Just when external affairs minister S. M. Krishna was affirming in Indias right to freedom of navigation in Washington,news reports from Shanghai say China is testing Delhis political will to exercise this right in the South China Sea.
Krishnas affirmation was part of the India-U.S. Strategic dialogue this week in Washington. Meanwhile an Indian naval contingent,on an extended operational deployment in the South China Sea during the last two months,has called in at the Shanghai port on its way home.
According to reports from Shanghai,when the Indian naval squadron led by INS Shivalik was on its way to South Korea from the Philippines,the Peoples Liberation Army Navy provided an unwanted escort.
Although the Indian ships were in international waters,a Chinese frigate sent a message welcoming the contingent to the South China Sea and sailed along for the next 12 hours.
Last September,it might be recalled,a caller identifying himself as representing the Chinese navy told the Indian naval squadron sailing off the Vietnamese coast that it was in Chinas territorial waters.
The unwelcome escort this year reflects the PLANs hardening attitude to Indias naval presence in South China Sea. Indian navy has been flying the flag in these waters since 2000.
The PLANs challenge to India was presented in a typical and exquisite Chinese style. In welcoming and escorting the Indian naval unit,the PLAN was showing India its velvet covered fist.
The message is this: nice to see you here,but you are in our territorial waters and within them there is no right to freedom of navigation for military vessels. You are here at our sufferance.
In a well-calibrated escalation,Beijing is testing Indias rhetoric on freedom of navigation and the political will in Delhi to defend its proclaimed rights in the South China Sea and sustain a forward naval presence in the Western Pacific.
Beijings challenge to India comes amidst the deepening conflict between China and its maritime neighboursespecially Vietnam and the Philippinesin the South China.
The Indian naval contingent had called on ports in both the Philippines and Vietnam in its current tour of the South China Sea.
The PLANs sparring with the Indian Navy comes at a moment when the tension between the United States and China are boiling over in East Asias waters.
Indias decisionapparently commercialto end the drilling for oil in an offshore block in Vietnams waters might have sent the wrong signal to PLAN. Beijing might be betting that with a little more pressure,Delhi might scale down its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea.
To be sure,the Indian Navy has the potentialin partnership with other maritime powersto our secure national interests in the South China Sea.
But no one is betting that the UPA governmentwhich has reduced the Delhi Durbar to a shambleshas the political will to stand up to Chinese pressures.