India’s advances into South China Sea met with criticism from Beijing

In what is seen as a response to Chinese moves in South Asia, India embarks on joint oil and gas exploration with Vietnam in South China Sea. After last week's Kabul attacks, US sharpens tone with Pakistan. Romania joins European missile-defence shield, while Beijing criticizes Washington over a $5.3 billion arms sale to Taiwan. All this in today's security briefing...
Radu Nikolaus Botez
22 September 2011

Last week, China warned Indian companies to refrain from oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, as India’s state-owned oil and natural gas exploration corporation, Videsh is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding with its Vietnamese counterpart, Petro Vietnam, on joint operations in waters disputed by Vietnam, China and other countries.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said that “as for oil and gas exploration activities, our consistent position is that we are opposed to any country engaged in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction,” adding with regard to maritime disputes that “for countries outside the region, we hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve this dispute through bilateral channels.”

China had reportedly warned New Delhi several months ago about launching such projects in what it perceives as its waters. India however, has insisted that operations do not violate international law, with Indian external affairs minister SM Krishna saying Chinese objections have “no legal basis” before assuring Vietnam during a recent visit to Hanoi that India will go ahead with oil and gas exploration in the region.

Earlier this month, reports said an Indian naval assault vessel, INS Airavat, on a friendly visit to Vietnam in July and navigating 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea, was contacted on a open radio channel by a voice claiming it was from the “Chinese Navy” and saying that India had entered “Chinese waters” and should “move out of here”. However, China denied the incident, while India’s external affairs ministry said no “ship or aircraft was visible from INS Airavat. There was no confrontation involving the INS Airavat.”

The openSecurity verdict: Relations between India and China have been difficult in the past. Many irritants, resulting from, for instance, China’s policy of issuing stapled visas to citizens of certain Indian states, thus questioning India’s territorial sovereignty, persist between the two countries. China’s “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan is also an impediment to stronger ties with India. Progress has been made, however, in the economic realm with bilateral trade increasing to a volume of $61.7 billion. But the value of India’s exports to China represents only half that of its imports from there, leading to a trade deficit of $20 billion.

The recent events are seen by observers as confirming concerns that, as both India and China emerge as major political and economic powers, tensions and frictions, especially on the oceans where both will seek to secure sea lanes of communication, crucial for their energy security, are unavoidable. New Delhi has long been worried about Beijing seeking cooperation and improving ties with India’s neighbours in south Asia in a bid to gain access to the Indian Ocean. Indeed, China has embarked on a number of infrastructure programs in the region, including ports that India fears might not only be used for trade purposes but to host military vessels.

Yet as an article published earlier this year by ‘The Diplomat’, an online magazine, points out, India has quietly sought to counter China’s moves by seeking stronger ties with countries in east and south-east Asia, among which “Vietnam is ideally placed to help counter China's expansion into the South China Sea. With this in mind, and for the past decade, India has been providing Vietnam with assistance in beefing up its naval and air capabilities in an attempt to deny China supremacy in the South China Sea.” However, not only do both countries lack the necessary naval capabilities to effectively project power into the other’s alleged sphere of influence – the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea – but such power projection with potentially devastating consequences is far from being a priority for either New Delhi or Beijing. China’s focus, for instance, is still on Taiwan and potential contingencies, including US intervention, there.

The risk related to events such as the recent spat is that it might lead to a tit-for-tat dispute between the actors involved, and initiate a downward spiral in relations; while Krishna was still visiting Hanoi, China announced it would expand its exploration, under the permission of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) granted earlier this year, of 10,000 square kilometres of seabed in the Indian Ocean.

Washington sharpens tone with Islamabad after Kabul attacks

Following the recent attacks by Taliban fighters on targets across Kabul, including the US embassy and Nato headquarters, US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, in a interview with Radio Pakistan last week, said “there is evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistani government. This is something that must stop. We have to make sure that we work together to fight terrorism.”

Relations between the two countries have deteriorated considerably since the killings of Osama bin Laden by US special forces on Pakistani territory earlier this year. In a statement made after the attacks in Kabul, which left 77 American forces wounded, US defence secretary Leon Panetta said “I think the message they [the Pakistanis] need to know is: we’re going to do everything we can to defend our forces,” without, however, providing details on potential US actions.

According to US officials, referred to in an article published by the Washington Post yesterday, it is the “belief of a growing number of senior administration officials that a years-long strategy of using persuasion and military assistance to influence Pakistani behaviour has been ineffective” while also pointing out that “White House officials and defence secretary Leon E. Panetta are said to be adamant in their determination to change the approach [...].”

Romania to join European missile-defence shield

Last week, US foreign secretary Hillary Clinton and her Romanian counterpart Teodor Baconschi signed at deal which foresees the stationing of 24 interceptor missiles in southern Romania from 2015 on as part of a larger Nato missile-defence system. The first phase of the establishment of a European missile-defence shield, to be completed by the end of this year, calls for the deployment of ship-based missile-defence in the Mediterranean as well as of an American radar system which Turkey agreed to host earlier this month. Romania’s contribution is part of the second phase, while Poland has also agreed to host additional interceptor missiles from 2018 on. 

The project, ostensibly aimed at protecting Europe from potential strikes from Iran, has led to frictions between Nato and Moscow in the past, as the latter fears it might undermine its deterrence capabilities and be used for spying on it. An initial plan, replaced in 2009 by the current one, also foresaw the installation of a radar station in the Czech Republic. In 2010, Russia agreed to cooperate with Nato yet disagreement about the implementation of the system persists. Reacting to the deal, the Russian ministry of foreign affairs said it wanted “firm guarantees” from the US and Nato that it will not be targeted by the missile-defence system and that further cooperation on the issue was needed.

China criticizes US over arms sale to Taiwan

Yesterday, China strongly condemned a $5.3 billion US arms sale to Taiwan, which includes upgrades for Taipei’s F-16 A/B fighter fleet. Chinese vice foreign minister Zhang Zhijun said that “it must be pointed out that this wrongful course by the US side will unavoidably damage Sino-American relations and cooperation and exchanges in the military, security and other fields.” The Obama administration has refrained from selling more advanced F-16 C/D fighter jets as demanded by Taipei, triggering criticism in Congress and Taiwan that the US was bowing to pressure from China. However, US officials said the upgrade would give the fighters the same capabilities as the newer model.  

Since Obama took office in 2009, the US has sold $12.25 billion worth of arms. The US is bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taipei sufficient weapons for its self-defence. China, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory and sees the arms sales as a violation of its sovereignty, has repeatedly suspended defence exchanges with the US in reaction to Washington providing Taipei with weaponry. However, observers say China will react with more restraint this time, as both sides have learned to manage this issue.       

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