The Chinese are sensitive when it comes to the South China Sea. They consider it to be a matter of core national interest, like Taiwan and Tibet. They are possessive about it. Malaysia, Brunei and Japan are already in dispute over the Sea with the Chinese. And naturally, if India enters this dispute and China doesn’t protest, it doesn’t give a right signal to other countries. It was a ploy that was deliberately played out.
Basically, this episode was played out by the media. It was an over-reaction by the Chinese media and it wasn’t the government-owned media like China Daily that made a hue and cry. Government-owned media acted with restraint. It was the Global Times that raised the issue and Chinese authorities claim that this paper is not under government control. But in a system like China’s, nothing can be printed or said without approval of the government.
It doesn’t mean that India and China will let this matter escalate. The India-China relationship has been improving steadily. There was the strategic economic meeting at Beijing where both countries had made some progress.
India was not doing something new in the Sea. India’s engagement in the South China Sea has been there since the 1980s. The agreement with ONGC Videsh was signed in 2006, not this year. Vietnam has claimed that the two blocks in contention, 127 and 128, don’t belong to China. They belong to Vietnam as per the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea signed in 1982. The Chinese are contesting that. Even if they belong to Vietnam, they can’t invite a third country to explore, say the Chinese.
Conflict is inevitable. But then there is the reassuring presence of the US in the region. That helps a little. China engages with the US a lot at different levels but they bemoan US interference in their affairs. The Chinese may also have a feeling that India is there because of tacit support from the US.
Anyway, ONGC is not going to immediately explore blocks over there. The Defence Minister has clearly said that the South China Sea is not our priority. Our priority is our backyard. But that doesn’t mean we are withdrawing. He may just want to assuage the wounded feelings of the Chinese.
India has been asserting itself as a superpower but it should have the strength to do that. It could be military, economic, strategic or diplomatic strength. India needs to have military capability to face the Chinese challenge. But acquiring it will take India around 10 years.
But there may be no need to go down that road. The hotline between the countries will soon be activated. And the bonding between Wen Jiabao (Chinese premier) and Manmohan Singh is very good. When tension builds up between two countries it usually gets defused when both of them meet.