December 05, 2012

India’s South China Sea Gambit Redux

India’s interest in the South China Sea is getting more attention. Last year, The Times of India reported that India’s offshore Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh would work with Vietnam to jointly explore for oil and natural gas resources in the South China Sea. Despite warnings from China – which has made sovereign claims to the entire South China Sea and its energy resources – India and Vietnam have pressed ahead with joint development, leading to increased tensions between China, India and Vietnam.

Last Friday, Vietnam lodged a complaint with China when two Chinese fishing boats reportedly blocked a Vietnamese seismic survey vessel that caused the ship’s cables to snap. The latest episode is just another in a string of incidents where Chinese fishing boats have blocked attempts by Vietnam and other countries to survey for natural gas and oil deposits. (Track these incidents using the CNAS Flashpoint timeline feature here.) The latest incident also comes on the heels of an announcement from China’s Hainan Province last week warning that provincial police would be permitted to board and search vessels violating China’s territorial waters, including in contested areas.

In response to the most recent attempt by Chinese fishermen to block Vietnam’s seismic surveying, Vietnamese officials said that the government would step up defensive patrols, including deploying marine police, to protect against future Chinese encroachment. India seemed to respond in kind, according to a New York Times report, saying “it would consider sending navy vessels to protect its interests in the South China Sea.”

Vietnam has clear national interests at stake when it comes to its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beyond the potential energy resources that lie beneath the seabed, the country has legal and economic jurisdictions out to 200-nautical miles that allow the country to reap the benefits of the sea’s fisheries and other marine resources. It is easy to understand why Vietnam might choose to ratchet up tensions to rebuff Chinese assertiveness.

In contrast, India’s national interests are not as explicit. After all, it does not share the same legal or economic jurisdictions that other claimants in the region have. Nevertheless, its interest in the South China Sea appears to support its broader national interests. And its joint exploration with Vietnam to develop the sea’s energy resources can help explain India’s gamble in the South China Sea. Here’s an excerpt from a post I wrote last September (Understanding India’s South China Sea Gambit) on India’s motives in the South China Sea that I think still generally holds:

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.

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