Asia’s Giants Colliding at Sea?

NEW DELHI – Even in an age of 24-hour globalized news, some important events only come to light well after the fact. Something of this sort happened several months ago in the South China Sea – and may shape how relations between the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, develop in the years ahead.

While returning in late July from a goodwill visit to Vietnam in waters recognized as international, an Indian naval ship was “hailed” on open radio and advised to “lay off” the South China Sea. Although naval incidents between China and its near neighbors – particularly Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines – are not unusual, this is the first one to involve India.

Why did China attempt to interfere with a ship sailing in open seas? Was this “merely” another of China’s unwarranted assertions of sovereignty over the whole South China Sea, or was something more malevolent afoot?

At China’s Foreign Ministry, a spokesperson explained: “[W]e are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction.” Then, in passing, he added that “countries outside the region, we hope…will respect and support countries in the region” in their efforts “to solve…dispute[s] through bilateral channels.”