel, identify itself and explain its presence in the South China Sea after leaving Vietnamese waters. Completing a scheduled port call in Vietnam, the Indian warship was in international waters.

After an initial show of defiance, India showed second thoughts. In May, India’s junior oil minister R.P.N. Singh told the Parliament that OVL had decided to return Block 128 to Vietnam as exploration there wasn’t commercially viable. Hanoi publicly suggested that New Delhi’s decision was a response to pressure from China. In July 2012, after Vietnam gave OVL more incentives in terms of a longer period to prove commercial viability, India decided to continue the joint exploration. Vietnam decided to extend the OVL contract for hydrocarbon exploration in block 128, reiterating that it valued India’s presence in the South China Sea for regional strategic balance.

In June 2012, state-owned China National Offshore Oil Company, or CNOOC, opened nine blocks for exploration in waters also claimed by Vietnam. Oil block 128, which Vietnam argues is inside its 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone granted under the UN Law of the Sea, is part of the nine blocks offered for global bidding by CNOOC.

China has forced India into a corner, putting up for global bidding Vietnamese petroleum block 128.

By putting up for global bidding a Vietnamese petroleum block under exploration by an Indian oil company, China has forced India into a corner. That India would not be cowed by Chinese maneuvers came during the July ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh. There, India made a strong case for supporting not only freedom of navigation but also access to resources in accordance with principles of international law. New Delhi, which so often likes to sit on margins and avoid taking sides, must assume it can no longer afford the luxury of inaction if it wants to preserve credibility as a significant actor in both East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Like other major powers, India is concerned about China’s challenge to the free access to the waters of the South China Sea. The South China Sea passage is too vital for trade and international security to be controlled by a single country.

Meanwhile, China has been doing its best to roil the waters in the South China Sea. Concerns have been rising about China’s claim to the ownership to much of the South China Sea waters and the Chinese Navy’s assertive behavior in the region. China has decided to establish a military garrison on Woody Island in the Paracels in a latest attempt to assert claims over the region. China’s Defence Ministry has openly warned that “combat ready” Chinese naval and air patrols are ready to “protect our maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea.

In a bold display of power and with the help of its friend Cambodia, China prevented ASEAN from even issuing a joint statement for the first time in the organization’s 45-year history. China succeeded in playing divide-and-rule politics, thereby ensuring that the dispute remains a bilateral matter between Beijing and individual rival claimants.

If China can expand its presence in the Indian Ocean region, India can do the same in South China Sea waters.

When China suggests that it would like to extend its territorial waters – which usually extend 12 nautical miles from shore – to include the entire exclusive economic zone, extending 200 nautical miles, it is challenging the fundamental principle of free navigation. All maritime powers, including India, have a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea. China has collided with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Philippines in recent months over issues related to the exploitation of East China Sea and South China Sea for mineral resources and oil.

India’s interest in access to Vietnam’s energy resources puts it in direct conflict with China’s claims over the territory. In an ultimate analysis, this issue is not merely about commerce and energy. It is about strategic rivalry between two rising powers in the Asian landscape. If China can expand its presence in the Indian Ocean region, as New Delhi anticipates, India can also do the same in South China Sea waters. As China’s power grows, it will test India’s resolve for maintaining a substantive presence in the South China Sea.

India has so far been a passive observer amidst growing maritime tensions and territorial claims in the region. But now after expanding its footprints in the South China Sea, New Delhi must come to terms with China’s regional prowess. The challenge for New Delhi is to match strategic ambition realistically with appropriate resources and capabilities.


Harsh V. Pant teaches in King’s College, London.

