"Although competition between China and India is not terribly new, we do see a current flare-up in the relations between the two countries. India has been expanding its relations with Vietnam, focusing on oil and gas exploration and production as well as military cooperation. This has received a strong verbal response from the Chinese as well as some physical activity.
India and Vietnam have been cooperating in offshore oil and gas exploration for several years. However, they are moving to a new phase with more of the exploitation of the resources. It appears that later this year a new memorandum of understanding between the two countries is going to be signed. China has responded to this by accusing India of violating Chinese territorial waters and of interfering in Chinese territorial issues. There has been a report of an incident where Chinese maritime police have interfered with the operations of an Indian vessel in the Vietnamese waters, and we see statements coming out of Beijing warning India to back off.
India for a long time has pursued what it calls a “Look East” policy but it has not pursued it very strongly. We see India now moving back again into the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] nations, into the South China Sea, trying to expand its activity, trying to secure some of its influence, and ultimately taking a role in securing the major supply routes to the area, but also in trying to counter the Chinese. Chinese activity in Pakistan, Chinese activity in Myanmar, the expansion of Chinese port agreements throughout the Indian Ocean Basin, even the Chinese naval activity in regard to the anti-piracy operations off of Africa, have left the Indians feeling a little bit vulnerable.
Seeing the Chinese become stronger, at least theoretically, in their operations in the Indian Ocean, India is looking in some sense to flank China now. In response to the Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean, the Indians are going to become more active in the South China Sea and maybe even farther north. There is talk about creating a trilateral grouping to discuss security, economics and politics of the region between India, the United States and Japan, for example. This very obviously to the Chinese looks like an attempt to constrain Chinese operations and Chinese capabilities within in their own sphere of influence.
The South China Sea has long been the center of competition for sea lane control as well as, for the most part, theoretically for resources; though fishing is there, there has been some offshore oil and gas activity. In recent years we’ve seen an expansion of attention into not only exploring but truly exploiting the undersea resources, and not just in oil and gas but also now in mineral exploration. This is changing, in some sense, the way in which the countries interact because formerly when lots of countries claimed either all or parts of the territory, there was little to force them into confrontation. Now as countries begin to access resources, begin to explore the resources in the sea beds, they are doing so in ways that in some sense asserts their territorial claim to that area. That leaves the other countries that don’t interfere with that in some sense accepting those territorial claims.
The concreteness of this has changed, in some sense, the way in which interactions regarding the South China Sea play out. As countries expand their operations, as they put in installations, semi-permanent, permanent installations, to be able to access these resources, they find themselves needing to defend those resources. Other countries may be interfering in the operations and so we see these issues where China will send a boat to interfere with the activity of another country’s ships. The response, then, from Vietnam, or from India in this case, may be to become more robust in their own military patrols in the area. And this builds up a case where you have more military vessels in the area at the same time and the chances for accidental confrontation start to rise.
In the end, while India is becoming more involved, there are some serious limitations. The Indians certainly have very large land borders that they are much more concerned about. The country still struggles with several internal insurgencies or militancy. And their ability to forcefully push themselves into the South China Sea is very limited. The Vietnamese who are working with them know this. Vietnam is playing a lot of different options, not just working with India but also working with China, with the United States, with Japan and several other countries.
As we watch this competition play, the countries in Southeast Asia are put in an interesting position. They have the ability to exploit this competition to draw, perhaps, greater attention from each of the different players. At the same time they have the risk of being exploited by these players and finding themselves caught up in this big power confrontation."
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