Ironically, India’s decision sends a positive message about its role and intentions in the international community, at a time when Western countries are carping against its decision to retain food subsidies for the poor at the WTO forum! And it cannot be argued that there was anything deliberate on India’s part to embarrass the Chinese diplomatically or politically.

India accepted with good grace the verdict announced by a UN-backed court, which upheld Bangladesh’s maritime rights over 19,500 square kilometers (7500 sq miles approx) of energy-rich coastal waters in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh won control of nearly 76 per cent of the disputed territory. This enables Bangladesh to put on auction 18 oil and gas blocks in the area, of which 10 were under a dispute with India earlier. India’s gesture earned warm thanks from Dhaka, as both countries pledged to strengthen their ties further.

The development is very encouraging for Dhaka, following the similar settlement of a dispute with Myanmar earlier over maritime rights in the Bay. The ONGC and other authorities indicated that they would participate in the international bidding to be announced by Dhaka. International observers feel the region would now see major investments soon.

The contrast with China’s behaviour has been too obvious to be missed by the electronic/web media in the region. Countries like Viet Nam and the Philippines, locked in a bitter wrangle with China over their respective shares of the coastal waters in the South China sea areas, are pressing their bigger neighbour to accept international/ third party arbitration to work out an agreement. Now they are pointing to India’s ready acceptance of UN-supported arbitration on a sensitive issue which helps Bangladesh no end, as a model to be followed.

Unfortunately, China’s take is totally different. It has indicated to the Philippines, which has initiated legal proceedings, that it does not recognise the validity of such proceedings in any third party court. It would like all disputes to be discussed and settled at the bilateral level only. Viet Nam is currently in the process of collecting evidence in its favour, prior to moving international arbitration authorities, which monitor whether conventions laid down under the Law of the Seas has been violated .

Such a standoff means political tensions and incidents involving these countries in the South China Sea area will continue for now. It also effectively delays proposed international investments and much needed economic development. Chinese vessels have been known to cut the cables laid by Vietnamese and Filipino survey ships in the area. The state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation has recently moved its rigs into the disputed waters ignoring the protest of the smaller countries.

Some analysts have pointed to the Chinese behaviour as an example of how the intransigence of one country can hold up everything, in contrast to what has been worked out between Bangladesh and India, their reference being to China.

In view of its energy-rich content, the waters of the South China Sea would have been a prime target for exploration by any country. These are home to an estimated 30 billion metric tonnes of oil and 16 trillion cubic metres of natural gas, which is almost 30 per cent of China’s existing resources, according to experts. Both Viet Nam and the Philippines reject Chinese claims while pressing for a peaceful settlement. They find considerable support in their stand from the US, the EU countries and Japan. This adds an East vs West political dimension to the ongoing dispute.

International observers feel that eventually the sheer pressure of world opinion might induce a softer, more conciliatory approach among the Chinese. (IPA Service)