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India wades into South China Sea dispute

NEW DELHI -- Even though India is not a party to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it has vital commercial and strategic stakes that keep its interest alive in the troubled waters.

Soon after an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China's claims to historical rights in the South China Sea have no legal basis, India said the countries involved in the row should resolve their disputes through peaceful means "without threat or use of force" and show "utmost respect" to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which establishes the global legal order of the seas and oceans.

"India supports freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in UNCLOS," its foreign ministry said in a statement.

India and the South China Sea

In reality, this issue is not someone else's problem for India. ONGC Videsh -- the overseas arm of India's state-run Oil & Natural Gas Corp., known as OVL -- has been searching for hydrocarbons in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam, which it entered in the late 1980s after securing the exploration license for block 06.1. About a decade ago, Vietnam permitted India to explore two more blocks -- 127 and 128 -- which lie in waters also claimed by China.

Having found no oil or gas in block 127, OVL decided to relinquish it. In June 2012, it also sought "to abandon block 128 as not commercially viable [but] later extended that lease three times, reportedly at the insistence of the Indian foreign ministry, which was said to want to maintain the country's strategic presence in the South China Sea via its NOC [national oil company]," according to a report by the International Crisis Group.

Citing Vietnamese analysts, it said, "Chinese pressure has made India dig in and become more determined to work with [state-run] PetroVietnam."

In October 2014, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited India and held talks with his counterpart Narendra Modi. In a joint statement issued after their meeting, the two leaders agreed that "freedom of navigation and overflight in the East China Sea and South China Sea should not be impeded" and called the parties concerned "to exercise restraint, avoid threat or use of force and resolve disputes through peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law."

In February this year, India again called for the peaceful settlement of conflicting territorial claims in the region, after reports that Beijing had deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea.

"The oceans and seas, including the South China Sea, are pathways to our prosperity and security," Sushma Swaraj, India's foreign minister, said at an annual meeting of political and economic leaders, officials, academics and opinion-makers from India and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations here.

Stating that secure sea routes in the Asia-Pacific region are essential to the Indian economy, she noted, "A majority of our global trade [about 55%] flows across the Straits of Malacca and beyond."

Swaraj said optimum utilization of marine resources and development of a "blue economy" require internationally recognized rules and norms, seeking "an inclusive, balanced, transparent and open regional architecture" for security and cooperation in the region.

Analysts believe China's aggressive militarization of the South China Sea is not good for regional security and trade.

"If that region gets disturbed by militarization, it will affect India's merchandise exports to ASEAN, including Vietnam and the Philippines, and also to Taiwan, South Korea and Japan," Pankaj K. Jha, research director at the Indian Council of World Affairs, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"If tensions rise, ships [supplying goods] will levy more insurance cost," he said, adding China should devise ways to resolve its disputes with other countries in the South China Sea, while at the same time it should abide by the tribunal's verdict.

He also said ASEAN will need to take a stance on the South China Sea debate if the issue escalates, as the centrality of the regional grouping "will come under pressure."

China reading its own book

In its latest statement on The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration's verdict in favor of the Philippines over its dispute with China, India said it believes that states should "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability."

"Sea lanes of communication passing through the South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development," it said.

Ironically, the state-run Chinese media sees India's statement as supporting Beijing's stance on the South China Sea. On July 13, China Daily put out a map on its website showing India among more than 70 countries that have "publicly voiced support" for Beijing's position that South China Sea disputes "should be resolved through negotiations and not arbitration."

Though New Delhi's statement is measured, it does not declare backing for China, especially because India itself gracefully abided by a 2014 Permanent Court of Arbitration verdict in favor of its neighbor Bangladesh over their maritime boundary dispute in the Bay of Bengal.

On the other hand, China has declared the tribunal's ruling as "null and void" and said it has no binding force. "China neither accepts nor recognizes it," its foreign ministry said.

Some feel that China's excessive focus on the South China Sea may also divert Beijing's attention from its "string of pearls" strategy aimed at expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean, where India enjoys domination.

China's ambitions in the Indian Ocean appear to have triggered concerns for India, which has also carried out joint military exercises in the region with the U.S. and Japan, apparently to counter Beijing's attempts to widen its power.

"Any aggressive posture in the long term is harmful to China's own interests. Already, a coalition involving the U.S., India and Japan is building up in the wake of its moves," said Rajaram Panda, an Indian Council for Cultural Relations fellow at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan.

However, he adds that it will be extremely difficult for China to reduce India's naval presence in Indian Ocean as New Delhi's control is quite substantial there.

"China's approach is just to bully smaller powers around it. In Southeast Asia, none of the countries are in a position to take on China as an individual entity. Vietnam is the only country that has the guts [to speak out against China], but still, in terms of military capability, it is no match for China, and it also needs friends [like India]," Panda told the NAR.

On July 14, Japan's Defense Minister Gen. Nakatani and his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar held talks here, where they recognized that the security and stability of the seas connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans are indispensable for the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region.

The two ministers "reaffirmed the importance of respecting international law, as reflected notably in UNCLOS, of the peaceful settlement of the disputes," an official statement said, adding they noted the July 12 ruling on the South China Sea in this context.

The Pakistani angle

While Beijing has called India's oil exploration in the South China Sea illegal, it is engaged in controversial infrastructure projects in the part of the Kashmir region controlled by its close ally Pakistan. India has a long-standing dispute with Pakistan, its neighbor and archrival, over the territory of Kashmir and has raised objections to the Chinese projects there, including a $46 billion economic corridor passing through the disputed region.

As expected, Pakistan reiterated its support for Beijing after The Hague court verdict.

"Pakistan maintains that disputes over the South China Sea should be peacefully resolved, through consultations and negotiations by states directly concerned, in accordance with bilateral agreements and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," its foreign ministry said.

It is noteworthy that while Pakistan supports Beijing's position of resolving the South China Sea issue bilaterally, Islamabad has often brought up the Kashmir issue at global forums, despite India's stance that it wants to settle the problem through dialogue with Pakistan without any outside interference.

Strategic analysts, meanwhile, feel the Permanent Court of Arbitration verdict on the South China Sea proves that China needs to mend its ways. "The ruling is a big slap to the face of China. Sooner or later China should come to its senses [and realize] that if it keeps on violating the global norms, it will become isolated from the international community," Panda said.

At the same time, analysts feel that India is expected to play a role in key international matters as it is a major regional and emerging world power. India's response to The Hague court's ruling shows that it has been closely watching the developments in the region.

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