India may not be party to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but what happens in those troubled waters is of economic and strategic concern to New Delhi. The Indian navy’s decision to deploy for training in the South China Sea, therefore, makes eminent strategic sense. The immediate worry for India is to protect the Oil and Natural Gas Commission’s assets engaged in the exploration and production of oil off the Vietnamese coast. Rising tensions between China and several other countries over territorial disputes in the South China Sea have given India’s concern a particular context. Beijing had publicly opposed India’s move to enter into an agreement with Vietnam for an oil exploration project in the South China Sea. Beijing claims practically all of the South China Sea as its territory, but countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines dispute the claim. Suspicions about China’s intentions in the region became stronger when Beijing created a new administrative ‘city’ in an island in the South China Sea last June to ‘govern’ the disputed Paracels, Spratly and other island groups in the area. Both Hanoi and Manila have refused to recognize China’s right to create the ‘city’ in the troubled waters.
None of these is apparently India’s business. But China’s new maritime ambitions and aggressive sovereignty claims over disputed areas in the South China Sea cannot but worry New Delhi. In many ways, India’s dilemma in the South China Sea is like that of the United States of America. Like India, the US too is not involved in the territorial disputes in those waters. But both countries have a vital stake in ensuring that the sea lanes remain free and their trade through these unimpeded. However, India has a greater concern about recent Chinese attempts to penetrate the Indian Ocean. Chinese maritime activities in ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka have upset traditional perceptions of the Indian Ocean being India’s sphere of influence. It is possible that the tensions in the region will rise even further. But some of the moves by China are more political than military. India has to closely watch the developments in the region and be prepared for contingencies. But New Delhi need not take a hawkish line in its strategy for the region. India-China relations are about much more than the contentious waters of the South China Sea.