A Global Times op-ed this week urged Beijing to take every step necessary to block India's planned exploration of the oil fields off the Vietnamese coast.
Now Global Times usually takes a harder line than Beijing eventually does. However, since its op-eds are always cleared by the party, this provocation cannot go unanswered.
The question is how? I suggested two days ago that India should first & foremost display it's preparedness to defend its economic interests. To that end, joint exercises with South East Asian nations are a good start. More naval hardware can also be sent East for joint patrols with local navies. This is as much a signal to Beijing as it is to regional governments who will thus be assured of India's commitment to them.
On the economic/strategic front India must raise the stakes to make China think twice about interfering. Japan imports most of its oil and is also worried about China's hegemonic designs. A good move would be to invite Japan to invest in the Vietnamese oil field. Australia is also a good choice. It has considerable expertise in oil exploration and would also welcome a hedge against Chinese aggression.
The US may be wary about such a move. However it has asked India to play a greater role in the Indian Ocean.
If China wishes to respond to Japanese participation in the oil field it could choose do so militarily. The costs will be great. It also risks drawing the US into the conflict via Japan's mutual defence treaty.
It could on the other hand take the matter to an intentional panel. However Vietnam has a strong legal basis for its claim of the field.
The US, which may be wary about antagonising China, may suggest a second think. However it has on several occasions asked India to play a greater role in stabilizing the Indian Ocean; partially to reduce its own burden.
New Delhi must tell Washington that it has a willing partner in India to help achieve stability. However it must also ask Washington to be prepared to back its partner when push comes to shove.