Contention over South China Sea

Contention over South China Sea

Places in news: Whitsun Reef


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Whitsun Reef

Mains level : South China Sea Row

China’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea has found a new ground, Whitsun Reef, where 220 Chinese vessels are currently anchored under the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

Once again, the South China Sea finds itself closer to becoming a security flashpoint amidst rising concerns over a military conflict.

Also, try this:

Q.Recently, Senkaku Island was in the news. Where is it located?

a) South China Sea

b) Indian Ocean

c) East China sea

d) Red sea

Whitsun Reef

  • Whitsun Reef is a reef at the northeast extreme limit of the Union Banks in the Spratly Islands of the West Philippine Sea.
  • It is the largest reef of the Union Banks.
  • The reef is V-shaped with an area of about 10 sq. km.
  • Until at least the 1990s it was submerged most of the time and was visible above the water only during the low tide, at other times the reef could be detected due to the pattern of breaking waves.
  • At the end of the 20th-century small sand dunes had developed on the reef making a territorial claim possible (an International Court of Justice judgment in 2012 stated that “low-tide elevations cannot be appropriated”).
  • The development of the dunes could have occurred naturally, but the rumours had it that the island was being built up by Vietnam and China.

Territorial disputes

  • As of 2016, the reef was unclaimed, the reports to the contrary (Chinese control) were based on confusion.
  • However, due to the reef’s strategic importance, it was expected that the reef would be occupied “soon”.
  • On 21 March 2021, about 220 Chinese fishing ships were moored at the reef ostensibly taking shelter due to the sea conditions.

Why is the Philippines concerned?

  • The Philippines considers the reef to be a part of its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf and protested the Chinese presence.
  • Currently, Philippine military aircraft and navy are monitoring the situation daily, and China has been warned that there will be an increased military presence to conduct ‘sovereignty patrols’.
  • If China is successful with its moves, the Philippines may lose another fishing ground, similar to what happened in 2012 when China took control of Scarborough Shoal.

The larger dispute

  • China and the Philippines, along with other Southeast Asian countries, have long been part of disputes over sovereign claims over the region’s islands, reefs and seabeds.
  • A third of the world’s maritime trade travels through the South China Sea annually.
  • The seabeds here are believed to be reserves of oil and natural gas while being home to fisheries essential for the food security of millions in South Asia.
  • The majority of the disputes concern the lack of adherence to the international ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’ which stretch up to 200 nautical miles from the coast of any state.
  • China, especially, has been notorious for disregarding the law on various occasions.

What does China have to say?

  • On the present matter, the Chinese have reiterated that the vessels are mere fishing boats seeking shelter from unruly weather, though no bad weather has been reported in the area.
  • It is also unlikely that fishermen would have the financial capital to remain stationary for weeks on end.
  • Experts say through their present occupation, China might be looking to create a civilian base on the reef, an artificial island or even just control the airspace.
  • It is widely assessed that Philippines’s soft approach has further strengthened China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

Back2Basics: South China Sea Row

  • It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.
  • China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims.
  • Alongside the fully-fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.
  • China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
  • Beijing says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, and in 1947 it issued a map detailing its claims.
  • It showed the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Those claims are mirrored by Taiwan.

Spat over Chinese claims

  • China has backed its expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols.
  • The US says it does not take sides in territorial disputes but has sent military ships and planes near disputed islands, calling them “freedom of navigation” operations to ensure access to key shipping and air routes.
  • Both sides have accused each other of “militarizing” the South China Sea.
  • There are fears that the area is becoming a flashpoint, with potentially serious global consequences.

Contention over South China Sea

Places in news: Taiwan Strait


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Taiwan strait

Mains level : Not Much

A U.S. warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait in what the American military described as a “routine” passage on but enraging China, which claims sovereignty over the island and surrounding seas.

Try this PYQ:

Q.Which one of the following can one come across if one travels through the Strait of Malacca?

(a) Bali

(b) Brunei

(c) Java

(d) Singapore

Taiwan Strait

  • The Taiwan Strait, also known as the Formosa Strait, is a 180 km wide strait separating Taiwan and mainland China.
  • The strait is currently part of the South China Sea and connects to the East China Sea to the north. The narrowest part is 130 km wide.
  • The entire strait is on Asia’s continental shelf.
  • Historically both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan espoused a One-China Policy that considered the strait part of the exclusive economic zone of a single “China”.

