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China-India tensions now spill over into high seas

Tensions between India and China, which have for decades been centred around their disputed land border, are ominously spilling over onto high seas, with each side stepping on the other’s naval backyard.

At least two incidents involving the two countries’ navies in recent weeks, one in the South China Sea and the other in the Indian Ocean, point to a worrisome trend of naval skirmishes to come in what some analysts see as the theatre of conflict of the future.

 China-India tensions now spill over into high seas

A Chinese warship recently confronted an Indian navy vessel in international waters off Vietnam. Reuters

They also come at a time when China is expanding its footprint as a naval power, as part of which it recently unveiled its first aircraft carrier for tests, and is asserting its territorial rights over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

As India too looks to hold onto its traditional naval superiority in the Indian Ocean, and simultaneously expand its influence in the East Asian region, the potential for the two navies to edge ever closer to a skirmish is increasing with dangerous consequences.

One such incident, the first of its kind involving the two countries’ navies, occurred late in July when a Chinese warship confronted an Indian navy vessel in international waters in the South China Sea. Financial Times reports, citing five unnamed sources familiar with the incident, that an unidentified Chinese warship “demanded that India’s INS Airavat, an amphibious assault vessel, identify itself and explain its presence in international waters.”

INS Airavat had made a port of call in Vietnam from July 19 to 22, and was in international waters when the incident occurred.

Significantly, the confrontation in the high seas occurred within days of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India, during which she urged India to be more active in the Asia-Pacific region. In a speech in Chennai, Clinton had pointedly urged India “not just to look east but also to engage east and act east as well.”

In that speech, Clinton also pointed out that the US and India have shared interests in protecting sea lanes in the Asia-Pacific region. “The more our countries trade and invest with each other and with other partners, the more central the Asia-Pacific region becomes to global commerce and prosperity, and the more interest we both have in maintaining stability and security. As the stakes grow higher, we should use our shared commitments to make sure that we have maritime security and freedom of navigation,” Clinton said.

The incident involving INS Airavat is only the latest manifestation of maritime tension between India and China. Other reports citing unidentified security officials claim that a Chinese spy ship, disguised as a fishing trawler, had been detected in the Indian Ocean off the Andamans coast some months ago.

According to this report, the spy ship had been operating for a while before it was detected, and that an Indian navy vessel was despatched to keep watch on it. Operating entirely in international waters, the spy ship appeared to have been collecting data about current patterns and temperature, which analysts reckon is intended to test the navigability of China’s newly acquired aircraft carrier.

The two incidents, which expand the potential sources of friction between the two countries from land to sea, are linked up with larger geopolitical trends, but could nevertheless feed the lingering distrust between them, and, in the opinion of some strategic analysts, drag them inevitably towards a conflict.

China claims territorial sovereignty over a large swathe of the South China Sea, and over many disputed islands over which Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore  and the Philippines also lay claims. In recent months, China has been projecting its power in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea: Chinese navy vessels (and on occasion fishing trawlers) have been involved in aggressive confrontations with Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese vessels.

China has warned multinational oil companies from prospecting for oil off Vietnam, claiming that it encroached in its territorial sovereignty. India’s interest in Vietnam’s energy assets thus place it in direct conflict with China’s claims over the territory. In such a situation, the two countries’ navies seem fated to see yet more tension even in the high seas.

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Updated Date: Sep 02, 2011 09:07:57 IST

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