“We’ll protect our interests in South China Sea by sending forces, if need be”

With National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon in Beijing for talks on the boundary question, Navy Chief Admiral D.K. Joshi has termed the situation in the South China Sea “complex,” as China is rapidly modernising its Navy, and said India would protect its economic interests in the disputed waters by sending forces, if need be. “Yes, you are right. The modernisation of the Chinese Navy is truly impressive. It is actually a major, major cause for concern…, which we continuously evaluate, and [we will] work out our options and strategies,” he said in reply to questions at the customary Navy Day press conference here on Monday. Though India was not a direct claimant in the South China Sea, its primary concern was the “freedom of navigation in international waters,” he said.

“It is not that we expect to be in those waters very frequently,” but whenever the situation required, with the country’s interests at stake — for example “ONGC Videsh has three oil exploration blocks there” — “we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that,” Admiral Joshi said. ONGC Videsh has three offshore deepwater blocks, on the southern Vietnamese coast, and invested $600 million in oil and gas exploration in these blocks in the past few years. The footprint of ONGC Videsh is spread over 15 countries, where it is engaged in exploration work on 31 projects.

Asked whether the Indian Navy had undertaken exercises for such a mission, he said: “The short answer is yes.”

He said: “Not only us but everyone is of the view that they [the disputes] have to be resolved by the parties concerned, aligned with the international regime, which is outlined in UNCLOS [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]; that is our first requirement.”

Asked whether the Navy would provide protection to ONGC Videsh’s assets in the South China Sea, Admiral Joshi said it would require government approval.

New rules announced recently by Hainan province (which administers the South China Sea for China) to allow for interception of ships have raised concerns in the region, with fears of simmering disputes with Southeast Asian nations escalating.

Defence analysts say Hainan’s move is another step in China’s bid to solidify its control over much of the sea, which includes crucial international shipping lanes over which more than a third of global trade passes.

Protecting the country’s economic assets was the Navy’s mandate, Admiral Joshi said.

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