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  • Writer's pictureIRALR


This article has been authored by Shruti Saxena, a fourth year student Amity Law School, Amity University Lucknow Campus.


Where the entire world is battling the Coronavirus, the South East Asian Countries have another issue at hand, the rising tension in the South China Sea.

To start with, South China Sea is a marginal sea, that is part of the Pacific Ocean. It is surrounded by littoral states such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan. The Strait of Malacca connects the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean while the Formosa strait connects the South China Sea with the East China Sea. It is rich in oil and gas, there are a lot of fish, and shipping lanes here are some of the busiest in the world. China wants control of it, but other surrounding countries claim they have rights to it too, and the U.S. claims it has trade routes through there worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

To name a few claims, Taiwan contests many of the same economic rights as China, then there is Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, who want to protect their turf, whether it’s the right to islands, seabed oil, or fishing grounds. With India being involved strategically, there is no shortage of players.


China has been a land-based power for a millennium so it has never had much of a navy, unlike the colonial powers, nor has it needed one until now. Today China wants to be a naval force across two oceans- the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean- to make sure it can trade with the rest of the world and get enough oil and gas to drive its economy. To secure the same Beijing wants to control the South China Sea.

China advances its claims based on the argument that the history of the South China Sea finds its roots in the records of the Xia and Han dynasty. These records, that claim to be 2000 to 4000 years old, forms the basis of China’s claim to the South China Sea.

The infamous Nine-Dash Line refers to the undefined, vaguely located, demarcation line drawn by the Chinese Government to claim major parts of the South China Sea. Back in 1929 the Chinese took a bunch of old British sailing charts and told cartographers to draw China’s borders. One of them drew nine dashes around the entire South China Sea. The contested area in the South China Sea includes the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, Pratas Islands, the Macclesfield Bank, and the Scarborough Shoal. The claim encompasses the area of the Chinese land reclamation known as the ‘Great Wall of Sand’. In 2013, China added a tenth line to take in Taiwan.

All the involved parties are trying their best to make China obey the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The law distributes territorial waters among nations by establishing Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). These zones extend to 200 nautical miles out from the country’s coastline, regardless of whether it is the mainland or an island. China is a signatory to the UNCLOS.

What is the argument about?

Arguments regarding territory and sovereignty- China wants the nine-dash line implemented. All other countries want China to withdraw from militarizing the area heavily as once China’s claim is established, it will lead to the fall of the claim of other involved countries thus compromising their territory and sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Spratly and Paracel- These are the two most important groups of contested islands. All the surrounding countries want one or another part of it.

Further, about 40% of the world's liquified natural gas passes through the South China Sea, from the Gulf through the Indian Ocean, and on to places like China. The amount of trade that sales through there is worth $3.37 trillion a year, one-third of the world total.

Who claims what?

China claims all territory inside the nine-dash line but also the entire South China Sea, though it has not made its demands very clear.

Vietnam disputes China's historical claim and says that they were ruling over both Spratley and Paracel islands since the 17th century. Even Vietnam claims historical records. If China is showing ancient history, Vietnam is showing History since the 17th century.

The Philippines, in 2013, took China to court to secure its fishing rights to maintain food security within the country. It also argued for Spratley islands and contended before the International Tribunal at Hague, that China had no right to the Scarborough islands. In 2016, the Court ruled in favor of the Philippines and also held the Nine-Dash line to be invalid.

Malaysia claims territorial waters around its boundary in the South China Sea and some islands in the Spratley group as well.Brunei only wants the part of the South China Sea near its boundary.

Who has built what?

After the Nine-dash Line declaration China did not involve itself much in the South China Sea, so that gave access to Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, to proceed with the Island building process in the South China Sea, and construction on existing islands, has been going on for decades i.e., up to the 2000s, by Vietnam and the Philippines. Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines have all stationed military forces on at least some of their islands.

