China Confronts Indian Naval Vessel in Vietnamese Waters


Financial Times:

A Chinese warship confronted an Indian navy vessel shortly after it left a Vietnamese port in late July in the first such encounter between the two countries’ navies in the South China Sea.

The unidentified Chinese warship demanded that India’s INS Airavat, an amphibious assault vessel, identify itself and explain its presence in what it said were Chinese waters, shortly after it completed a scheduled port call in Vietnam.

Indian officials said the ship was 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast, considered to be within Vietnam’s economic zone, when it was hailed by the Chinese vessel on July 22. It was travelling from the southern Vietnamese port of Nha Trang to the northern city of Hai Phong.

Vishnu Prakash, the top foreign ministry spokesman, on Thursday said the Indian ship had been “contacted on open radio channel by a caller identifying himself as the ‘Chinese Navy’ stating that ‘you are entering Chinese waters’”.

Mr Prakash said the INS Airavat could not see any ship or aircraft, and proceeded on its journey.

This latest example of China’s naval assertiveness has irked defence officials in India and Vietnam. China claims the South China Sea in its entirety, rejecting partial claims by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan over the resource-rich region.

“Any navy in the world has full freedom to transit through these waters or high seas,” said one Indian official familiar with the encounter. “For any country to proclaim ownership or question the right to passage by any other nation is unacceptable.”

Vietnam’s foreign ministry acknowledged that the INS Airavat visited the country from July 19-22, but said it had no information about the incident. The Chinese defence and foreign ministries declined comment.

China’s projection of maritime power, especially into the Indian Ocean, has raised national security concerns in New Delhi, which has raised the incident with Beijing.

Hanoi is also upset by what it believes to be a deliberate provocation by Beijing, according to foreign diplomats, who said the implication of the naval challenge was that China believes it is entitled to police the South China Sea.

China and Vietnam have been trying to mend fences ever since Hanoi claimed in May that Chinese patrol boats had sabotaged Vietnamese oil exploration vessels. On Monday Vietnam’s deputy defence minister, Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, concluded a high-profile visit to Beijing, where he met General Liang Guanglie, China’s defence minister. Both sides agreed to increase military co-operation and set up a military hotline.

An unprecedented series of anti-China protests broke out in Hanoi in June, with the clear acquiescence of Vietnam’s omnipresent security officials. The government only recently cracked down on the demonstrations.

“Vietnam has to find a delicate balance in raising its concerns over territorial issues while not pushing China too far,” said one Asian diplomat.

Rising tensions have also attracted the attention of Washington. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, angered Beijing last year by insisting that the South China Sea was of strategic importance to the US and offering to act as a mediator.
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