Author : Arun Prakash

What ship; where bound?”is the traditional nautical challenge that instantly rings out on the international marine radio channel when a warship happens to meet a stranger, in home waters, or on the high seas. This routine query usually elicits a response which may contain the name, nationality and port of call of the unknown vessel. Generally, no further explanations are either demanded or forthcoming.

Did the Indian Navy’s (IN) amphibious ship INS Airavat have an innocuous encounter of this natureon departing from the Vietnamese port of Nha Trang on 22nd July? Or was there something more ominous, as made out by the foreign, and subsequently, Indian media, which alleged that Airavat was queried by a PLA Navy (PLAN) warship about its business in “Chinese waters”?

Given the extraordinary situation wherein China’s putative maritime claims fall well inside the Vietnamese exclusive economic zone (EEZ), INS Airavat could have been perceived by the PLAN to be trespassing when she was actually in international waters. But more interesting is the question that since the IN could not have released information regarding this alleged “incident”, how did it become common knowledge for the foreign media? Moreover, whose interests did it serve to blow up a passing encounter of this nature into a major issue?

Matters get “curiouser”, if we now consider this incident in the context of some other developments. ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) which made oil and gas discoveries in the Vietnamese EEZ in 1992, but had to sell its stake due to financial stringency, has recently been able to retrieve its holdings. In the intervening decades, simmering territorial disputes over its group of 250 hydrocarbon-rich islands, atolls, cays and reefs have made South China Sea one of the most disputed and volatile patches of salt-water worldwide.

Not known for either its quick decision-making, or adroit foot-work abroad, it is intriguing that OVL should have chosen this particular moment to resume exploration in, what is now virtually, a legal and political minefield. The company should have known that China has not only been making vociferous assertions of sovereignty over the whole of South China Sea, but has, of late, shown increasing proclivity to use naval muscle to discourage any maritime “intrusions”.

And that brings us to yet another unusual occurrence. Indian Foreign Minister, SM Krishna, with boldness and clarity, uncharacteristic of recent Indian diplomacy, reiterated in Hanoi, on 16th September, that OVL intends to go ahead with hydrocarbon exploration in two offshore blocks in Vietnam’s EEZ. Not unexpectedly, this evoked, the same day, an acerbic response by the Chinese news agency Xinhua which lashed out at the Indian exploration venture, “ the highly sensitive sea over which China enjoys indisputable sovereignty” and conveyed the veiled threat that on account of this initiative, India “...might poison its relationship with China.”

So how far is India willing to go back its Foreign Minister’s word? Given, not only the heavy investment involved, but also the serious geo-political implications of hydrocarbon exploration at China’s doorstep, there cannot be any doubt that this was an issue of strategic importance that called for a decision at the apex level. However, the Indian state has, time and again, demonstrated a chronic lack of overall strategic focus, as well as an endemic absence of coordination between important organs of the government. Is it, therefore, possible that this decision came about without due consultation between the Ministries of Petroleum and Natural Gas, External Affairs and Defence, or advice from Naval Head Quarters?

Given the strenuous efforts being made in New Delhi, to maintain tranquillity in Sino-Indian relations, and to provide impetus to burgeoning bi-lateral trade, this appears to be an inopportune moment to get involved, in yet another sensitive issue. Even if India is about to take a, long overdue, stand on principles, or to adopt an assertive posture vis-a-vis China, a distant location like the South China Sea is hardly an ideal setting to demonstrate India’s maritime or other strengths.

Currently the IN is in the throes of a planned modernization and expansion process. Its existing resources must be pretty stretched in providing, over and above its other operational and homeland defence commitments, a standing anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden as well as off the Laccadive and Minicoy Island group. At this juncture, it would be imprudent to contemplate sustaining a naval presence some 2500 nautical miles from home to bolster OVL’s stake in South China Sea hydrocarbons.

OVL now has overseas hydrocarbon stakes extending from Sakhalin in the east, to the Sudan in the west; with future ventures in the Russian Arctic and even South America, a possibility. Such heavy investments, far from home, will demand backing and support, which can only be delivered by a maritime force. In the light of recent events, this calls for introspection by India’s national security establishment on a few issues.

A viable trans-national capability needs to be incorporated into India’s future naval force-planning. While the IN has been contemplating such contingencies, and has created the necessary doctrinal underpinning, there is a void at the national policy-making level, which must be addressed. India’s trade and energy interests in the Pacific are as vital as those professed by China in the Indian Ocean. Realpolitik demands that India now crafts its own approach to counter China’s Indian Ocean “string of pearls” strategy and its new stance on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. In such a strategy our relations with nations like Vietnam, Philippines and even Taiwan, must figure prominently.

And finally, the gratuitous suggestion by Xinhua that; “The Indian government should be cool-headed and refrain from making a move that saves a little only to lose a lot” may be sound advice, but it applies equally to Beijing too.

(Admiral Arun Prakash was the Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy from 2004 to 2006. This article first appeared in Rediff News on September 26, 2011)
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