China re-entered the picture late but has been building its military establishments fast. In the last 18 months, China has reportedly constructed a newer island surface than all other nations have constructed throughout History. Only China possesses enough modern military vessels to protect its claims.

Why China wants control over the South China Sea?

China wants control over the South China Sea to dominate major trade routes for its imported oil flow. Given its strategic position, the South China Sea, barring the islands is one of the busiest trade routes and one of the most important in the world. Thus, with control over this region, China can control the trading mechanism of the region. China itself imports oil resources from the Middle East, and the shipment happens through the South China Sea.

In the west, the main shipping lane from the Indian Ocean narrows to just 3km and it is surrounded by American Allies. In the east, there is Taiwan which has tonnes of American Weapons and could block China from getting to the Pacific. So, to help stake its territorial claim China has planted its flag on contested islands that are in those waterways. In the Paracel’s, China has built a bunch of outposts, while in the Spratley Islands it has added over 13 sq. km of reclaimed land since 2013 and turned them into military bases.

China intends to deny access to foreign military or trade shipments whenever they want. Given the Alliance system and the concept of Collective Security, the South China Sea happens to host a massive amount of bilateral and multilateral military exercises of the South Asian countries and their alliances. India has been a participant in many such naval exercises with Japan and the United States of America. Also, China does not have a water area within its territory, being surrounded by land, it did not have a naval force before the South China Sea. But seeing the access of some of the world powers, with whom China competes, both economically and diplomatically, the Chinese government finds it necessary to control the activities of such countries, especially the US. Thus, underlying insecurity on the part of the Chinese government with regards to its sovereignty and security has been pushing the South China Sea issue in its favor.

There have been many reports of the sea bed of the South China Sea containing large oil and natural gas reserves, so whoever gets access to the region, gets access to the resources as well.

The role of the United States

The US plays an important role in the issue. It considers highly maritime predominance, freedom of navigation, and security commitments to regional states in South East Asia. It might not have any geographical proximity to it or geographical closeness, but the US has been engaging the South China Sea issue actively on the sides of Vietnam and the Philippines. It is visible, as the South China Sea being International waters, the USA still did not object to the military build-up of Vietnam and the Philippines but has been fully against China doing so.

The USA always has declared its freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, claiming it to be international waters. It exercises its freedom by the sailing of warships as well as the trade ships and by using aircraft and naval vessels close to Chinese bases.

As discussed before, the US has regional allies like Vietnam and the Philippines. Given their vested interest in the region, the USA has been assisting them by providing technological and military hardware-based support to the military bases of these countries to boost their power against the Chinese growing strength.

The link between the South China Sea and the ASEAN Countries.

Since the 1990s the ASEAN has tried to cobble together a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, to control China’s growing ambition. The economies of the ASEAN Countries heavily depend on ports and free movement of goods and services through trade lanes in the South China Sea. One-third of the world's shipping passes through the South China Sea, carrying over $3 trillion in trade each year.

The South China Sea also has large reserves of oil and natural gas, fisheries, sea products, and other minerals. All the littoral countries of this Sea want to explore these reserves for economic development. It must be noted that if the ASEAN countries can pursue their economic policies and maintain their economic prosperity without a substantial increase in their defense expenditure, it is largely because of the presence of the American Military in the region.

The Indo- Pacific has prospered under American hegemony for the past 40 years. The USA invested $328.8 billion in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the year 2017 alone. Thus, no group of nations has benefitted more from the presence of the US in the region than the ASEAN. However, this contribution of the USA towards economic prosperity and security existed even before China's involvement in the South China Sea issue. In the first half of 2020, Chinese naval forces have rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat, buzzed a Philippines naval vessel, and harassed a Malaysian oil drilling operation all within their respective Exclusive Economic Zones. At the same time, ASEAN overtook the European Union to become China’s largest trading partner in the first quarter of 2020, and China is the third-largest investor ($150 billion) in ASEAN. Thus, given their trading dependency, the ASEAN countries need a peaceful co-existence with China especially in a post- COVID world where they are struggling to revive their economies.

