India sails into Asia whirlpool

New Delhi, Dec. 3: The Indian Navy is training to deploy in the South China Sea to secure its oil assets in the event of a contingency, the defence wing chief said here today, immediately raising the stakes for New Delhi in Asia's whirlpool.

"Not that we expect to be in those waters very, very frequently. But when the requirement is there for situations where the country's interests are involved ' for example, ONGC Videsh ' we are there. Are we preparing for it? Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is: Yes," Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi said.

Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own but Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia demarcate their own maritime boundaries in the waters that are the shortest distance between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The chief of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), Surin Pitsuwan, last week described the dispute over the waters as a potential "Asian Palestine" that can destabilise a vast region.

India has exploration and production-sharing agreements with Vietnam in three blocks off the Vietnamese coast. The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation's overseas arm, OVL, is engaged in two blocks spanning 955sqkm and 7,058sqkm. China says it owns a block for which it has invited global bids for exploration.

China pushed its claims even further over the weekend with its Hainan Province promulgating new rules that authorise its coastal and maritime security forces to stop, search and seize "illegal" foreign vessels.

Reuters today reported that Singapore has expressed concern over China's plan to board and search ships sailing in what it considers its territory in the South China Sea. Singapore, home to the world's second-busiest container port, is the second Southeast Asian country to publicly express concern over the new rules after the Philippines condemned the Chinese plan as illegal.

The navy chief said that India does not have a territorial claim in the South China Sea but was concerned with the freedom of navigation and with the settlement of disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

But, he said, "as a navy, if we are not there to protect the country's interests in the maritime domain, then what are we there for"?

The Indian Navy has time and again harped that its strategic area of interest was the Indian Ocean region.

Joshi said the navy's priority now was to be able to provide security for Indian economic investments "across oceans". He believed that this was always the mandate of the Indian Navy. This is the first time that a navy chief has enunciated such a mandate from a public platform. (Joshi was addressing a media conference traditionally held every year just before Navy Day on December 4.)

China's touchiness about India's interests in oil exploration near its coasts was expressed in July last year. An unidentified Chinese warship "buzzed" the INS Airavat, an Indian amphibious vessel, as it sailed from one Vietnamese port to another.

The Indian Navy was also shoring up assets under its Visakhapatnam-headquartered Eastern Command from where its warships make annual voyages through the South China Sea for friendly port calls and exercises.

Estimates for proven and undiscovered oil reserves in the South China Sea range as high as 213 billion barrels of oil, the US Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report. That would surpass every country's proven oil reserves except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, according to the BP Statistical Review.