- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2000

Indian warships are preparing to sail into the South China Sea for joint military exercises with Vietnam, projecting Indian naval power into waters of vital interest both to regional rival China and to the United States.

In a little-noticed statement last month, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said Indian naval and coast guard ships would "shortly launch joint training and exercises with their counterparts from Vietnam and Japan to stem the increasing menace of pirates in international waters."

The Hindustan Times reported that the exercise would be held in the South China Sea in October, but an Indian Embassy official in Washington said the maneuvers could begin "at any time."

The move appears certain to antagonize China, an ally of India's archenemy Pakistan. Beijing claims sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and other shoals and islands throughout the South China Sea.

A confrontation could quickly draw in the United States, which has pledged to maintain free navigation through the sea, one of the world's most strategic waterways. Vast quantities of Middle Eastern oil pass through the sea en route to Japan and South Korea.

The announcement comes as India is beefing up its so-called "blue water" navy by seeking to add a second and possibly a third aircraft carrier and one or more submarines capable of firing long-range missiles.

"The Indian navy has a responsibility that goes beyond protecting our borders," Mr. Fernandes said on April 14. Indian naval vessels recently rescued a Japanese freighter from pirates in the Malacca Strait between Indonesia and Malaysia.

According to Stratfor, a private intelligence reporting group based in Austin, Texas, India plans to leave four to five warships, a submarine and air-reconnaissance planes in the South China Sea for some time after the exercises end.

It is also preparing to launch a Kilo-class submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles, Stratfor said.

Japan's involvement in the exercises will be limited, due to its pacifist constitution, to supporting anti-piracy operations, the group said. However, Vietnam, which recently signed an agreement to train Indian troops in jungle warfare, will directly engage in military naval exercises.

Larry Wortzel, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, said India's decision to sail into the South China Sea "is inflammatory, and it is meant to antagonize China."

"This is a dangerous way for India to respond to China's incursion into their sphere of influence in Bangladesh, Burma and Pakistan," he said, adding that the United States will have to increasingly take on the burden of protecting international navigation in the region if India and China are at each other's throats.

Both India and Vietnam have a history of conflict with China.

India lost a Himalayan border war with China in 1962 and deeply resents China for selling Pakistan material that helped it develop nuclear weapons and missile technology.

Vietnam repelled a cross-border attack by China in 1979 and fought at sea with China over the Spratlys in 1988.

Despite India's long history of hostility toward Pakistan including three wars and a continuing frontier battle in Kashmir Mr. Fernandes said in May 1998 that the real enemy of India is China.

"China is potential threat No. 1," he said days before a series of atomic tests that made India an open nuclear power. "The potential threat from China is greater than that from Pakistan."

The foray into the South China Sea comes as a counterpoint to China's setting up naval and intelligence bases on Burma's Coco Islands off the northern tip of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean opposite India's east coast.

Mr. Fernandes charged before India's nuclear tests that China was seeking to establish "a major naval base" in the Indian Ocean, "which would be a direct threat to us."

A senior U.S. official said India's naval exercises are "not done to poke a finger in Beijing's eye, but to rehearse their capability to function as a blue-water navy and let people know they are around."

China is still considered to possess only a "green water" or coastal navy, although it, too, is working to build long-range naval power, the official said.

The U.S. official, who was deeply involved in President Clinton's recent visit to India, said there is no U.S. effort to use India as a counterbalance to China's growing power.

"India is not going to become part of a formal alliance against any country in Asia," he said. "We would not ask India to do that in any event. But what [the naval exercises] will do is underscore that India is beginning to arrive as a serious player."

China claims large portions of the South China Sea, including waters around the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Chinese forces there have clashed with those of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia since 1987. Some Chinese maps indicate a Chinese claim to the entire South China Sea.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said any naval exercise in the South China Sea "must not violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries in the region."

"There are islands, shoals and reefs that China has sovereignty over," added Zhang Yuanyuan. "This does not mean all the waters are territorial waters of China. Many are international sea lanes and international waters."

Defense analyst Marvin Ott of the National Defense University in Washington said the Indian naval exercise is "striking in that it validates a growing impression that India is determined to assert itself as an Asian power."

The naval mission means India is injecting itself into the great territorial dispute over the South China Sea, Mr. Ott said.

"From a Chinese standpoint, that's a pretty gratuitous intervention of India into a place where China wants to dictate terms to the Southeast Asians. India's intervention will not be welcomed by China."

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