External affairs minister SM Krishna on Friday declared that the South China Sea region is the property of the world and must be freed from any “national interference” so that trade ways could be used freely by nations in that region for the development of trade. This statement becomes relevant as it is the second-most used sea lane in the world. More than 50 per cent of the annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait.
For India, the area is of interest as ONGC Videsh Limited, the wing of ONGC that does oil exploration overseas, has a three-year agreement with Petro Vietnam to promote oil exploration in the South China Sea, to supply oil and natural gas to the two countries.
India’s domestic oil production is only 7,63,000 barrels per day that meets about 30 per cent of our requirement. For the rest of our daily need, we depend on imports. Even if we achieve the targeted additional 11 per cent in 2012-13 and a further 8 per cent in 2013-14 from internal sources, we will still need to import about 50 per cent of the oil required by a rapidly growing economy. Tying up with other countries with prospects of fulfilling this demand is a tried and tested way.
The South China Sea has proven oil reserves. A partnership with Vietnam for exploration of oil would be beneficial to both countries. However, claiming the entire South China Sea, China discourages oil and gas exploration activities in waters it considers its jurisdiction. There have been skirmishes between China and Vietnam over the control of Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, which are located in the sea and supposed to have large reserves of oil. China has staked its claim over the sea with its boundary called the ‘nine-dotted line’ that overlaps other countries’ claims of the area. China, therefore, has warned off India not to get involved in disputes of the region.
Keeping in view the oil requirement of the nation, India’s foreign policy on the issue needs to be pegged against the backdrop of our bilateral relations with China. We will have to consider the history of hostilities with our northern neighbour, without ignoring China’s practice of befriending neighbouring countries, like Pakistan and Sri Lanka that have issues with India. Our purpose in the South China Sea obviously is not playing the game the Chinese way, yet we will have to balance the scales so that China does not arm-twist us by increasing its interference in our neighbourhood and tighten its noose around us so as to make us drop our overseas plans.
While it would not do to let down countries like Vietnam, with whom we have a legal agreement of joint explorations, we need to help Vietnam to conduct peaceful negotiations with China (which it has offered) so that armed conflict is avoided in the region. We must explore possibilities of tying up with other countries of the area like Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei. Such a move would be beneficial for India’s overall economic interests and political goals. Making the area’s trade ways free is a first step to diffuse tensions in the area. This needs to be done multilaterally and not bilaterally as China wishes.
The writer works for Postnoon.
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