India's naval chief has raised the prospect of sending ships into the disputed South China Sea to defend its oil exploration interests off Vietnam - a move certain to rile China.
The comments from Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi on Monday come after days of escalating tensions, including international concerns over new regulations from Hainan authorities to govern the stop-and-search of foreign ships, and also an incident near the Gulf of Tonkin last Friday when two Chinese fishing boats cut cables towed by a Vietnamese oil exploration ship in a block operated by Russia.
While acknowledging that India is not one of the five states with claims in the South China Sea, Joshi said it was prepared to act if necessary to protect the nation's economic and maritime interests.
"When the requirement is there … in situations were our country's interests are involved ...we will be required to go there ," he said.
"Now, are we preparing for it?, Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is yes," he said.
Joshi specifically mentioned the involvement of state-run oil giant Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONCG), which has signed deals with Vietnam to search for oil off its coast.
The exploration ship Binh Minh 02 had been searching in Indian blocks before heading north to a Russian area that was the site of Friday's incident.
China has repeatedly warned India, both publicly and privately, against striking deals with Vietnam in areas bisected by its controversial nine-dotted line - Beijing's historic claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
Chinese envoys are also discreetly monitoring an intensifying and long-standing military relationship between its two neighbours. Indian experts are training Vietnamese naval personnel who are poised to receive their first Russian submarines and the two countries are in talks over the sale of Indian-Russian BrahMos cruise missiles and other arms.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei , when asked about Joshi's statement, said that China had "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands and their surrounding waters in the sea.
"China opposes unilateral oil and gas development in disputed waters of the South China Sea. We hope that concerned countries respect China's position and rights, and respect efforts made through bilateral talks to resolve disputes," Hong said.
The remarks were also swiftly played down by India's National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, who said in Beijing they did not surface in bilateral talks with National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo and other officials, The Hindu newspaper reported.
Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said that while Indian naval ships had rights of passage in international waters, the comments might prove premature.
"I'm a little surprised to hear them at this point given so much is still up in the air," said Thayer, a scholar of issues involving the South China Sea.
The full details of Friday's incident had yet to emerge but were pointing to an accident, Thayer noted. Last week's passage of new laws by Hainan authorities administering disputed parts of the South China Sea remained highly ambiguous. Vietnam is setting up its own fisheries protection patrols.