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Global Flashpoint
India would do well not to take sides of either the US or China in the South China Sea dispute
Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)
By Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)

The year 2015 started for India with President Barack Obama being the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. The Indo-US Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (IOR) released the previous day said, “We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. It went on to add, “We call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.

The year ended with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting India. The Joint Statement on India and Japan Vision 2025 issued to mark the visit stated, “In view of critical importance of the sea lanes of communications in the South China Sea for regional energy security and trade and commerce which underpins continued peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, the two prime ministers noting the developments in the South China Sea called upon all states to avoid unilateral actions that could lead to tensions in the region”. In between, on 26 May 2015, China issued its military strategy White Paper, which states, “On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbours take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China. It is thus a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests”.

US and Indian naval ships participate in Malabar 2012 To find mention in statements following apex level visits by the US and Japan to India, as well as in China’s Military Strategy White Paper, the South China Sea must have critical importance in the affairs of the countries concerned. It does indeed. Many straits, including the Singapore, Sunda, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar, connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans. For traffic headed towards East Asian ports and Russia, they all open into the South China Sea (through the Java Sea for all except the Malacca Straits). Occupying an area of 3.5 million Km2, it borders China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. It bears trade in excess of USD5.6 trillion annually, including an annual flow of over 15.2 million barrels of oil and a daily flow of 4.2 TCF of gas to power the economies of the Asian Tigers and ASEAN countries. Then there are varying estimates of hydrocarbon wealth below its waters: China’s ministry of Geological Resources and Mining has estimated that it may contain 17.7 billion tonnes (about 125 billion barrels) of crude oil, which exceeds Kuwait’s reserves of 102 billion barrels. On the other hand, America’s Energy Information Administration estimates that it contains at most 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 TCF of natural gas, while highlighting another assessment that the reserves may be only of the order of 2.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent. Add the marine wealth: the South China Sea accounts for an annual catch of about five million tonnes, or about 10 per cent of the total catch taken by developing nations in the world. It is also estimated to hold a third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity, though recent years have seen great concern about declining catches and near extinction of some species of fish due to over exploitation. From India’s perspective, the South China Sea carries well over half its global trade. Exports and imports from and to China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, all amongst India’s top 15 trading partners, must pass through the South China Sea, as must hydrocarbon imports from OVL’s interests in Russia’s Sakhalin and Imperial Energy fields as well as in Vietnam’s Block 06.1, Essar Oil interests in Vietnam and Russia, GAIL imports of LPG from Russia, and OVL and Oil India’s emerging interests in the Russian Arctic and East Siberia.

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