Monday, 26 September 2011

China and India in tussle over Vietnamese oilfield

 The exploration of oilfields off Vietnam's coast by India's state energy firm has provoked a stern response by China, opening yet another front in the contest over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.

India's ONGC is working with PetroVietnam on exploring a block close to the disputed Vietnam-China maritime border. At the time the contract was won, back in 2006, China protested that the area was within its waters. Now, ONGC's return to the area after a pause for technical reasons has resulted in a number of outspoken warnings by China.

The state-run Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, published an editorial accusing India of a “serious political provocation” which could “push China to the limit”. The foreign ministry in Beijing has also said that India's actions were “illegal and invalid”. New Delhi has brushed off the warnings, saying that its actions are in line with international law and that the block is within Vietnamese waters.

The spat is another escalation in tensions between China and its neighbours in the South China Sea, of which it claims a significant area. Vietnam has been a particular focus of Beijing's ire, with a summer marked by tit-for-tat naval drills and mutual recriminations.

They appeared to make up in early September, with an agreement to compromise through friendly consultations, but the rapprochement seems to have fallen apart just as quickly. On 13th September, Hanoi also announced that it would start conducting joint patrols with Indonesia along their mutual border, in a bid to shore up stability in the area.

On 23rd September, the Philippines announced that their efforts to forge a common position among South China Sea states had been successful, with delegates from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreeing that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea should be used to settle regional territorial disputes.

Growing concern at China's claims and gunboat diplomacy is creating an opportunity for India in the region, as the ONGC episode shows. New Delhi is becoming increasingly confident in its dealings with China, and has the potential to begin acting as a counterweight to Beijing for smaller states in the area.

Sources: AFP, Wall Street Journal, Times of India, Global Times

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