In the second half of the month of July 2011, an Indian warship, INS Airawat, made a call at the Vietnamese port of Nha Trang in south-central Vietnam for a friendly visit. The ship moved out of this port on July 22 and was proceeding to the port of Hai Phong in Northern Vietnam. About 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast, on the South China Sea, INS Airawat was called on an open radio channel by someone identifying himself as the “Chinese Navy. ” The radio caller said, “You are entering Chinese waters, move out of here.”
According to a report in the London based Financial Times, about this incident, an unidentified Chinese warship demanded that an Indian naval vessel identify itself and explain its presence in South China Sea waters off Vietnam in July. Ministry of foreign affairs, Government of India, as well as Indian navy, have confirmed the radio call, but insist that there was no confrontation as no ship or aircraft was visible from the Indian warship. INS Airawat, a 5,650 ton vessel carrying 206 officers and soldiers, did not respond to the message or identify itself as demanded and continued on its way to Hai Phong as scheduled. Vietnam’s foreign ministry said it has no information about the incident. China’ foreign ministry says that they have contacted the defense ministry but have not received any reply so far.
As expected, Vietnam has come out in support of India. Vietnam Ambassador to India, Nguyen Thanh Tan has issued a statement , “Indian ships are welcome in our seas.” This is seen as direct rebut to aggressive bluster of the Chinese.
China has taken an official stance that it has sovereignty over all of the South China Sea, which happens to be an important sea lane for global commercial traffic. This claim has been contested by both, Vietnam and Philippines. China also claims sovereignty over North Paracels archipelago. This claim is disputed by Vietnam. Similarly, it claims that Oil-rich Spartly archipelago to be Chinese territory. A claim again disputed by Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. Vietnam’s support to Indian naval ships, should be seen in light of these disputes.
In a typical Chinese approach, China has started asserting its claim by announcing to ships in that region that they are in Chinese territory and should leave immediately. INS Airawat incident is the latest, in a series of actions this year, taken by Chinese to show maritime assertiveness and has caused concern among regional nations, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. In recent months, cables connecting Vietnamese oil exploration vessels were found cut by Chinese ships. Philippines and Vietnam have objected to what they said was Chinese harassment of oil exploration vessels and fishermen in the South China Sea. In short Chinese assertiveness is being felt by other countries of the region like presence of a bully in a crowded scenario.
To counter this Chinese assertiveness on the seas, Vietnam has been playing the Indian Navy cards rather well. There was much fanfare during the visit of INS Airawat and the programme included a meet of the captain and crew of the ship with leaders of Khanh Hoa Province government and offer flowers at the statute of Tran Hung Dao , the Supreme Commander who led Vietnam to victory in the Battle of Bach Dang in 1288 over the naval fleet of China’s Yuan Dynasty. Earlier this year, two Indian warships, Indian Navy destroyer INS Delhi and the missile escort vessel INS Kirch, had docked at the Nha Rong Port in Ho Chi Minh City for a friendly visit.
Nha Trong Port Vietnam
A communique from the Government of India, makes Indian position very clear. It says that “India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law. These principles should be respected by all.” It is obvious that the visits of Indian warships to Vietnam would therefore continue in future also. Vietnam considers these visits as part of exchange activities between the Vietnamese and Indian Naval forces, which aims to strengthen the long-standing ties of friendship and strategic partnership between the two countries.
For last few years India has been trying to work out a broad security partnership with Vietnam, offering to supply advanced weapons, including anti-ship missiles, and training for its navy and air force. It has been now reported by international press that this partnership may now be coming to an advanced status as Vietnam has agreed to give India rights to use the small port of Nha Trang. INS Airawat was the first ship to visit this port under new agreement.
What are India’s strategic interests in South China Sea? India is developing a major naval base at the Nicobar islands effectively controlling the mouth of the Malacca Straits. Establishment of this base and co-operation with Malaysian and Indonesian Navies, have made this sea lane safer for Indian shipping. Extending this arrangement to South China Sea would therefore seem to be a logical step. Yet, what seems to be the more important aspect of this security alliance with Vietnam is that it establishes a small presence to India in the back yard of China and would be an effective reply to China’s hobnobbing with Pakistan, which has been creating trouble for India over it’s Northern borders.
China has been watching this partnership with Vietnam grow over the years with some unease. A recent analysis carried out by an official Chinese news agency says that Indian navy’s goodwill visit to Vietnam is a clear indication that Vietnam is attempting to include a third country in the South Sea dispute. This report says further that India’s move shows that it hopes to have a presence in the Asia Pacific region.
Indian Navy seems to have made a great new move augmenting the Look east policy of the Indian Government. The waters ahead are however uncharted and deep. It is essential that India makes right moves in future, to establish a permanent naval presence in South China Sea. This would be beneficial not only to India and Vietnam but to the entire ASIAN group of countries too.
5th September 2011