Delhi borrows diplomatic language in South China Sea

By Lora Saalman Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-5 20:00:03

"India urges both countries to exercise restraint…" With these seven words in a statement about China and the Philippines' recent tensions in the South China Sea, India can be seen taking pages from China's diplomatic playbook. China has long used such turns of phrase to counsel restraint on the part of other powers and to show engagement without direct action.

Yet, this does not mean that China has been unwilling to dip its toes into external waters, and now nor is India any longer. Delhi is undertaking pronouncements and policies that mirror those of China, particularly when it comes to maritime interests.

India's Look East policy dates back to the early 1990s and was launched by the famous directive from then prime minister I.K. Gujral to engage in reciprocity with countries to its east. This led to any number of economic and political ventures that have placed India in closer diplomatic proximity to Southeast Asia. Still, when it comes to the South China Sea, India has remained largely silent. That is, until now.

What may be even more surprising than India's willingness to weigh in on such disputes, however, is the tone of these statements. They smack of Chinese "diplo-speak." Delhi's recent statements on the South China Sea reflect those of China, which has often exhorted Delhi and Islamabad to use calm and restraint when facing bilateral tensions.

This time around, India has sought to proffer its own counsel to China and its southern neighbors. The most recent case involves India's statements over Sino-Philippine tensions.

But more than rhetoric, India is engaging in political, economic, and military exchanges with countries such as Vietnam.

This includes its July 2011 port call to Vietnam that reportedly led Chinese ships to warn the Indian naval vessel INS Airavat of its crossing into the South China Sea. While officially denied, such incidents reflect ambiguities reminiscent of Chinese presence in sub-continental waters.

Much like the Indian reaction to China's efforts to expand its footprint into South Asia, it should be no surprise that China's response to such intervention has been less than favorable. Suspicions over intent, particularly in the wake of Indian efforts to engage such countries as Vietnam, have been rampant throughout Chinese online articles and journals.

Much of this extends from economic interests. But perceptions on both sides have recently undertaken a more security-specific tone. In July 2011, the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association received exclusive rights to explore 10,000 square kilometers of seabed in the southwest Indian Ocean.

In doing so, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman invoked the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to bolster its exploration rights. In best-case Indian assessments, this deal marked further Chinese economic encroachment into the Indian Ocean.

In worst-case scenarios, it led some to suggest that China could use this deepwater exploration as a means to facilitate its naval, namely nuclear submarine, ambitions.

Delhi similarly has designs on resource extraction in the South China Sea region couched in claims of international law.

Yet, when confronted with designs of the Indian company Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd. to explore two offshore oil blocks with Vietnam, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman responded by admonishing India's involvement in matters beyond its geographic purview.

Given that these actions are reminiscent of what China labels as its own "peaceful development, win-win" diplomacy in India's periphery, however, it becomes harder for China to argue that India should not do the same.

India's intended cooperation with Vietnam on resource extraction barely touches China's claim, but obviously has touched a nerve.

In responding, it is not surprising that China's distinctive diplomatic phraseology has crept into Delhi's lexicon explaining its interaction with China's neighbors to its south. When describing cooperation with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian partners, Indian commentary has been quick to point out that these ties are not directed at any "third party."

If there is no reason for India to doubt the intent behind the dual-use diplomatic rhetoric and actions on the part of China in its Indian Ocean littoral, as frequently claimed by China, then there should be no reason to question the sincerity of Delhi when it comes to the South China Sea.

Refusal to accept this may leave China confronted with yet another term from its lexicon of diplo-speak, namely "double standards."

The author is an associate at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.


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