Contention over South China Sea

What India should do as a stakeholder in South China Sea


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Nine dash line

Mains level: Paper 2-Pushback against China in South China Sea

There is growing pushback from the South China Sea littoral countries against Chinese aggressive behaviour. And as a stakeholder, India should consider the options to assert its rights there.

Legality of China’s ‘nine-dash line’

  • The Philippines invoked the dispute settlement mechanism of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2013.
  • Philippines contest the legality of China’s ‘nine-dash line’ regarding the disputed Spratlys.
  • In response, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague decreed that the line had “no legal basis.”
  • China dismissed the judgment as “null and void.”
  • China dismissed the award as “a political farce under the pretext of law.”

Let’s analyse the PCA verdict

  • Verdict held that none of the features of the Spratlys qualified them as islands.
  • There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights.
  • The UNCLOS provides that islands must sustain habitation and the capacity for non-extractive economic activity.
  • Verdict implied that China violated the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

How ASEAN countries are dealing with China

  • Given the power equations, the Philippines did not press for enforcement of the award and acquiesced in the status quo.
  • Not one country challenged China, which agreed to settle disputes bilaterally, and to continue work on a Code of Conduct with countries of the ASEAN.
  • In reality, there is a growing discontent against China.
  • While avoiding military confrontation with China, they are seeking political insurance, strengthening their navies, and deepening their military relationships with the U.S.
  • The Philippines and the ASEAN’s protest is new for China.
  • This does China little credit, and points to its growing isolation.

Instances of  pushback from ASEAN countries

  • Indonesia protested to China about Chinese vessels trespassing into its waters close to the Nantua islands.
  • The Philippines protested to China earlier this year about violations of Filipino sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.
  • It also extended the Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. which is a strategic setback for China.
  • The Philippines also wrote to the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) in March disputing China’s claim of “historic rights in the South China Sea.”
  • Indonesia too wrote to the UNSG on this issue.
  • It expressed support for compliance with international law, particularly the UNCLOS, as also for the PCA’s 2016 ruling.

India as a stakeholder

  • India’s foreign and security policy in its larger neighbourhood covers the entire expanse of the Asia-Pacific and extends to the Persian Gulf and West Asia.
  • India straddles, and is the fulcrum of, the region between the Suez and Shanghai.
  • The South China Sea carries merchandise to and from India.
  • It follows that India has a stake in the SCS, just as China has in the Indian Ocean.

What should be India’s response

  • India must continue to actively pursue its defence diplomacy outreach in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • As a part of this outreach, India should increase military training and conduct exercises and exchanges at a higher level of complexity.
  • India should extend Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief activities.
  • India should share patrolling of the Malacca Strait with the littoral countries.
  • The Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships could be extended to Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.
  • India must also strengthen the military capacity of the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command. 

Consider the question “The South China Sea is important not just to its littoral countries but to the others as well. But China’s growing inclination to change the status quo there harms the interests of other stakeholders. In light of this suggest the relevant options that India could exercise.”


As a stakeholder in the South China Sea India must explore all the options at its disposal and try to foster respect for international law and rules-based global order.

Back2Basics: Nine-dash line


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