India in South China Sea: Unsettling the dragon

The ownership disputes over South China Sea islands with potential reserves of oil and gas took a new turn last week as India joined the stakeholders. Indian Navy Chief Admiral D.K. Joshi announced his force's preparedness to deploy vessels to the area to protect his nation's oil interests.

India's state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corp has a stake in an offshore gas field off Vietnam's southern coast.

In his announcement, Admiral Joshi was careful to avoid provoking China as he pointed out that India was not a party to the ownership dispute. Yet, he made it clear India would act to protect its interests in the area should the need arise.

Growing energy needs

As a large emerging economy with a growing gross domestic product of some US$1.85 trillion, India has large and growing energy requirements dominated by oil, gas and coal, despite its efforts to increase the share of renewables and nuclear in its energy mix.

Its growing demand for fossil fuels cannot be fully met by its depleting reserves, which makes it increasingly reliant on imported oil and gas. Concerned about its energy security, India has sought to diversify and thereby increase its suppliers.

Thus it has been motivated to enter many energy-rich regions, including areas affected by conflict, such as East Africa (South Sudan) and the South China Sea (Vietnam).

India's increasing willingness to defend its energy interests must be seen in the context of its changing regional and global status. Sixty-five years after independence, India has moved from a severely underdeveloped country with a negligible economy to a large economy striving to become a major power, or even superpower. Although it is still decades away from realising this, it has certainly established itself as a major power in the Asia-Pacific region.

India remains far behind China in terms of socio-economic development, international trade, financial strength, technological advancement, infrastructural capabilities, prosperity and military capabilities. Nevertheless, it sees China as a rival in the Asia-Pacific region.

Tension-free ties

Mindful of the negative impact of major political and military conflicts on socio-economic development, India and China have sought tension-free relations backed by large annual trade. However, they remain concerned about each other's objectives because of past experiences, including the 1962 border war that resulted in India's defeat. Understandably, that has left India suspicious of its large neighbour.

Any conflict between China, the Philippines and Vietnam over the disputed South China Sea islands would inevitably damage all three parties. That may well lead to intervention by an outsider, particularly the US, given its interests in the region. This would internationalise the dispute and legitimise a long-term US military presence in China's proximity, which Beijing has sought to avoid.

Within this context, any deployment of the Indian navy in the South China Sea in defence of its oil interests would also contribute to such "internationalisation" while increasing the possibility of naval clashes.

The ownership disputes are already having a polarising effect in the region, along pro-China and pro-US lines, and the Indian navy's announcement will only intensify this. And that can't be good news for Beijing, which has been trying to prevent the US from further upsetting the regional balance of power, which is already in Washington's favour.

Dr Hooman Peimani is head of the Energy Security Division and a principal fellow at the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore.

© South China Morning Post


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