Tap to read more about One China Policy at:

Contention over South China Sea



From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Quad members

Mains level : Paper 2- Future course of action for Quad

The article discusses the future course of action for the Quad and issues it faces in the present circumstances.

Evolution of the Quad

  • In 2007, the Quad (the United States, Japan, India, and Australia) was an idea whose time had not yet come.
  • The global financial crisis was yet to happen as America continued to enjoy its ‘unipolar moment’.
  • The American still expected China to become a ‘responsible stake-holder’.
  • America required Chinese goodwill in handling issues with North Korea and Iran, and the War on Terror.
  • Japan and Australia were riding the China Boom to prosperity.
  • If India was ambivalent at the time, it was because this mirrored the uncertainties of others.

China’s reaction and naval expansion

  • When the idea of Quad was barely on the table; the Chinese, labelled it as an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
  • The real reason for China’s hyperreaction was out of concern that such a grouping would “out” China’s plans for naval expansion by focusing on the Indo-Pacific maritime space.
  • Once the idea of Quad 1.0 had died down, China advanced a new claim — the Nine-Dash Line — in the South China Sea.
  • It undertook the rapid kind of warship building activity
  • It built its first overseas base in Djibouti.
  • It started systematically to explore the surface and sub-surface environment in the Indian Ocean beyond the Malacca Straits.
  • China’s dismissal of the Arbitral Award in the dispute with the Philippines on the South China Sea and its militarization of the islands has given a second chance to the Quad.

Quad: A plurilateral mechanism

  • The Quad nations need to better explain that the Indo-Pacific Vision is an overarching framework being discussed in a transparent manner.
  • They should also explain that the objective of Indo-Pacific vision is of advancing everyone’s economic and security interests.
  • The Quad is a plurilateral mechanism between countries that share interest on specific matters.
  • In 2016, China itself established a Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
  • The Quad is no exception.

Way forward

  • The forthcoming Ministerial Quad meeting will be an opportunity to define the idea and chart a future path.
  • Needless provocation of China should be avoided.
  • Other countries might be invited to join in the future.
  • An outreach to the Indian Ocean littoral states is especially important since there are reports from some quarters suggesting that India is seeking to deny access to some extra-regional countries through the Indian Ocean.


A positive agenda built around collective action in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, monitoring shipping for search and rescue or anti-piracy operations, infrastructure assistance to climatically vulnerable states, connectivity initiatives and similar activities, will re-assure the littoral States that the Quad will be a factor for regional benefit, and a far cry from Chinese allegations that it is some sort of a military alliance.

Contention over South China Sea

U.S.-Asia coordination to preserve global order


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : ASEAN

Mains level : Paper 2- Growing aggression of China in the Indo-Pacific and increasing coordination among Indo-Pacific nations to counter it.

The focus of this article is on the U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific and its relations with its allies there in countering China.

Instances of China’s aggression

  • Galwan Valley is not an exception in Beijing’s recent behaviour in Asia.
  • China has also engaged in a tense geopolitical confrontation with its other neighbours.
  • Stand-offs with Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea and threatening Australia with boycotts are a few examples.

Response to China

  • Beijing’s aggressiveness is fueling debates about the underlying costs of reliance on China.
  • China’s aggression is also increasing support for closer coordination between other Indo-Pacific partners.
  • Indian, Japan, Malaysia, and Australia have all taken concrete steps to reduce their economic exposure to Beijing.
  •  India and Australia recently inked a new military logistics agreement in the “virtual summit”.
  • A similar agreement between Delhi and Tokyo may follow.
  • The Quadrilateral Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States is growing stronger and even expanding.
  • And recently Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued one of their strongest statements to date on the South China Sea.
  • The ASEAN statement insisted that maritime disputes must be resolved in accordance with the UN Law of the Sea treaty.

Asian multilateralism: Born out of crises

  • Recently the “Milk Tea Alliance”, reaction of people, born to forge solidarity between Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and Southeast Asians online to deal with Chinese cyberbullying.
  • The Chiang Mai Initiative — a financial swap mechanism between China, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia — emerged in the aftermath of the late 1990s financial crisis.
  • ASEAN, created in 1967, did not convene its first heads of state meeting until fall of Saigon in 1976 in the Vietnam War.