It is, hence, safe to say that both the USA and China play a dominant role in the working of the ASEAN countries, with the former being a necessary defense ally and the latter being an economic one. But, given the current US-China rivalry, the ASEAN countries have found themselves in between the hammer and the anvil. China, on one hand, is presenting a binary choice to Southeast Asia to choose between China and the USA amid a trade war between these countries. Further, it is aiming at creating a sphere of influence through economic statecraft and military modernization. The USA on the other hand is providing support against Chinese pressure.

Why India got involved?

Given the entire dilemma going on with the Southeast Asian trade war and politics, India has an important role to play in it. The ASEAN expects India, a budding regional power, to ensure a long-lasting commitment of granting protection to strategic partnerships and high-level engagements among the ASEAN countries, side-lining the Chinese Dominance. ASEAN expects India to check the increasingly powerful China and encourage it to pursue strategic interests legitimately, and based on respect for international law in the South China Sea. Given ASEAN’s interest in the involvement of India in this Indo-Pacific affair, India itself has reasons for getting directly involved.

Sea-lane through South China Sea has been of great importance for India, thus, one of the primary concerns for it is that with the control of the South China Sea being given to China it gets nearer to the southern borders of India. If we talk of historical relevance, then dating back to the Srivijaya Empire, India’s use of this passage has been unimpeded over the centuries. India also thus has historical rights established by practice and tradition to traverse the South China Sea without impediment.

The current route of trade to the South China Sea happens to move from the Middle East, through the Indian Ocean, and then into the South China Sea. So, if China retains control of the sea, it will get control over the activities in the region as well as the surrounding regions. Also making India being surrounded by China on two fronts- the Line of Actual Control in the North, and the Indian Ocean in the south. It will have a potential threat to the peace and security as well as the sovereignty of India.

Also, nearly $200 billion of India's trade passes through the South China Sea via the Strait of Malacca into the Indian Ocean. Thousands of Indian citizens study, work and invest in ASEAN, China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. Given this, the security and safety of the Indian Diaspora and their investment in the South China Sea region and East Asia is the responsibility of the Indian state.

Thus, not only does India have a responsibility of being a regional power, but also how to secure its national interests in the region.When the case was brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Court upheld the provisions of UNCLOS and decided against the claims of China over the South China Sea. This meant India could exercise its freedom of Navigation of naval warships through the region without giving prior information of the same to the Chinese government.

India’s reaction

The current government has been following the Act East policy. Under this policy, India has expanded its role in Maritime navigation, especially in South East Asia. Following in the footsteps of the US, India has been exercising its freedom of Navigation in the region. By doing so, it has simultaneously demonstrated its support for the other South Asian Countries, especially those battling domination from China. With this strategy, India has enhanced its credibility and reputation as a maritime power in the region.

India has carried out frequent naval exercises with countries like the USA, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia to name a few. This is a strategic way of demonstrating collective alliance in the region.


Not everyone in ASEAN is eager to offend a country as powerful as China. Certain members of the group like Cambodia, Laos, and at times Thailand, have shown no eagerness in aligning against China. India has high stakes in the peace and security of this region in common with the others who reside there, and freedom of navigation, as well as other normal activities with friendly countries, are essential for India’s economic well-being. Further, being a budding world power, India must prove itself on the regional stage of world politics. Fellow ASEAN members eyeing India as an ‘External Balancer’ along with the United States, is a trump card India must play well.

The problem with the South China Sea is that it is vast and the stakes are high. There are a lot of heavily armed countries defending their interests there. And China's coastguard, as well as Chinese militia using fishing boats, often causes confrontations on the open sea. This, as feared by many, could provoke a military response from some of the other countries.

The Chinese see the South China Sea as essential to their survival, but it is, like any other natural resource, important to everyone there. So, the dispute does not seem to see any solution soon, China has been around for thousands of years, if anyone is good at playing the long game, it is China.

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