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Antony sends sea message to China

New Delhi, June 2: Defence minister A.K. Antony today said countries cannot use their size to claim maritime boundaries and deny the use of seas for international traffic.

The statement comes at a time when China’s claim that nearly all of the South China Sea is part of its territorial waters has eastern and south-east Asian nations worried. An Indian warship was also warned over radio off the coast of Vietnam last July. India also carries out nearly 40 per cent of its maritime trade through the South China Sea.

“Large parts of the common seas cannot be declared exclusive to any one country or group,” Antony said at the 11th Asia Security Summit in Singapore — also known as the Shangri La Dialogue — on Saturday.

“We must find the balance between the rights of nations and the freedoms of the world community in the maritime domain. Like individual freedoms, the fullness of maritime freedoms can be realised only when all states, big and small, are willing to abide by universally agreed laws and principles,” he said.

Claims over territorial waters should be “resolved through the process of dialogue, consensus building and within the framework of accepted principles of international law”, he said.

Antony said the international dialogue should be “sensitive to the problems of smaller nations and ensure that their rights, as equal members of the global community, are not overlooked or compromised”. He cited the example of co-operation in tackling piracy on India’s western seaboard (off the east coast of Africa) as a way to “de-conflict contentious maritime issues”.

China is locked in a dispute over the South China Sea with five other nations. He said New Delhi welcomed the recently agreed guidelines on the implementation of the 2002 Declaration of the Conduct of Parties between China and the ASEAN. India’s concerns arose because, he said, its mercantile trade — almost 90% by volume and 77% by value — is carried out by sea.

“Maritime security issues have become a strategic priority for us,” Antony said, because of extensive interests, dependence on the seas and threats from terrorists, pirates and drug traffickers.

India’s interests were two-fold: The first is a concern to guard littoral territories and adjacent waters against sea-borne threats. The second is the desire to ensure that the traditional freedoms at sea are preserved.