Role of the U.S.

  • The COVID-19 crisis is remaking the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.
  • The ongoing crisis has made countries aware of seriousness of Chinese dominance.
  • This situation has given the U.S. opportunity it has long sought: 1) More credible multilateral coordination among allies, 2) Pushback against online disinformation. 3) The desire to better integrate like-minded economies and supply chains.
  • But the crisis is also raising renewed questions about the American leadership.
  • The question now facing the U.S. is whether or not it can harness this new regional momentum.

Alienating allies

  • U.S. continues to make unforced errors that create distance with U.S. allies and partners.
  • For example, its focus on cutting support for the WHO and asserting that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab alienated Canberra.
  • Similarly, the administration’s suspension of various worker visas will almost certainly have serious repercussions in India.

What should be the U.S. approach to Asia?

  • The U.S. needs to make two major shifts.
  • First, U.S. policy needs to start supporting, rather than attempting to commandeer, regional efforts to build a less China-centric future for the Indo-Pacific.
  • While Chinese aggression provides powerful motivation for coordination, U.S. partners are seeking an agenda that is framed in broader terms than simply rallying to counter Beijing.
  • If the U.S. wants to reduce reliance on Beijing and “re-couple” investments and supply chains among allied nations, it is going to have to make compromises.
  • U.S. should work with Indo-Pacific partners on the issues that they prioritise and provided them with space for independent action.
  • Second, Washington should avoid repeating Beijing’s mistakes of bullying.
  • U.S. should offer a clear alternative in word and deed to China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.
  • Moves such as demanding that a G-7 communiqué refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” and blocking mask shipments to close allies are the kind of counterproductive bullying.

Options for Asian countries

  • Beijing’s recent aggression is not an aberration but part of a growing pattern.
  • As Beijing’s confidence in its growing material and military power solidifies, its neighbours will need to think carefully about the long-term decisions necessary to preserve an open regional order.
  • Facing the unprecedented health and economic crises spawned by COVID-19, the U.S. and Asian partners will need to coordinate more closely.
  • Asian countries should strengthen their own regional networks.
  • This Asian network will challenge the views of those in both Washington and Beijing who would see the region only as a sparring ground.


For American and Asian leaders, the choice is stark: encourage and foster this trend, recognising that stronger regional coordination will require more compromises as well as tougher choices, or resist it and risk being left behind.

Contention over South China Sea

Malabar Naval Exercise to include Australia


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : QSD, Malabar Exercise

Mains level : Global move to curb Chinese overambitions

India has finally planned to invite Australia to join the annual Malabar naval exercise that has so far included just Japan and the U.S., in a move that could risk China’s ire.

Go through the list for once. UPSC may ask a match the pair type question asking exercise name and countries involved.

[Prelims Spotlight] Defence Exercises

About Ex. Malabar

  • Exercise Malabar is a trilateral naval exercise involving the United States, Japan and India as permanent partners.
  • Originally begun in 1992 as a bilateral exercise between India and the United States, Japan became a permanent partner in 2015.
  • Past non-permanent participants are Australia and Singapore.
  • The annual Malabar series began in 1992 and includes diverse activities, ranging from fighter combat operations from aircraft carriers through Maritime Interdiction Operations Exercises.

Significance of Australia’s inclusion

  • Earlier, India had concerns that it would give the appearance of a “quadrilateral military alliance” aimed at China.
  • Now both look forward to the cooperation in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and the strengthening of defence ties.
  • This has led to a convergence of mutual interest in many areas for a better understanding of regional and global issues.
  • Both are expected to conclude the long-pending Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) as part of measures to elevate the strategic partnership.

Back2Basics: Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD)

  • The QSD is an informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia and India that is maintained by semi-regular summits, information exchanges and military drills between member countries.
  • The forum was initiated as a dialogue in 2007 by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, with the support of Vice President Dick Cheney of the US, PM John Howard of Australia and PM Manmohan Singh of India.
  • The dialogue was paralleled by joint military exercises of an unprecedented scale, titled Exercise Malabar.
  • The diplomatic and military arrangement was widely viewed as a response to increased Chinese economic and military power, and the Chinese government responded to it by issuing formal diplomatic protest.
  • The QSD was recently revived considering the tensions in the South China Sea caused primarily by China and its territorial ambitions.

