Contested Waters: China and India Adrift on a Sea of Animus

The World Oceans Day celebrates the seas as a boon for mankind. It may soon turn out to be a bane for Sino-Indian relations. The problems are many and centre around the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) as the sea area and seabed stretching 200nm from the coast and island territories, including the 12 nautical mile (nm) strip of water hugging the coasts of countries deemed sovereign territory, exclusively for the coastal country to mine and drill for offshore oil and gas.

South China Sea Contest

In a world where traditional energy and minerals sources are depleting fast, such resources are highly prized and as between states with extended coastlines and contested island territories, ever-elongated EEZs are reduced to a confusing welter of overlapping claims that are difficult to resolve because they are almost impossible to disentangle. EEZs do not, however, prohibit or limit in any way the right of free passage through these waters for merchant marine and even warships of all countries in peace time. But peace depends on how emphatically a country seeks to enforce its claims.

At the recent Shangrila Conference in Singapore, the head of the Chinese Navy Admiral Sun Jianguo talked plainly about the possibility of adding to the 2,000-odd acres of new “islands” brazenly created in mid-South China Sea by Beijing in violation of international laws and legal understandings. China dumped massive amounts of earth, sand, and silt, cemented these huge manmade outcroppings, and used them as air fields and impromptu naval bases, and has threatened to impose an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the area. Both the “islands” and the ADIZ are, however, capable of triggering war.

With the enhanced EEZ measured off these ersatz islands, China’s claims to all of South China Sea, Beijing believes, are incontestable. The extraordinary and entirely illegal cartographic actions notwithstanding, Admiral Sun averred that China had actually “exercised enormous restraint”! If this is restraint, many wonder what Chinese loss of self-control would entail. Such territorially expansionist policy involving the “near waters” is justified on the basis of millennial claims of this maritime region once being a Chinese “lake”.

The India Tangle

How is India affected by such shenanigans? For one thing, India has concessions and invested in oil fields in the very waters off Vietnam which China thinks it owns. Direct confrontation with China is likely also because Vietnam is being built up militarily by India in the manner Pakistan has been by China – to be a deep thorn in the side of the other. India needs only to transfer nuclear-tipped missiles to Hanoi to equilibrate the situation.

Besides, per geostrategic logic the more China is kept busy minding its marine backyard the less it may be inclined to open a front in the Himalayas and, even less, in the Indian Ocean. India and China as the rising powers in Asia, and the narrow straits – Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda – oceanically separating them, make for a picture of a giant dumb-bell with the two countries weighing down the two ends, with India at least for the foreseeable future having the naval edge west of Malacca, and China east of it.

Strategic Interests

As in most strategic matters, India woke up late to the military and economic significance of dominating the surrounding ocean, having been lulled by the view that the Indian peninsula jutting out into the sea like the prow of an aircraft carrier could easily muster overwhelming force by sea and air in the Sunda-to-Simonstown arc, which Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean cannot thwart.

India’s military advantage has been gradually eroded though by Beijing successfully cultivating littoral states and island nations with economic and military aid and infrastructure assistance (in pursuance of its “maritime silk route” strategy), until now when with Chinese-run Gwadar heaving into sight, China is positioned to give a good account of itself.

To augment its seaward economic heft India, on the basis of sedimentary and other scientific evidence and the extended continental shelf-principle, sought approval in 2010 from UNCLOS for nearly doubling its EEZ, stretching to 340nm into the sea from the mainland and its island territories (Lakshdweep, Minicoy, Andaman & Nicobar), thereby reserving substantial portions of the seabed for exploitation beyond the 2,708,139 sq kms already in its fold (versus 3,119,309 sq kms for China).

In the event, China’s deep sea mining ventures and aggressive naval patrolling in the Indian Ocean are to India what Indian naval flotilla sailings and oil exploration efforts off Vietnam’s shore are to China – ready provocation and cause for conflict.
Published in the Quint, June 8, 2015, at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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4 Responses to Contested Waters: China and India Adrift on a Sea of Animus

  1. Shail says:

    Sadly their Naval and air Forces are probably capable of enforcing their claims – except the Americans and maybe the Japs, everyone will kowtow. Rumor has it that the US has instructed their Civil ac to comply with the ADIZ in the East China Sea.Only their mil ac continue to defy the Chinese claims. Even in the recent brouhaha, the P8A tapes also contain a Delta pilots calls who was allowed to pass – what then does this signify for us? Give up the offshore fields near Vietnam if push comes to shove? or is it now time for a military alliance? Strategic autonomy may cost us dearly…

    • Not a rumour — American commercial airlines traffic instructed by Washington respect the Chinese ADIZ when transiting the South China Sea area. The Modi govt is unlikely to feel pressured into giving up its oil exploration activity off Vietnam. The question is whether it will have the guts to challenge the ADIZ by violating it repeatedly and without compunction with military aircraft to establish a precedent as USAF sorties are doing?

      • Shaurya says:

        what would be interesting is to do a joint exercise between India, Japan and Australia in the Indo China Sea.

  2. Shail says: a hypothetical Scenario..where such a violation results in a shootdown of either sides aircraft or say..sinking of a it a defendable strategy? Will escalation not occur say in LAC violations and suchlike? the moot point being therefore are we prepared to risk it, given that the Americans are already “with the ball” and not getting the Chinese to back off..Lot of statements (bluster) coming out over the incident from the PLA and their sponsored press. Could be a good time to get into defence co-operation agreements with the smaller parties for intel and suchlike

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