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India ups the ante against China in the South China Sea

Vietnam has extended Indian Oil a concession in the South China Sea and began drilling in another area it disputes with China in moves that could heighten tensions over who owns what in the vital maritime region.

The moves come at a delicate time in Beijing's relations with Vietnam, which claims parts of the sea, and India, which recently sent warships to monitor the Malacca Straits, through which most of China's energy supplies and trade passes.

Vietnam granted Indian oil firm ONGC Videsh a two-year extension to explore oil block 128 in a letter that arrived earlier this week, the state-run company's managing director Narendra K Verma told Reuters. Part of that block is in the U-shaped 'nine-dash line' which marks the vast area that China claims in the sea, a route for more than $5 trillion in trade each year in which the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have claims.

A senior official of ONGC Videsh, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said interest in the block was strategic rather than commercial, given that oil development there was seen as high-risk with only moderate potential. "Vietnam also wants us to be there because of China's interventions in the South China Sea," the official said.

Conflicting territorial claims over the sea stretch back many decades but have intensified in recent years as China and its rivals have reinforced their positions on the rocks and reefs they hold.

Underlining the relationship between India and Vietnam, Vietnamese deputy prime minister Pham Binh Minh told a forum in New Delhi this week that India was welcome to play a bigger role in Southeast Asia - and specifically the South China Sea. Hanoi's growing defence and commercial ties with India are part of its strategy of seeking many partnerships with big powers while avoiding formal military alliances.

The pace has picked up since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration took office in 2014 and sought to push back against China's expanding presence in South Asia by raising its diplomatic and military engagement in Southeast Asia.

India is providing naval patrol boats, satellite cover to monitor Vietnam's waters and training for its submarines and fighter pilots - more military support than it is giving to any other Southeast Asian country. On the agenda are transfers of naval vessels and missiles under a $500 million defence credit line announced last year. Next week, the navies of India, the United States and Japan will hold their largest joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal.


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