India stresses on ‘freedom of navigation’ in South China Sea

STORY: India said on Tuesday (December 18) that Beijing should respect maritime rights of other countries to navigate freely in the much-disputed South China Sea, while stating clearly that any presumed threat by China to its sovereignty can be resolved through dialogue.

China’s assertive claims in the South China Sea have sown deep divisions within the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) bloc, at a time when military spending in the region is surging and the United States refocuses attention on Asia – a “pivot” that President Barack Obama reinforced during the recent summit.

India has sparred diplomatically with China in the past over its gas and oil exploration block off the coast of Vietnam. China claims virtually the entire mineral-rich South China Sea and has stepped up its military presence there.

Other nations such as Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia have competing claims.

Speaking to a reporter in New Delhi on Tuesday, India’s Foreign Minister, Salman Khurshid said that the issue will not meet any level of hostility.

“I do not think that this is something that will reach levels of hostility or conflict. There are differences, obviously, China has a very clear perception about its sovereignty and it also has a very clear idea of how it wants to resolve these issues and there are other countries that have a different point of view,” Khurshid told Reuters in an exclusive interview.

However, he added that China must respect the international maritime laws.

“There should be compliance and respect for the law of sea and freedom of navigation in high seas is something that we must all adhere to. But the sovereignty issues can be settled between China and the countries that they have a concern about, whether it is done bilaterally or multilaterally. I think there is ample scope for dialogues to settle these issues,” he said.

Earlier this month, amid growing international fears over the potential for naval clashes in the disputed region, the navy chief said Indian navy is prepared to deploy vessels to the South China Sea to protect India’s oil interests there.

“We have engaged China in a meaningful way, as a neighbour, we do take into account the strengths which China has in the field of commerce and international relations and we would want to work together, cooperate, collaborate, and where appropriate, compete as well,” Khurshid said.

Proven and undiscovered oil reserve estimates in the South China Sea range as high as 213 billion barrels of oil, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report. That would surpass every country’s proven oil reserves except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, according to the BP Statistical Review.

The shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the South China Sea has some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. More than half the globe’s oil tanker traffic passes through it.

China’s neighbours are fretting about a recent Chinese media report on new rules that will allow police in the southern Chinese province of Hainan to board and seize control of foreign ships which “illegally enter” its waters from January 01.