HANOI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India has declared itself ready to deploy naval vessels to the South China Sea to protect its oil-exploration interests there, a potential new escalation of tensions in a disputed area where fears of armed conflict have been growing steadily.
India’s naval chief made the statement yesterday just as Vietnam’s state oil and gas company, Petrovietnam, accused Chinese boats of sabotaging an exploration operation by cutting a seismic cable being towed behind a Vietnamese vessel.Petrovietnam said the seismic vessel, Binh Minh 02, had been operating outside the Gulf of Tonkin when the cable was severed on Friday. It had earlier been surveying the Nam Con Son basin further south — an area where Indian state-run explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) has a stake in a Vietnamese gas field.
Indian Navy Chief Admiral D K Joshi said that, while India was not a territorial claimant in the South China Sea, it was prepared to act, if necessary, to protect its maritime and economic interests in the region. “When the requirement is there, for example, in situations where our country’s interests are involved, for example ONGC … we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that,” Joshi told a news conference.
“Now, are we preparing for it? Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is yes,” he said.
Petrovietnam posted on its website comments made by the deputy head of exploration, Pham Viet Dung, to a journalist from Vietnam’s Petrotimes that the seismic cable was quickly repaired and the survey resumed the following day.
“The blatant violation of Vietnamese waters by Chinese fishing vessels not only violates the sovereignty … of Vietnam but also interferes in the normal operations of Vietnamese fishermen and affects the maritime activities of Petrovietnam,” Dung was quoted as saying. Tensions have simmered in the South China Sea for many years but have escalated this year as an increasingly powerful China, which sees virtually the entire sea as its territory, begins to assert its long-standing offshore claims more vigorously.
Parts of the South China Sea are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. The region, Asia’s biggest potential military troublespot, is believed to be rich in oil and gas — and more than half the world’s oil-tanker traffic passes through it.
Last week, Chinese state media said police in southern Hainan province would board and search ships which illegally entered what China considers its territory in the sea — a move that immediately raised fears for the free passage of international shipping and the possibility of a naval clash.