In South China Sea Row, Top US Commander Roots for India

In South China Sea Row, Top US Commander Roots for India

Navy Chief Admiral Robin Dhawan with Admiral Harry Harris Jr of the United States Navy

New Delhi: 

Less than two months after the release of the US-India Joint Strategic Vision statement for the Asia-Pacific region during President Barack Obama's visit, one of America's top military commanders has made it clear that China has no right in opposing Indian naval operations in the disputed South China Sea.

Admiral Harry Harris Jr, whose area of responsibility extends to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, said, "The South China seas are international waters and India should be able to operate freely wherever India wants to operate. If that means the South China Sea, then get in there and do that."

In July 2011, when the Indian Navy amphibious warfare ship INS Shardul set course from the Nha Trang military port in south Vietnam towards Haiphong port in north Vietnam to make a friendly visit, she was buzzed on an open radio channel and told by the Chinese Navy, "You are entering Chinese waters. Move out of here." In 2014, China opposed the India-Vietnam agreement which would enable the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) to explore oil wells in waters which China claims to administer.

Voicing his concerns on China's regional disputes in the South China Sea, Admiral Harris said, "I view with concern China's land reclamation process. I think it's provocative, and it causes tensions to be raised in the South China Sea and all of the countries in the South China seas. So, I am concerned about it. For all of us who are concerned about freedom of navigation, it behoves us to pay attention to what China is doing in the South China Sea and its dramatic land reclamation. They are, in fact, changing facts on the ground."

Though the US Admiral did note the increased Chinese submarine presence in the Indian Ocean, his primary concern was on safeguarding maritime security and ensuring the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, very much in line with the joint statement released by the US and Indian delegations during President Obama's visit to New Delhi in January.

China, for its part, claims much or all of the South China Sea as its territorial waters. The region contains several islands, reefs and sandbars and is thought to be a region enormously rich in hydrocarbons, particularly around the highly disputed Spratly Islands.

Though this has remained largely unstated in public, the United States sees India as a key part of its pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region. Not only is the Indian Navy one of the most powerful forces in the region, it is a useful training partner which engages the US Navy in exceptionally high-level wargames in the annual Malabar series of exercises which are held during the fall. According to Admiral Harris, "I was involved with Malabar 1995 and now you look at Malabar 2014, and it is leaps and bounds beyond what it was. I would like to have an increase with India in special operations exercises."

Last year, India opened up the Malabar exercises to include Japan, a strong ally of both New Delhi and Washington. Australia, another regional partner of the US and India, also has concerns with Chinese naval expansionism.

While India and the United States stand committed to engaging China economically, a new strategic order clearly seems in the process of being established across both the Pacific and Indian Oceans with the US being the big brother.

"As part of the US rebound, the Pacific fleet is going to get bigger. 60 per cent of the US Navy will be in the Pacific fleet by 2020. For me, my area of responsibility for the US Navy is the Pacific and Indian Oceans and so, I say that my area of responsibility goes from Hollywood to Bollywood and Polar Bears to Penguins. So that's kind of all of it. That's 52 per cent of the world. That's my area of responsibility," Admiral Harris said. The US sees India as an important part of this new order.

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