Is This How Wars Start? India and China Now Feud Over the South China Sea

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The INS Airavat sails out of the harbor in Vishakhapatnam, India, Tuesday, May 19, 2009. (Photo: Press Information Bureau / AP)

Last week, one of the world’s most intractable disputes got even stickier. News leaked that the international-arm of India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) was in talks with the government of Vietnam over hydrocarbon exploration rights in the South China Sea. In most parts of the world this would seem a routine bi-lateral development between two countries driven by their dynamic economies. But the South China Sea, whose waters are claimed to varying degree by half a dozen countries and almost in full by China, is unlike any body of water in the world, and where an oil company may see opportunity, most others only see a swirling geo-political maelstrom.

China and Vietnam have competing territorial claims to the sea and the archipelagoes — uninhabited spits of land and rock, for the most part — sitting at its heart. The long-running dispute flared alarmingly over the summer following confrontations between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels. Adding India to the mix — the only country in Asia that presents something of a challenge to Chinese primacy — can only exacerbate tensions. An editorial in the Chinese state-run Global Times, often a mouthpiece for more hawkish elements among the leadership in Beijing, sternly warned India against “pursuing this course of action.” The editorial went on:

India should bear in mind that its actions in the South China Sea will push China to the limit. China cherishes the Sino-Indian friendship, but this does not mean China values it above all else…

China has been peaceful for so long that some countries doubt whether it will stick to its stated bottom line. China should remind them of how clear this line really is.

Invoking dusty imperial records and charts, both Beijing and Hanoi insist upon the “indisputable” nature of their maritime sovereignty. Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia also have overlapping claims. But, given the presence of a potentially vast cache of hydrocarbons below its depths and its strategic value as the main thoroughfare for some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, it’s not surprising that the South China Sea piques the interests of other powers further afield.

Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said resolving the disputes in the South China Sea and ensuring safe passage for international shipping was, for the Americans, a “leading diplomatic priority” — another way of saying that Washington reserves the right to intervene in those waters. India has stepped up its defense ties with Vietnam, winning access to naval ports while helping Hanoi ready a new fleet of submarines. Beijing has been somewhat spooked by such collaboration, not least because of Vietnam’s proximity to Hainan, the island province where China’s own rapidly modernizing nuclear submarine fleet is housed. According to reports that emerged only this past month, in late July, a Chinese ship attempted to intercept an Indian warship, the INS Airavat, off the Vietnamese coast. The Airavat was headed to the Vietnamese port of Haiphong on a routine mission. Earlier, a testy standoff between Chinese naval vessels and Vietnamese ships exploring for oil kicked off a summer of simmering tensions.

India and China share a long, heavily militarized (and also disputed) land border across the spine of the Himalayas. But while differences there have been more or less frozen for decades across a glacial expanse, the threat of confrontations at sea may prove far more unpredictable. Gwynne Dyer, a veteran Asia hand, writes:

You can attack a land border if you really want to, but it is a very big decision with incalculable consequences: a declaration of war, in effect. Even the most arrogant or paranoid governments will think long and hard before embarking on such an action, and generally they end up by deciding not to do it. Whereas at sea, you can easily drift into a serious military confrontation that neither side intended.

And the possible scenarios for (inadvertent) Sino-Indian naval conflict will only mushroom over time. After all, India’s tentative wading into the South China Sea follows a steady drum beat of Chinese projects across the Indian Ocean rim around India — what some have dubbed the “string of pearls.” According to some Indian strategists, China has set up naval facilities and listening posts from Burma to Pakistan, with a strategic, deep-sea port at Hambantota, Sri Lanka, in between.

Therefore, writes Harsh Pant, an international affairs scholar at King’s College, London, India should play the same game. He writes:

India is right to forcefully reject Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. It should now build credible strategic partnerships with other regional states to prevent a Chinese regional dominance that will undermine Indian and regional security interests.

On one level, such thinking makes plenty of sense: as rising powers neither India nor China should compromise their own interests to placate the oft-illusory fears of the other. But, despite the strength of the two countries’ economic ties and the paeans to their friendship that frequently emanate from both capitals, few doubt that the rise of India and China will lead to friction. Neighbors in a complicated region, they are bound to bump up against each other. And when the two nuclear-armed nations that comprise nearly a third of humanity do bump, the stakes will be high — and the fallout potentially incalculable.