By B. Raman
The “Financial Times” of London reported on September 1, 2011, that an unidentified Chinese warship had demanded that an Indian naval vessel identify itself and explain its presence in the South China Sea waters off Vietnam in July. It identified the Indian naval ship as INS Airavat.
According to the FT report, INS Airavathad visited Nha Trang in south-central Vietnam and the northern port of Haiphong in the second half of July.
The FT said that the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry acknowledged that the Indian warship had visited the country from July 19-22, but claimed that it had no information about the incident.
Rediff.com reported as follows the same day:
“A spokesperson from the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi said:”The Ministry has seen news reports about an alleged confrontation between an Indian Navy ship and a Chinese vessel off the coast of Vietnam in July 2011. The Indian Naval vessel, INS Airavat paid a friendly visit to Vietnam between 19 to 28 July 2011.
“On July 22, INS Airavat sailed from the Vietnamese port of Nha Trang towards Hai Phong, where it was to make a port call. At a distance of 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea, it was contacted on open radio channel by a caller identifying himself as the “Chinese Navy” stating that “you are entering Chinese waters”. “No ship or aircraft was visible from INS Airavat, which proceeded on her onward journey as scheduled.
“There was no confrontation involving the INS Airavat. India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law. These principles should be respected by all.”
Rediff added further as follows: “In Beijing , the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaox sought to obfuscate the issue by saying that inquiries have been made with the “competent authorities” about the reported incident but so far no information has been received. Nor had China “received any representation from any other country”, he said, implying that that no protest has been received from India in this regard.“
The media reports on the incident figured in the daily press briefings of the US State Department and the Pentagon at Washington DC on September 1.Answering questions at the daily briefing, Mark Toner, the State Department spokesman, told journalists: “We are certainly aware of the media reports on an alleged encounter between Indian and Chinese naval vessels. “Our position on the South China Sea is very clear. We want a collaborative diplomatic process here.”
Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman of the Pentagon, said in his daily briefing in response to questions from media personnel: “I do not know anything about that particular confrontation. Generally we have said that there are many nations that operate through international waters in the South China Sea. We recognize that there are disputes amongst countries in that region and it is our desire one to recognize the right of passage to those waters, but more important that those conflicts, those confrontations be resolved peacefully so there aren’t any misunderstanding or things that leads us to injuries or deaths.”
The visit of the Indian naval ship to two ports in Vietnam and the incident of July 22 coincided with the meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the post-ASEAN ministerial meetings in Bali in Indonesia from July 16 to 28.However, there is no reason to believe that the visit of the Indian ship to two Vietnamese ports had anything to do with the Bali ARF meeting during which the continuing dispute on the question of sovereignty over the South China Sea and over the island territories in the Sea figured once again as in previous meetings on the agenda.
The dispute involves the Chinese claim of sovereignty not only over the island territories, but also over the South China Sea, which China claims as its territorial waters. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan do not accept the Chinese claims on both counts. They reject the Chinese claim that the South China Sea is China’s territorial waters. At the same time, they claim some of the island territories as belonging to them.
Thus, there is a bilateral dispute between China on the one side and these countries on the other over the ownership of the island territories and a multilateral dispute over China’s claim of sovereignty over the Sea as a whole. In recent months, the dispute has led to incidents between China on the one side and Vietnam and the Philippines on the other over issues such as the exploitation of the Sea for fisheries and oil and mineral resources. While vigorously asserting its claims on both counts, China has refrained from any interference with the right of freedom of navigation and over flights in the South China Sea.
Concerned over the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese Navy in the area, the Philippines and Vietnam have been moving closer to the US. Their navies have been holding joint exercises with the US Navy in their respective coastal waters without unnecessarily provoking China. They have not allowed repeated Chinese protests over these exercises to come in their way.
The US has been following a two-pronged policy. It has taken up the stand that the bilateral disputes over the island territories are for the concerned countries to sort out peacefully in which the US has no role. At the same time, it has been vigorously asserting the right of freedom of navigation and over flights in the South China Sea.
The clarification issued by the spokesman of India’s Ministry of External Affairs indicates that there is a convergence of views between India and the US in rejecting Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.
Two significant points emerge from his clarification: Firstly, “India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law.” Secondly, “At a distance of 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea, it was contacted on open radio channel.”
What does it mean? It means that India has admitted that the Indian ship at the time it received a cautionary advice from a source purporting to be the Chinese Navy was in the South China Sea and that it had a right to be there because the South China Sea is international and not Chinese waters.
At the Bali ARF meeting and in its margins, the US and the Philippines vigorously articulated their concerns over the increasing Chinese assertiveness. Mrs. Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, told the ARF meeting: “The United States is concerned that recent incidents in the South China Sea threaten the peace and stability on which the remarkable progress of the Asia-Pacific region has been built. These incidents endanger the safety of life at sea, escalate tensions, undermine freedom of navigation and pose risks to lawful unimpeded commerce and economic development.”
She warned all the rival claimants against using force to bolster their positions. She added: “Each of the parties should comply with their commitments to respect freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, to resolve their disputes through peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force.”
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that his country had “suffered at least seven aggressive intrusions” in the disputed waters since February.These included Chinese forces shooting at Filipino fishermen, deploying navy patrol boats to intimidate an oil exploration vessel and placing markers on some of the islets.
Del Rosario said China’s actions appeared motivated by a hunger for the region’s natural resources, and were heightening fears about how the country intended to treat its neighbors as its military and economic might expanded.
He told the Agence France Presse:. “I think there is that concern that China is becoming more powerful. We support their progress and their growth … but at the same time it is our expectation that their strength and their growth and their influence will be exercised in a responsible way.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi assured that China would work to ensure that the tensions did not escalate into conflict. He told the journalists in Bali: “South China Sea and Asia as a whole are peaceful and stable, and this will continue through our joint efforts. China will continue to contribute to peace and stability in Asia.”
At a meeting with the 10 members of the ASEAN in Bali, China also agreed to a set of guidelines laying down a framework for an eventual code of conduct for the sea. However the Philippines maintained the guidelines lacked teeth and did not change the fundamental problem that China claimed all of the sea, even up to the coasts of other Southeast Asian countries. “How can you discuss anything bilaterally when you sit down with them and they say that they own everything?” del Rosario asked.
Till now the Chinese frictions in the South China Sea have been mainly with Vietnam, the Philippines and the US. Despite India’s developing strategic relations with Vietnam, the Chinese, while maintaining a close watch over India-Vietnam relations, had maintained a discreet silence and avoided any statements or actions which could impact on their bilateral relations with India.
Moreover, the Chinese assertiveness vis-à-vis Vietnam and the Philippines was mainly in relation to the exploitation of the fisheries and mineral resources in the sea adjoining the various island territories. They had avoided an assertive policy in relation to the freedom of navigation and over-flights which could bring the US more actively into the dispute.
This is the first time they have taken an assertive step against a country not from the region in order to test its reaction on the question of their claims of sovereignty over the sea as a whole. India has done well to assert that the South China Sea is international waters and that its naval ship had a right to transit the Sea. It is important for India to mobilise the support of the US and other members of the international community not from this region on this issue.