NEW DELHI—Southeast Asian countries on Thursday urged India to intervene to help resolve bitter territorial disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), saying it was “crucial” to maintaining peace and stability.
But India’s foreign minister insisted the territorial disputes between China and Southeast Asian nations did not require India’s intervention.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) called on India—which vowed to promote cooperation on trade and maritime security with the countries—to take a more decisive stance in the region.
Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Tan Dung asked for New Delhi’s direct intervention over West Philippine Sea territorial disputes while Burmese President Thein Sein said India’s role was “crucial” to ensuring peace and stability in the region.
China is in an increasingly angry dispute with several of its neighbors over claims to parts of the oil- and gas-rich sea. It claims almost of the whole sea, including waters close to the shores of its neighbors. These areas also include major sea-lanes through which nearly half of global trade passes.
China’s claim is contested by the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, which have overlapping claims to some or all of those same areas.
Insisting on its claim, China has issued a new passport with a map that shows all parts of the sea that it says are its territory, including parts disputed by its Southeast Asian rivals.
The Philippines and Vietnam protested the new passport and refused to put their stamps on it, while India issued a new passport with a map showing border territory it is disputing with China.
New border rules
Three weeks ago, China’s southern Hainan province announced new regulations that would authorize Chinese border patrols to board, search and expel foreign ships that would enter what China considered its territorial waters.
It is believed that the new rules, which will come into force on Jan. 1, have Beijing’s approval, and Asean members the Philippines and Vietnam are worried Chinese action according to those rules could lead to clashes in the sea.
Wu Sichun, head of the Hainan foreign affairs office, said in early December that the new rules were partly a response to an increase in Vietnamese fishing boats operating around the Paracel Islands, which both countries claim.
Vietnam condemned China’s claims as a serious violation of its sovereignty after saying it was setting up patrols to protect its fisheries and accusing Chinese boats of sabotaging a Vietnamese survey vessel in the disputed sea.
The Vietnamese foreign ministry said the sabotage and the new Chinese maritime rules “complicated” the territorial dispute between the two countries.
China, the Vietnamese foreign ministry said, must respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and “immediately stop all this wrong actions and make sure they are not repeated.”
The Philippines remains in a standoff with China at the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a resource-rich reef within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
Triggered by Chinese poaching on the reef, the standoff between Philippine and Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels began in early April and ended in mid-June when stormy weather forced President Aquino to order Manila’s ships home.
But Mr. Aquino promised to send the ships back unless the Chinese vessels withdrew from the shoal.
They never did. The Philippine Coast Guard is waiting for orders to deploy from Malacañang.
US wants clarification
The United States is seeking clarification on the new Chinese border rules. US Ambassador to China Gary Locke told Reuters in early December that the new rules were unclear as their extent and purpose.
“The US government very much wants clarification of what these rules mean, how they will be interpreted by the Hainan government and marine enforcement agencies and the purpose of these rules,” Locke said.
The United States has taken a neutral stand on the territorial disputes between China and its allies in Southeast Asia. But Washington has made it clear that it has “national interest” in freedom of navigation in the disputed seas.
The disputed waters link India to Southeast Asia and the Pacific, but India already has its own border dispute with China and does not seem keen about concerning itself with the territorial disputes between China and Southeast Asian nations.
India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, said the West Philippine Sea disputes did not require his country’s intervention.
“Doing something about it includes not doing something about it,” Khurshid said, adding that issues of sovereignty “need to be resolved between the countries concerned.”
“China knows it, India knows it that there is too much to lose if we don’t overcome issues from time to time,” he said.
Relations between India and China are often prickly and marked by mutual distrust—a legacy of a brief border war in 1962—but they are trying to broaden trade ties despite political tensions.
China’s trade with Asean countries is far greater than India’s, but 20 years after the latter launched a “Look East” policy New Delhi’s trade with Southeast Asian nations is increasing.
Trade between the two was $80 billion last year compared with $47 billion in 2008.