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Lines in the sea

Indonesia’s call for South China Sea ‘code of conduct’ is India’s opportunity to affirm its interests

Written by The Indian Express | Published: July 31, 2012 12:43:33 am

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 India’s call for the “freedom of navigation” and “access to resources”,in keeping with Delhi’s 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 China’s 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 world’s trade and its hydrocarbon-rich waters are estimated to contain approximately 200 billion barrels of undiscovered oil. Half of India’s 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.

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