Rights:Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

28 August 2012
I'm not easily ipmeressd but you've done it with that posting.
-Taran , ErZnGeJsJbjqpaeJck
17 August 2012
There is always a way to say something out of fear or suspicion. Fear what China will do once it successfully claims sovereignty over SCS. Suspect what China will do once it successfully claims sovereignty over SCS.
Is there is any fear or suspicion of what Israel will do if it (probably already does) has nuclear weapons? Has anybody made any noises about it? Does anybody with any kind of influence on the world stage ever want to hear and spread the noises? Silence is the answer. Silence is our choice.
-John King , USA
11 August 2012
Are you or are you not; that is the question facing these two nations.
In the case of India, the answer clearly is yes. Are the the world's largest and its greatest democracy, Yes India! That is simply a fact that the world has to be stuffed down its throat. Are you a super power? Yes India! India is the world's only supah dupah super power. Is the world submitting to our Hindus Colossus? Yes India. Is the world begging our 5 rupee meal middle classes. Yes India! Is the world bowing down to our super powers? Yes India! We have got so many super powers, the world is not enough.
These are the simple facts about India. My China friends, can you measure up? All the answers to these questions are are resounding no.
So do not compare India to China. India's high tech industries are sweeping the world, and are destroying the likes of IBM, HP, Microsoft, BMW, and Toyota. India's super aircraft carriers are patrolling the world's seven seas and scaring the pants off the Somalian and Ethiopian pirates. India's companies have been conquering the world by acquiring such jewels of the West such as Corvus, Jacquare, and Dassault by turning around these former money pits into hugely profitable businesses.
Even more recently India had contributed 10Billion US dollars, a small drop in our vast forex reserves by the way, to rescue Europe, while the US and England contributed precisely naught. When our prime minister speaks, the heads of the rest of these minor states such as Germany, Japan, China, and the US listen respectfully, even if his English may not always being perfectly understood as alleged by the World Bank chief. That is because of the super powers of India. It is also because India is the world's greatest democracy and its only supah dupah super power.
Our politicians may be corrupt, it is precisely only for this reason that they allow China to invest in India, thus given a small opportunity to China to join in the world's greatest growth story of the 21st Century. Of course, it is only with regret that they are getting some small kick-backs, but hey, official pay in India is relatively low, and our minister himself is still waiting on the list to have his toilet being refitted with suitable standards, which is by itself a statement how uncorrupt our ministers are.
So, why should you, would you, and can you, the Economist compare India to an international minion of the West like China? I hear clicks whereby many more subscription from India now being cancelled. Soon, it will be negative.
Pray for India, we will have pity on you. Jai Hind!
-friendsofindia , Mumbai
9 August 2012
There is no guarantee that China's ambition stops at claiming sovereignity of S.C.S. A rising bully like China can and will do what it sees beneficial for itself. Once milestone #1 is accomplish, China will go on the next. If I successfully claim this is my backyard, I will have the power to reject your entry to it, even though I don't plan to at this point.
History and the present have shown proofs, and this is how China works:
1. Claim ownership and take over by any means;
2. Tightly control it and pollute it with China's system; and finally
3. Suck the life out of it.
-Minh , Vietnam
8 August 2012
The world should not believe with China says. Yes, China has reiterated many times that it only claiming soverignity of SCS, not freedom of navigation. However, if you follow the action of the Chinese navy in the S.C.S, you will see they are harassing and blocking navigation in the S.C.S.
-John , US
8 August 2012
Where have you been? Do you really believe that China will not challenge freedom of navigation in the SCS?
In case you have not heard, do you remember USNS Impeccable incident in 2009 when Chinese vessels harassed US ship?
Here's the link for you to read yourself (
Also, just last year, while traveling well within Vietnam's EEZ, the Indian navy ship was harassed by Chinese vessels. Here are the links:
And the Chinese navy shoots, captured, beat up fishermen from Vietnam every day:
As you can see, China has been harassing ships, boats from many different countries in the SCS. now, imagine how aggressive China will be if all SCS belongs to China. You don't think China will challenge freedom of navigation? I can assure you that China will not allow anyone to navigate through the entire SCS.
You need to wake up and realize the reality.
-long , us
3 August 2012
Where is the challenge to free navigation when China has reiterated many times again and again that there is no impediment ibn any manner to free navigation at all.
China is only claiming sovereignity of S.C.S not freedom of navigation and free passage throughout SCS.
A very misleading article.
-Toby Rajan , Malaysia