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


Contention over South China Sea

In news: Senkaku Islands


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Senkaku Islands

Mains level : China's territorial expansion plans

A local council in southern Japan voted to rename an area covering the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku Islands — known by Taiwan and China as the Diaoyus — from “Tonoshiro” to “Tonoshiro Senkaku”.

Try this:

Q. Recently, Senkaku Island was in the news. Where is it located?

a) South China Sea

b) Indian Ocean

c) East China sea

d) Red sea

Senkaku Island Dispute

  • The Japanese-administered island chain, formed by five islets and three barren rocks, covers an area of 7 square km.
  • It is located about 200km southwest of Japan’s Okinawa Island and a similar distance northeast of Taiwan.
  • Japan annexed the archipelago following China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war from 1894 to 1895.
  • Yet the islands were left out of the Treaty of San Francisco at the end of the second world war that returned to China most of the territories previously occupied by Japan.
  • Under the terms of Japan’s surrender, the island chain was controlled by the US until 1971, when it was returned to Japan along with Okinawa and other surrounding islands.

Why are the Islands so coveted?

  • The region appears to have great promise as a future oil province of the world.
  • Japan and China are among the world’s top importers of fossil fuels.
  • Abundant fishing resources are found nearby, as can important shipping lanes used by Japan, South Korea and China for energy imports.
  • The islands have also become a focal point of the broader rivalry between the two countries.

Contention over South China Sea

Why South China Sea matters to India


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : South China Sea

Mains level : Paper 2-South China Sea dispute and impact on India

What happens in the South China Sea has bearing on India. So far, the U.S. played a major role in the prosperity and security of the Indo-Pacific, but after the Covid, it may be forced to reconsider its stand over the region. So, what is at stake for India? And what are the options available with ASEAN countries and Indian in such a situation? Read to know…

Dilemma the Indo-Pacific countries faces

  •  As the two most consequential powers of the world, the United States and China which are engaged in a fundamental transformation of their relationship rest of the countries in the region face a dilemma.
  • Almost nobody any longer thinks that China will conform to the US worldview, or that China’s rise from hereon will be unchallenged.
  • The Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs cogently spells out this dilemma.

How the U.S. contributed to the region’s prosperity

  • The Indo-Pacific has prospered under American hegemony for the previous 40 years not just because of their huge investments.
  • U.S. invested $328.8 billion in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) alone and a further $107 billion in China.
  • However, it’s not the investment but also because of the security blanket that it provides.
  • China might have replaced the US as the primary engine of growth in the last decade, but it has come with a cost — the assertion of Chinese power.
  • The benign American military presence has afforded countries the opportunity to pursue economic prosperity without substantial increases in their own defence expenditures or having to look over their shoulders.
  • No group of nations has benefitted more from the presence of the US than the ASEAN.

How Chinese military posture is different from the U.S.

  • Chinese military postures, on the other hand, give cause for concern ever since they unilaterally put forward the Nine-Dash Line in 2009 to declare the South China Sea as territorial waters.
  • Their territorial claim itself is tenuous, neither treaty-based nor legally sound.
  • They act in ways that are neither benign nor helpful for long-term peace and stability.
  • In the first half of 2020 alone, Chinese naval or militia forces have rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat, “buzzed” a Philippines naval vessel and harassed a Malaysian oil drilling operation, all within their respective EEZs.
  • Since 2015, they have built a runway and underground storage facilities on the Subi Reef and Thitu Island as well as radar sites and missile shelters on Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef.
  • They conducted ballistic missile tests in the South China Sea in June 2019 and continue to enhance naval patrols to enforce area denial for others.

Fundamental choices the region faces

  • Going forward, the US and China face fundamental choices.
  • But then, so do the rest of us living in the Indo-Pacific.
  • America’s role in the preservation of the region’s peace and security should not be taken for granted.
  • As COVID imposes crushing costs on all economies, the US may also be weighing its options.
  • Finding justification for Chinese actions in the South China Sea, even as countries in the region help themselves to Chinese economic opportunities while sheltering under the US security blanket, is also fraught with risk.
  • Accommodation may have worked thus far but regional prosperity has come at a mounting cost in geo-strategic terms.
  • The South China Sea is effectively militarised. In the post-COVID age, enjoying the best of both worlds may no longer be an option.

