Last week, The Times of India reported that India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh would, with Vietnam’s support, continue its exploration for oil and natural gas resources in the South China Sea. The announcement came despite warnings from China that it expects countries outside the region to stay out and support bilateral cooperation between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors as they deal with their competing claims.
The move by Vietnam to invite ONGC Videsh to the region is a particularly interesting maneuver, one that suggests that bilateral cooperation between Beijing and Hanoi may be more difficult than initially thought – at least in the near term. Vietnam seems to be hedging by deepening its ties with India, which observers note is increasing its Naval and Air Force capabilities to offset China’s strengthening military. For Vietnam, strengthening its ties with India – and leveraging its military capabilities – it hopes will help it develop a stronger bargaining position in the region; after all, Beijing has shown that it prefers bilateral deals with countries in the South China Sea as opposed to working multilaterally (e.g., with ASEAN or within the East Asia Summit) for similar reasons: it can leverage its economic and military strength to its advantage much more efficiently.
China is likely to keep a watchful eye on the developing Indian-Vietnamese relationship, which could in the near-term chill cooperation in the South China Sea. Perhaps in the long-term the leveling of the playing field will work to facilitate cooperation, though. It is difficult to tell, but I’m fairly confident that cooperation is still possible if the conditions are right.
For me what are more interesting are India’s motives to move into the South China Sea, which I suspect are not dissimilar from China’s interests in the South China Sea broadly. The Indian-based The Economic Times paraphrases one Chinese expert who argued that, “India's efforts to firm up oil exploration cooperation with Vietnam in the South China Sea, which China claims as its own is a provocative move to show its annoyance over Beijing building up close ties with countries like Myanmar and Pakistan.” That may be true. But I think it’s important to understand some of the reasons why China is pursuing relationships with Burma (Myanmar) and Pakistan.
China’s relationship with these states is, in part, rooted in Beijing’s overall energy strategy. Indeed, in recent years China has invested significantly in overland energy pipelines in order to diversify where it gets its energy resources from (overland pipelines are less vulnerable to the kinds of disruptions that could develop in chokepoints like the Strait of Malacca). And Pakistan and Burma (Myanmar) are important transit states for China to secure its overland energy resources.
By developing an energy portfolio that includes overland and maritime energy resources, China is reducing its vulnerability to disruptions of either supply. (Footnote: It is important to note that China’s concern with disruptions to its overland pipeline infrastructure reinforces its need to explore for and secure access to hydrocarbons in the South China Sea; this, is complicated by the fact that Burma and Pakistan are relatively unstable states, and the pipelines running through those states may become increasingly vulnerable to attack.)
Can we expect then that India’s motives to move into the South China Sea are roughly similar to China’s interests in the region as well? Is India seeing the same energy trends and developing the same energy strategy, one that relies on both overland and maritime energy resources? It’s not outside the realm of possibility. And it would explain, in part, India’s interests in the South China Sea. (I’ll concede that there are other overriding geopolitical calculations as well, including concerns with China’s “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean and the need to balance against it there.)
Perhaps then their shared concerns with access to energy can be a point of cooperation – or at least help diffuse misperceptions about India’s seemingly provocative move into the South China Sea. Of course, with China’s need for energy to sustain its economic growth, India’s move into the South China Sea may be viewed as zero-sum and exacerbate competition between the two.
I know I haven’t resolved anything here, but my point was not to. The bottom line for me is that to understand the headlines coming out of the South China Sea region, we need to drill down and try to analyze each state’s motives before we can really understand the dynamics unfolding in the region. This has to begin by looking at the bigger picture first. Energy exploration in the South China Sea offers only a snapshot of the broader energy world we live in. China may view India’s move into the South China Sea as provocative. But if we step back and look at why India is moving into the South China Sea (as part of a broader energy strategy), I think we’ll find that China’s and India’s actions have more in common than we might have thought. For policymakers, that has to be instructive.