India objects to proposed clause on military drills in Asean code

New Delhi: India has expressed its reservations against China’s latest move to push the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) to insert certain clauses in the proposed Code of Conduct on South China Sea (SCS) which could eventually bar India and others from either conducting joint military drills with SE Asian states or extract natural resources from the region.

The negotiation for the Code “should not be prejudicial to the legitimate interests of the third parties and should be fully consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said while representing Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 15th East Asia Summit held on Saturday.

At the 2 + 2 Ministerial meet last month, India and the United States emphasised that the proposed Code should not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of any nation in accordance with international law.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang represented China in the Summit. He also attended the Asean-China summit on Friday and urged leaders of the South East Asian nations to expedite negotiations for the proposed Code.

Chinese proposals for the Code aim to limit the role of external powers, including India in the SCS region.

Beijing has been pressurising Asean members states to insert certain clauses in the Code to restrict Japan, India, the US and Australia as well as other nations from engaging in maritime security cooperation with the South East Asian states and exploring resources in the South China Sea, ET has learnt.

India has invested in oil blocks in Vietnam and conducts naval drills with a number of SE Asian states.

If China manages to get all the clauses included in the Code, Asean nations may have to get prior clearance from Beijing for joint military drills in the SCS, with the US, Japan, India or any other nations from outside the region, diplomatic sources said.

It may also make it difficult for ONGC Videsh Ltd and similar entities of other nations, including those from Russia, to continue the exploration of hydrocarbon and other resources in and around the disputed waters. China has been protesting the role of the OVL and other foreign companies in exploration of hydrocarbons in Vietnam.

The Code was necessitated after China started building artificial islands in the SCS region over the last decade. Military facilities, including airstrips and radar towers, have been created on these artificial islands.

China had initially been reluctant to enter into any negotiation with Aeasn for such a Code. It finally agreed to launch negotiations in 2017. SCS is one the world’s busiest Sea Lanes of Communication with over 50% of the global trade passing through the area. India has repeatedly called for Freedom of Navigation through SCS.

At the Summit, Jaishankar – without naming China – also expressed India’s concern over aggressive moves in the SCS, including building military infrastructures in the disputed waters, and purported plans to create an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the disputed Pratas, Paracel and Spratly Islands.

According to a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the minister expressed concern about “actions and incidents that erode trust in the region”.

Jaishankar’s remarks on the SCS come amid a seven-month-long military stand-off between the Indian and Chinese armies in eastern Ladakh.

The EAS was attended by leaders and representatives of 18 nations – the 10 Southeast Asian nations and India, Russia, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and the United States. Russia was represented by President Vladimir Putin. The US was represented by current National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.

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