Sept. 16 – China, seemingly forgetting its policy of non-interference in other states’ affairs, has begun a public dialogue with India objecting to an agreement signed between India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh Limited and Vietnam’s Petro Vietnam for oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.
Petro Vietnam has entered into a joint venture with India’s ONGC to develop Blocks 127 and 128 after ONGC bought BP’s assets in the project in 2006. However, China is claiming all of the South China Sea as its “indisputable sovereignty,” a position that would take China’s territory right up to the Vietnamese coastline.
India’s External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, who began a state visit to Hanoi today, responded by stating that Vietnam has sovereignty rights over the two blocks according to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and that China has “no legal basis” to object to the Indian company’s activities in that area.
“While an appropriate reply has already been given to China’s démarche, the issue is set to be discussed during his visit to Vietnam on September 16,” a Ministry of External Affairs official said. “The Chinese had concerns, but we are going by what the Vietnamese authorities have told us, and have conveyed this to the Chinese.”
Beijing responded immediately after hearing the announcement from New Delhi.
“I would like to reaffirm that China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the islands in the region. China’s stand is based on historical facts and international law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu said at a press conference.
According to Jiang, the 1982 UN convention “did not give any country the right to expand their own exclusive economic zone and continental shelf to other countries’ territories” nor negate “a country’s right formed in history that has been consistently claimed.”
While answering a question on reports about ONGC, Jiang emphasized this further by saying, “Our consistent position is that we are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction.”
In recent years, Vietnam has been working to expand its interests across the South China Sea, particularly to gain sovereignty rights over the Paracel Islands, which are under China’s control at present.
The importance of these disputes lies not only in the richness of natural resources in the region, but in the importance of shipping lanes from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean.
Both India and Vietnam are expected to react quite strongly to China’s posturing, as both have historically tense relations with China regarding territorial issues. Especially India, which has questioned China’s development of infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir as well as Pakistan’s offer to give China a naval port on the Indian Ocean. In recent years, China has also been building up its relations with countries such as Sri Lanka and Burma as it pursues its “String of Pearls” strategy.
China’s actions and attitude towards its territorial disputes have led other nations in the region to form stronger bonds. In July, Vietnam provided Indian battleships entry to naval bases at the Nhatraneg and Halong bays. In addition, India offered aid to Vietnam to increase its naval power by funding the cost of training the Vietnamese navy and building new ships.
In the last six months, China has actively demonstrated its influence not only in Vietnam but also in the Philippines, which is another claimant to the Spratly Islands. In the latter case, Manila turned to Washington for intercession and tried to develop a united front with Vietnam to cope with the “China threat.”
China’s efforts to assert its dominance over the South China Sea has created many problems for the countries of South and Southeast Asia. Even in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, fears are growing that China might use the Spratlys as a springboard to expand their claims even further south.