South China Sea Controversy

During the recent visit of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang to India, the countries had inked 6 agreements as following:

  • India and Vietnam signed an extradition treaty
  • Oil exploration agreement in South China Sea: Under this, ONGC signed an agreement with Vietnam’s national oil company PetroVietnam to hunt for oil in that nation as well as in third countries.
  • Friendship pact to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the diplomatic relations in 2012
  • Agreement in the field of agriculture and fisheries
  • Cooperation in sports and tourism
  • Agreement on Cultural Exchanges

Within days of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosting Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang, Chinese leaders started leaning on Vietnam to cancel the country’s oil exploration deal with India in the South China Sea. It was said by Xinhua, China’s official news agency that leaders of both China and Vietnam (represented by Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong) have agreed that they will not “allow any hostile force to destroy their relations”. They also promised to hold “frequent communication and dialogue on maritime issues”.

Both sides will seek steady progress in negotiations regarding the maritime demarcation of the bay mouth of Beibu Gulf (Gulf of Tonkin) and discuss the joint development of the sea area. The newspaper also said that India was risking its own energy security. It said that challenging the core interests of a large, rising country for unknown oil at the bottom of the sea will not only lead to a crushing defeat for the Indian oil company, but will also most likely seriously harm India’s whole energy security and interrupt its economic development. It further stated ominously that Indian companies “must not enter the disputed waters of the South China Sea”.

For Vietnam, cancelling an exploration contract with India can have repercussions on its oil deals with companies from other countries. But resisting pressures from China, which is a major trade partner, is not going to be easy. Besides, Beijing is expected to come up with some economic sweeteners as well.

What is South China Sea?

  • China sovereignty claim over all of the South China Sea, which resulted in an overlap with claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
  • The South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometres .
  • The area’s importance largely results from one-third of the world’s shipping transiting through its waters, and that it is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. It is located south of mainland China and the island of Taiwan, west of the Philippines, north west of Sabah (Malaysia), Sarawak (Malaysia) and Brunei, north of Indonesia, north east of the Malay peninsula (Malaysia) and Singapore, and east of Vietnam.

What are the territorial claims?

The various territorial claims over South China Sea are as follows:

  • Indonesia, China, and Taiwan over waters NE of the Natuna Islands
  • The Philippines, China, and Taiwan over the Malampaya and Camago gas fields.
  • The Philippines, China, and Taiwan over Scarborough Shoal.
  • Vietnam, China, and Taiwan over waters west of the Spratly Islands. Some or all of the islands themselves are also disputed between Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
  • The Paracel Islands are disputed between the PRC/ROC and Vietnam.
  • Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam over areas in the Gulf of Thailand.
  • Singapore and Malaysia along the Strait of Johore and the Strait of Singapore

India and China on Vietnamese claims

  • China and Vietnam have both been vigorous in prosecuting their claims. China and South Vietnam each controlled part of the Paracel Islands before 1974.
  • A brief conflict in 1974 resulted in 18 soldiers being killed, and China has controlled the whole of Paracel since then.The Spratly Islands have been the site of a naval clash, in which over seventy Vietnamese sailors were killed just south of Chigua Reef in March 1988.
  • Disputing claimants regularly report clashes between naval vessels. China says that it enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island. China & Vietnam both claim of de jure sovereignity over all of South China Sea. Vietnamese claims of de jure sovereignty have been rejected by China, but accepted by India.

What is US policy Towards South China Sea?

  • US has so far been following a policy of rejecting Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire Sea while not getting involved in the various disputes over the claims of sovereignty over the island territories.

How India’s Policy is different from US?

  • Indian policy closely converged with that of the US. It rejected the Chinese projection of the Sea as a whole as Chinese waters. It took steps to develop its strategic relations with Vietnam.
  • It asserted the rights of the ships of the Indian Navy to transit the South China Sea during their visits to Vietnamese ports without the need to inform China beforehand or ask for Chinese permission.
  • At the same time, India rightly observed a nuanced silence on the dispute over the island territories. Now, for the first time, India is seeking to take a position on the island territories under the de facto control of Vietnam by accepting Vietnamese claims of de jure sovereignty over them.

What is India’s Current Position?

  • Recently, India has firmly rejected China’s objections to its presence in the South China Sea, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telling Chinese leader Wen Jiabao that Indian interests were “purely commercial” and sovereignty claims must be settled according to international law.
  • Questioned by Wen on projects involving India in the marine zone that China sees as its strategic backyard, Prime Minister said that India’s oil exploration activities were legitimate commercial ventures.