But, ASEAN won’t change the course suddenly

  • Nobody should expect that ASEAN will suddenly reverse course when faced with possibly heightened Sino-US competition.
  • China is a major power that will continue to receive the respect of ASEAN and, for that matter, many others in the Indo-Pacific, especially in a post-COVID world where they are struggling to revive their economies.
  • 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.
  • The South East Asians are skilled at finding the wiggle room to accommodate competing hegemons while advancing their interests.
  • This does not, however, mean that they are not concerned over Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea.
  • They need others to help them in managing the situation.

Validation of the US military presence and collective efforts of stakeholders

  • A robust US military presence is one guarantee.
  • A stronger validation by the littoral states of the South China Sea helps the US Administration in justifying their presence to the American tax-payer.
  • Others who have stakes in the region also need to collectively encourage an increasingly powerful China to pursue strategic interests in a legitimate way, and on the basis of respect for international law, in the South China Sea.
  • The real choice is not between China and America — it is between keeping the global commons open for all or surrendering the right to choose one’s partners for the foreseeable future.

What is at stake for India?

  • How the South China Sea situation plays out will be critical for our security and well-being.
  • India must consider the following factors while calibrating its approach.
  • 1) The South China Sea is not China’s sea but a global common.
  • 2) It has been an important sea-lane of communication since the very beginning, and passage has been unimpeded over the centuries.
  • 3) Indians have sailed these waters for well over 1,500 years — there is ample historical and archaeological proof of a continuous Indian trading presence from Kedah in Malaysia to Quanzhou in China.
  • 4) Nearly $200 billion of our trade passes through the South China Sea and thousands of our citizens study, work and invest in ASEAN, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
  • 5)  We have stakes in the peace and security of this region in common with others who reside there, and freedom of navigation, as well as other normal activities with friendly countries, are essential for our economic well-being. In short, the South China Sea is our business.
  • We have historical rights established by practice and tradition to traverse the South China Sea without impediment.
  • We have mutually contributed to each other’s prosperity for two thousand years.
  • We continue to do so.
  • The proposition that nations that have plied these waters in the centuries past for trade and other peaceful purposes are somehow outsiders who should not be permitted to engage in legitimate activity in the South China Sea, or have a voice without China’s say, should be firmly resisted.

India needs to be responsive to ASEAN

  • India needs to be responsive to ASEAN’s expectations.
  • While strategic partnerships and high-level engagements are important, ASEAN expects longer-lasting buy-ins by India in their future.
  • They have taken the initiative time and again to involve India in Indo-Pacific affairs.
  • It is not as if our current level of trade or investment with ASEAN makes a compelling argument for them to automatically involve us.
  • They have deliberately taken a longer-term view.
  • A restructuring of global trade is unlikely to happen any time soon in the post-COVID context.
  • Regional arrangements will become even more important for our economic recovery and rejuvenation.
  • If we intend to heed the clarion call of “Think Global Act Local”, India has to be part of the global supply chains in the world’s leading growth region for the next half-century.
  • It is worth paying heed to the words from Singapore’s prime minister, who writes that something significant is lost in an RCEP without India.
  • And urges us to recognise that the value of such agreements goes beyond the economic gains they generate.
  • Singapore is playing the long game. Are we willing to do so, even if it imposes some costs in the short-term?

Consider the question “The South China Sea has been witnessing growing militarisation day by day. And how the South China Sea situation plays out will be critical for our security and well-being. In light of this, examine the basis on which India should contest China’s unilateral claims in the area and scope of engagement with the ASEAN countries in this regard.”


Indian is a stakeholder in the South China Sea. What happens there have implications for us. In such a scenario, India must form a partnership with other players in the region and should attempt to make China follow international laws and global order.

Contention over South China Sea

What is the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)

Mains level : VFA and its significance for the US

Security issue in the disputed South China Sea has helped convince the Philippines to delay quitting a key U.S. military pact called the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

Practice question for mains:

Q. What’s behind diplomatic tensions in the South China Sea? How it is set to become another flashpoint between the US and China?

