India and Japan’s involvement in the South China Sea disputes

By Andy Yee, Hong Kong

Geopolitical tensions continue to simmer in the South China Sea after the Obama administration’s declaration last year of a US ‘return to Asia’ stirred up regional dynamics.

Now, non-claimant states India and Japan are entering into the fray.There are various reasons for this activity.

First, the South China Sea is home to some of the world’s busiest sea lines of communication (SLOCs), which would be disrupted should an armed conflict break out. Second, there is the potential for non-claimant states to get involved in the exploration of oil and gas in the region through joint ventures with claimant states. Third, having a voice in a major regional security issue confers prestige commensurate with regional power status. And last, involvement in the South China Sea issue could have implications on other territorial disputes.

For India and Japan, the South China Sea dispute provides additional indicators to gauge the assertiveness of China’s foreign policy. India and Japan have unsettled borders with China in the Himalayas and the East China Sea, respectively. India also has territorial disputes with Pakistan, who in turn is supported by China. To Japan, the safety of its SLOCs are a vital security interest, and over 80 per cent of her oil imports from the Middle East pass through the South China Sea.

The ‘rise of China’ is also bringing India and Japan closer together. The two countries signed the ‘Joint Statement Vision for Japan-India Strategic and Global Partnership in the Next Decade’ and a ‘Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement’ in October 2010. No doubt India’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca, will also provide an important component for Indo-Japanese maritime cooperation.

Security interests opposite China are also leading the two countries to more strategic engagement with ASEAN states.

Recently, India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) signed a deal with Vietnam’s PetroVietnam to purchase BP’s stakes inoil and gas development in waters off the Vietnamese coast (following a naval confrontation between India and China in the area). While China protests the deal as violating its sovereignty, ONGC and PetroVietnam claim the area in question is within Vietnamese territorial waters. And on 12 October this year, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, with both sides pledging to maintain peace and security in the South China Sea while expanding the contents of their strategic partnership.

As for Japan, it held talks in September with Filipino diplomats on resolving the disputes peacefully in accordance with international law. It was proposed that the two countries set up a ‘permanent working group’ to regularly tackle disputes and other Asian maritime issues. Even more importantly, military and security ties were tightened with the elevation of the relationship to a ‘strategic partnership’. Japan also signalled its willingness to play a bigger role in regional security issues when the Japanese Vice Minister of Defence met with senior defence officials from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand in late September.

The Philippines will also be putting forward a proposal for avoiding future conflicts in the Sea at the upcoming ASEAN summit. This would see claimant countries determine which areas are in dispute and which are not so as to allow for the exploration and exploitation of resources, potentially in joint ventures.

But while outside involvement can guarantee some degree of protection for ASEAN states against China, this could be a dangerous game to play — one that risks a strong reaction from Beijing. Indeed, Chinese media are already calling for such a reaction following Philippine President Aquino’s recent talks with the US and Japan on the one hand and China on the other. These talks secured US$60 billion of infrastructure investment from China but also the purchase of two Hamilton class cutters from the US.

It would be easy for China to interpret the events over the last year as tantamount to a strategic encirclement by the US, India and Japan. And this will only make the disputes more complicated than ever. Now that ASEAN claimant states have a more favourable strategic position vis-à-vis China, all the states involved should turn their attention to the negotiating table, adding substantive content to the agreement reached at this July’s ASEAN Regional Forum to resolve the dispute peacefully. The 12 October signing of a six-point agreement between China and Vietnam to contain the South China Sea dispute, including the opening of a hotline to deal with potential conflicts and the promise of holding border negotiations twice a year, is one welcome development toward this.


Andy Yee is a writer and translator based in Hong Kong. He has worked at the Political Section of the EU Delegation to China in Beijing and blogs at Global Voices Online and China Geeks

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