The visit of External Affairs Minister SM Krishna to Vietnam (Friday, Sept 16) and the reiteration that the Indian public sector oil company, ONGC intends to go ahead with its hydrocarbon exploration in two offshore blocks in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claimed by Vietnam has led to a definitive increase in the tension in the bi-lateral relationship between India and China. Over the last year, there have been various initiatives and actions by Beijing in relation to Pakistan and POK that relate to infrastructure projects and river- water issues that have caused anxiety in Delhi – which China has chosen to ignore -and the current developments in distant Vietnam add another dimension to the already complex, contested and contradictory bi-lateral relationship between the two Asian giants with populations of over a billion each.

The current divergence has a distinct maritime relevance with long term geo-political implications for Asia and the global strategic environment.  Beijing has been staking an assertive claim to the South China Sea (SCS) wherein it is averred that China enjoys ''indisputable sovereignty'' – but this is contested by the concerned ASEAN states which have a contiguous maritime boundary with China in the SCS -   namely Vietnam and Philippines in this case. More recently an Indian naval ship the INS Airawat was apparently challenged by China while sailing through the SCS – but both sides have played down the incident.

The Chinese position also infringes on the freedom of the seas – as prescribed by UN Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to which China is a signatory  – and this claim by Beijing has been resisted by the USA. In the last ASEAN meeting on the subject,  China’s attempt to assert its claims have been  objected to  by the ASEAN  nations,  who in turn have  tacitly welcomed  the US position. Till now India did not have an active or visible presence in the SCS, though it has upheld the global norm on freedom of the seas.
Over the last two years,  the image of the “peaceful rise”  of China  has been muddied by the manner in which Beijing and the PLA have bruised the security sensitivities of Japan, South Korea and ASEAN  in East  and Southeast Asia . I had occasion to attend two conferences in the last fortnight in Taipei, Taiwan and Phuket, Thailand  and  China was the focus of attention. The question that most regional security analysts ask in private is, “if this is how China is going to flex its muscles at this stage of its growth – how much more abrasive and arrogant will it be when it becomes the world’s leading economic power?”
The answer to this question has deep relevance for India as it seeks to manage its complex bi-lateral with China on one hand and Pakistan on the other. The two Asian giants have an unresolved territorial and land border dispute and have had a mini-war in October 1962.  Yet they have managed to restore bi-lateral ties to a high political level after a freeze of 26 years when PM Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing in December 1988.  And over the last one year, the Sino-Indian trade relationship has boomed making China the largest trading partner of India.

India and China have to now manage their maritime relationship in an equitable manner since both nations are becoming more and more dependent on the sea lines of communication (SLOC) in the Indian and Pacific oceans. It is pertinent to note that just as the Indian Ocean is NOT India’s ocean and all nations including China have the right to navigate through these waters as per the UN laws, China CANNOT claim ''indisputable sovereignty'' in the SCS – and expect that other nations will accept this interpretation in a docile manner.

Delhi has taken a calibrated stance in rejecting China’s diplomatic demarches on the Vietnam issue and has clarified that the Indian investment is commercial cum energy related – a pattern that Beijing is well aware of given China’s own investment in Africa and Latin America as part of its energy quest. Yes, there is an unstated geo-political dimension in the Vietnam stand-off and related security sensitivity.  Here the Chinese endorsement of POK as  being an integral part of Pakistan  is as much of a ‘core’ issue  for Delhi – as Taiwan and Tibet are for Beijing.

While the Chinese foreign ministry has been cautious in its response till now – the hard-line faction in China has drawn some red lines.  The news agency Xinhua noted (Sep 16):  "Aggressive overseas explorations from the Indian side in the highly sensitive sea, over which China enjoys indisputable sovereignty, might poison its relationship with China, which has been volatile and at times strained. The Indian government should be cool-headed and refrain from making a move that saves a little only to lose a lot."

This is sage advice – but it applies as much to Beijing – to carry out an objective cost-benefit analysis in strategic terms , about how a ‘rising’ China wishes to interpret international law on one hand – and yet maintain ‘harmonious’ relations with its neighbours that are equitable and respect the legitimate claims of the other party.