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.
Despite a Vietnamese invitation to India, China objects to Indian exploration projects in South China Sea.
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 the South China Sea and has now reconfirmed its decision to carry on despite the Chinese challenge to the legality of an 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 U.N. 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. 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 an 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.