Foreign Policy Watch: India-ASEAN

China does not have it all its way in the South China Sea


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Countries involve in South China sea dispute

Mains level : Paper 2- South China sea issue


South-East Asian countries are increasingly wary of their giant neighbour.

Background of dispute

  • Disputes in the South China Sea go back decades.
  • But it was only ten years ago that China, which makes maritime claims for nearly the whole sea, greatly upped the ante.
  • Countries involved: They involve Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all with contesting claims.
  • China provoked a stand-off that left it in control of an uninhabited atoll, Scarborough Shoal, which under un maritime law clearly belongs to the Philippines.
  • Then China launched a massive terraforming exercise, turning reefs and rocks into artificial islands hosting airstrips and bases.

China’s strong-arm tactics

  • China’s long-term aim is to project Chinese power deep into the South China Sea and beyond, and to hold the Americans away during any conflict.
  • The immediate aim, though, is to dominate politically and economically as much as militarily.
  • China has challenged oil-and-gas activity by both Indonesia and Malaysia, and sent drilling rigs to both countries’ eezs and continental shelves.
  • It has bullied foreign energy companies into dropping joint development with Vietnam and others.


  • China has paid a diplomatic price.
  • Impact on relations with ASEAN: Had Mr Xi engaged in none of the terraforming and bullying, China would be better admired among members of the ten-country Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
  • Naval presence of the US: The United States and its Western allies have upped their naval presence in the sea, welcomed by most ASEAN members.

Negotiation on Code of conduct on South China Sea

  • For years China dragged its feet on agreeing with ASEAN a code of conduct on the South China Sea, a principle agreed on 20 years ago in order to promote co-operation and reduce tensions.
  • These days, China likes to play willing.
  • China is demanding, in effect, the right of veto over ASEAN members’ naval exercises with foreign powers.
  • It also wants to keep out foreigners from joint oil-and-gas development.
  • Such demands are unacceptable to members.


Despite China’s efforts to establish its wild claims of sovereignty, China has been facing sustained resistance from the ASEAN countries.

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