India’s assertive moves in South China Sea fuel growing tensions with China

As the United States ratchets up tensions with China over the South China Sea, India is also becoming increasingly assertive in the disputed region, exacerbating the already sharp divisions between New Delhi and Beijing.

In defiance of Beijing, ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL), one of India’s principal state-owned energy companies, has accepted Vietnam’s invitation to continue oil exploration in the South China Sea.

Citing OVL managing director Narendra K. Verma, Reuters reported earlier this month that Vietnam has granted the Indian firm a two-year extension on a lease to explore for oil in “Block 128” of the disputed South China Sea. The report noted, “Part of that block is in the U-shaped ‘nine-dash line’ which marks the vast area that China claims in the sea, a route for more than $5 trillion in trade each year (and) in which the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have claims.” India’s Business Standard noted that this is the fifth extension OVL has been granted to explore Block-128.

According to an unnamed senior OVL official, interest in the block is “strategic rather than commercial, given that oil development there” is seen “as high-risk” and “with only moderate potential.” The official added, “Vietnam also wants us to be there because of China’s interventions in the South China Sea.”

Asked about ongoing oil exploration and drilling work in the disputed area at a July 6 press conference, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Beijing “resolutely upholds its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea (and) firmly opposes unilateral and illegal oil and gas activities by any country, enterprise or institution in the waters under China’s jurisdiction.” He urged Vietnam to “refrain from actions” that would complicate the situation.

India’s agreement with Vietnam to conduct oil exploration in the South China Sea is part of a burgeoning strategic partnership with the Southeast Asian country aimed at extending New Delhi’s geopolitical ambitions in the region and countering China. In 2003, New Delhi and Hanoi signed a joint declaration on a “framework for comprehensive cooperation.” Four years later, the two countries formed a “strategic partnership.” The joint statement announcing the partnership highlighted intelligence cooperation, potential arms sales and military aid, and established a “strategic dialogue” at the deputy foreign minister level.

With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi lining up more decisively behind the US military-strategic offensive against China since coming to power in 2014, New Delhi has expanded its strategic ties with Hanoi. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited India in October 2014 and signed a series of military, trade and economic agreements, including two agreements for joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.

At the same time, India provided a US$100 million credit line to Vietnam to buy military hardware. In 2016, this was expanded to a $500 million “defense” credit line. India is training Vietnamese naval cadets and also providing naval patrol boats and satellite cover to monitor Vietnam’s waters.

New Delhi and Hanoi are also in discussion about the possible sale of Indian BrahMos cruise missiles to Vietnam.

Hanoi’s latest offer to extend ONL’s South China Sea oil concession was issued while Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Pham Binh Minh visited India July 3-6. While there, he held extensive discussions with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. An Indian government press release on their talks referenced last year’s International Court at The Hague ruling, on a case orchestrated by Washington, dismissing China’s “historical claims” to much of the South China Sea. The press release also “reiterated” New Delhi’s support for “freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded commerce,” the pretexts the US is using to label Beijing an “aggressor” in the South China Sea and justify its deployment of vast military forces to the region.

Since Modi and US President Obama issued a “Joint Vision Statement for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” in January 2015, New Delhi has regularly parroted Washington’s provocative anti-China line on the South China Sea.

Only days before the Indian foreign ministry statement on Swaraj’s talks with Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minster, Modi and the current US President, Donald Trump, met in Washington and pledged to further expand the Indo-US military-strategic partnership.

India’s increasing involvement in the South China Sea enjoys the explicit backing of the United States and is being accompanied by the rapid expansion of bilateral and trilateral military-strategic cooperation between India and Japan and Australia, Washington’s chief regional allies.

Last spring and summer four stealth warships of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet were deployed to the South China Sea and North Pacific, prompting an angry reaction from Beijing.

The US has publicly urged the Indian navy to mount joint patrols with its warships in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including the South China Sea.

On Monday, Indian, US and Japanese warships concluded war games in the Bay of Bengal, the latest iteration of the annual Malabar Exercise. In an obvious rebuke of China’s increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean, this year’s Malabar exercise focused on antisubmarine warfare and air defense.

India’s assertive moves in the South China Sea take place amid the ongoing military standoff between Beijing and New Delhi over the remote Himalayan Doklam or Donglang Plateau, land claimed by both China and Bhutan. The Sino-Indian border dispute is being described as the most serious between the two nuclear powers since the two countries fought a month-long border war in 1962.

Aware that India is moving ever more openly into the US camp, Beijing is adopting an increasingly hardline stance in answer to India’s growing assertiveness and US-backed provocations. An opinion piece in the state-run China Daily, titled “India’s moves demand strict vigil” and published on July 10, linked India’s policies to its growing ties with Washington. Referring to Modi’s latest visit to the US, it noted that the Indian Prime Minister “managed to sell the idea New Delhi is a key defense partner of Washington and … can serve as a counterweight to China’s rise.”

An editorial in the same edition described the Malabar naval exercise as “the biggest of their kind so far” and pointed out that the “US approved a $365-million sale of military transport aircraft to India last week and a $2 billion deal for (naval) surveillance drones.” The editorial argued: “It is China that should feel ‘security concerns’, given the importance of the Indian Ocean for its trade and oil imports.”