Speaking in Delhi last week,Indonesian Foreign Minister R.M. Marty Natalegawa asked for a code of conduct for the South China Sea (SCS) to minimise the potential for conflict. In turn,External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna reiterated Indias call for the freedom of navigation and access to resources,in keeping with Delhis new,and strong,emphasis on the principles of international law at the ASEAN summit earlier this month. ASEAN failed to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years due to differences on the SCS dispute. Given Chinas increasing assertion in its maritime territorial disputes particularly with Vietnam and the Philippines rule-of-the-road regulations,in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,are imperative.
The SCS carries almost half of the worlds trade and its hydrocarbon-rich waters are estimated to contain approximately 200 billion barrels of undiscovered oil. Half of Indias own trade flows through these waters,and India has declared the area key to its energy needs. A freely navigable SCS,which India calls the property of the world,is in accordance with keeping the global Sea Lines of Communication open. Only weeks ago,China put up for international bidding a Vietnamese petroleum block where ONGC Videsh has been exploring. Last month,Beijing provided an Indian naval contingent with an unwanted naval escort although the Indian vessels were in international waters. Such sparring,while nowhere close to the recent China-Philippines naval stand-off,came when tension between Washington and Beijing is being heightened by the return of US focus on the region.
The territorial disputes and contests for resources,along with the strategic competition to control the SCS,are significant to global commerce and security. While Delhi must not be drawn into the Beijing-Hanoi or Beijing-Manila crossfire,it must not scale down its operations in the SCS just because Beijing objects to Indian naval presence and resource exploration. To secure its interests,India should augment its strategic partnerships with the SCS countries and answer their call for its role. Meanwhile,Delhi must continue to emphasise the need for ASEAN unity and for its members to find ways to peacefully resolve disputes with China.