Foreign Policy Watch: India-Southeast Asia

Quiet diplomacy could ease South China Sea tensions


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: South China Sea issue, Significance of India Philippines maritime relations

South China Sea

What is the news?

  • During the fifth meeting of the Philippines-India Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation in New Delhi on June 29, the Foreign Ministers of India and the Philippines, S. Jaishankar and Enrique Manalo, respectively, discussed enhancing the bilateral partnership between the two countries. The meeting focused on maritime cooperation and addressing the South China Sea issue

Central Idea

  • With a shared history of diplomatic relations spanning nearly 75 years and common maritime interests, the External Affairs Minister of India, S. Jaishankar, and the Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, Enrique Manalo, laid out a roadmap to enhance the bilateral partnership in the 21st century.

Significance and developments emerged from the meeting

  • Establishment of a resident defense attaché office in Manila: The decision to open a resident defense attaché office in Manila reflects a deeper commitment to defense cooperation between India and the Philippines. This move will facilitate closer coordination, information sharing, and joint defense initiatives.
  • Increased collaboration between the Coast Guards: The Coast Guards of India and the Philippines will enhance their collaboration, aiming to strengthen maritime security in the region. This includes joint patrols, information exchange, and joint operations to combat maritime threats.
  • Manila’s acquisition of naval assets with concessional credit from India: To bolster its maritime capabilities, the Philippines will acquire naval assets with the help of a concessional line of credit extended by India. This support will enhance the Philippines’ maritime defense capabilities and contribute to maintaining regional stability.
  • Expanded training and joint exercises on maritime security and disaster responses: Both countries will expand their training programs and conduct joint exercises focused on maritime security and disaster response. This cooperation will enhance operational readiness and preparedness to address maritime challenges, including disaster relief efforts.

The South China Sea issue: A significant topic of discussion

  1. Agreement on regional and multilateral issues: Both India and the Philippines reached an agreement on regional and multilateral matters, particularly emphasizing the importance of maritime highways like the South China Sea.
  2. India’s position on international law and the 2016 Arbitral Award:
  • India reiterated its consistent position of adhering to international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  • Notably, India made an unambiguous call to respect the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea, which represents a departure from India’s previous stance.
  • This shift signifies India’s recognition of the legitimacy of the Arbitral Award.
  1. Background of the Arbitration Case: The Philippines had submitted a case for arbitration to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to address its disputes with China in the South China Sea. Despite China’s formal withdrawal from the arbitration, the proceedings continued under UNCLOS guidelines.
  2. Key findings of the Arbitral Award:
  • The PCA’s Award, released on July 12, 2016, rejected China’s claims of historical rights in the South China Sea.
  • The tribunal determined that any claims to resources within the nine-dash line were unfounded.
  • It also found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) through various actions, including interfering with fishing and petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands, and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from operating in the zone.

What is Quiet diplomacy?

  • Quiet diplomacy refers to a diplomatic approach that focuses on behind-the-scenes negotiations and discussions conducted discreetly, away from public attention and media scrutiny.
  • It involves engaging in diplomatic efforts through confidential channels, informal dialogues, and private meetings to address sensitive issues and resolve conflicts.

How Quiet diplomacy could ease South China Sea tensions

  • Confidence-Building Measures: Quiet diplomacy can facilitate the implementation of confidence-building measures among the claimant states. This can include agreements on joint military exercises, information sharing, or cooperative initiatives aimed at reducing tensions and building trust.
  • Open Communication: Quiet diplomacy allows for confidential and discreet communication between stakeholders, such as China and the claimant states. It provides a platform for open dialogue where concerns and perspectives can be expressed, leading to better understanding and the potential for resolving differences.
  • Mediation and Facilitation: Quiet diplomacy may involve the engagement of neutral third-party mediators or facilitators who can assist in bridging differences and guiding the negotiation process. These mediators can provide a neutral perspective, offer expertise, and help facilitate constructive dialogue among the stakeholders.
  • Informal Track-II Diplomacy: Quiet diplomacy encourages informal exchanges and dialogues between academic experts, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations. These interactions can provide alternative perspectives, generate innovative ideas, and contribute to a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.
  • Crisis Management: Quiet diplomacy can be applicable during times of crisis or heightened tensions in the South China Sea. It allows for confidential crisis management talks between relevant parties, enabling swift and discreet negotiations to de-escalate tensions and seek temporary agreements

South China Sea

Way forward

  • Dialogue for Conflict Resolution: The South China Sea issue requires a political framework and dialogue for resolution. Leaders of ASEAN nations are encouraged to engage in “quiet diplomacy to find a political solution, as legal methods may have limitations. Dialogue provides an opportunity for peaceful conflict resolution through negotiations and diplomatic channels.
  • Emphasis on a Code of Conduct: The establishment of a legally binding code of conduct is crucial for managing the South China Sea issue. ASEAN leaders are called upon to work towards developing and implementing such a code. A code of conduct can provide guidelines and rules to manage disputes, reduce tensions, and promote stability in the region.
  • Regional Unity and Cooperation: Regional cooperation and unity among ASEAN nations are essential to address the South China Sea issue effectively. Greater understanding and coordination among ASEAN members can strengthen their negotiating position and foster a united front in dealing with challenges related to territorial claims and maritime security.
  • Respect for International Law: Upholding international law, including UNCLOS, is emphasized in the article. Countries are encouraged to respect legal and diplomatic channels, adhere to their obligations under UNCLOS, and uphold the rights of coastal states. Adherence to international law is essential for maintaining stability, resolving disputes, and promoting a rules-based order in the South China Sea.


  • By committing to a rules-based order and emphasizing the significance of international law, India underscores its commitment to regional stability and peace. The need for dialogue, political frameworks, and unity among ASEAN nations is crucial to achieving a peaceful resolution in the South China Sea, protecting vital maritime commons, and ensuring the uninterrupted flow of global trade.

Also read:

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