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)

  • A VFA is a version of a status of forces agreement that only applies to troops temporarily in a country.
  • The US military operates around the world thanks to Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) in 100 or so countries.
  • Similarly, the VFA spells out the rules, guidelines and legal status of the US military when operating in the Philippines.
  • The VFA also affirms the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty as well as the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement — agreements that enable the U.S. military to conduct joint exercises and operations in the Philippines.
  • It came into force on May 27, 1999, upon ratification by the Senate of the Philippines.
  • It also exempts U.S. military personnel from visa and passport regulations in the Philippines.

Significance of VFA

  • Both the US and Philippines remain wary of Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS). The VFA, therefore, act as an insurance policy against Chinese threats.
  • Terminating the VFA would leave the U.S. military without any legal or operational standing in the Philippines — and that’s a problem for the alliance.
  • Without a VFA, the U.S. military would not be able to support either of these defence agreements.

Philippines-China spat on SCS

  • The Philippines has had diplomatic spats with China over the Scarborough Shoal and Spratlys in particular.
  • It says China’s “nine-dash line”, which China uses to demarcate its territorial claims, is unlawful under the UNCLOS convention.
  • The SCS is also a major shipping route and home to fishing grounds that supply the livelihoods of people across the region.

Back2Basics: South China Sea Row

  • It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.
  • China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims.
  • Alongside the fully-fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.
  • China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
  • Beijing says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, and in 1947 it issued a map detailing its claims.
  • It showed the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Those claims are mirrored by Taiwan.

Spat over Chinese claims

  • China has backed its expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols.
  • The US says it does not take sides in territorial disputes but has sent military ships and planes near disputed islands, calling them “freedom of navigation” operations to ensure access to key shipping and air routes.
  • Both sides have accused each other of “militarizing” the South China Sea.
  • There are fears that the area is becoming a flashpoint, with potentially serious global consequences.

With inputs from Washington Post

Contention over South China Sea

What’s behind diplomatic tensions in the South China Sea?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Spratly and Parcel Islands- Their location

Mains level : South China Sea dispute

In the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, China has been busy increasing its presence in the South China Sea.

The dispute

  • In the past few years, China has stepped up military aggression and has created artificial islands for military and economic purposes in the South China Sea.
  • This has drawn criticism from neighbouring countries and other western powers.
  • Soon after, Chinese and Australian warships also entered the fray.
  • Following the arrival of American warships, regional observers expressed concern that the US’s presence may only serve to heighten tensions.
  • The US has no territorial claims in the South China Sea but is known to send its naval force into the waters each time there are provocative developments in the waters, particularly angering China.

Map observations in the South China Sea are must-dos for the CSE aspirants. UPSC often toggles in the Middle East,  West and Central Asian region. This year we can expect a different region for a  map-based question.

Why in news now?

China’s advent for islands

  • This past week, Beijing unilaterally renamed 80 islands and other geographical features in the area, drawing criticism from neighbouring countries who have also laid claim to the same territory.
  • The focus of Chinese acquisitory attention is the two disputed archipelagos of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the middle of the South China Sea waters.
  • They lie between the territory of Vietnam and the Philippines.
  • If the dispute were to aggravate, Asia-Pacific researchers believe it could have serious consequences for diplomatic relations and stability in the region.

What is the Spratly Islands dispute about?

  • There has been an ongoing territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia concerning the ownership of the Spratly Islands archipelago and nearby geographical features like corals reefs, cays etc.
  • Since 1968, these nations have engaged in varying kinds of military occupation of the islands and the surrounding waters, with the exception of Brunei, that has contained its objections to the use of its maritime waters for commercial fishing.
  • Although the Spratly Islands are largely uninhabited, there is a possibility that they may have large reserves of untapped natural resources.
  • However, due to the ongoing dispute, there have been few initiatives to explore the scale of these reserves.

Quest for Oil

  • Over the years, US government agencies have claimed that there is little to no oil and natural gas in these islands, but these reports have done little to reduce the territorial dispute.
  • In the 1970s, oil was discovered in neighbouring islands, specifically off the coast of Palawan. This discovery ramped up territorial claims by these countries.

What is the Paracel Islands dispute about?

  • The Paracel Islands dispute is slightly more complex. This archipelago is a collection of 130 islands and coral reefs and is located in the South China Sea, almost equidistant from China and Vietnam.
  • Beijing says that references to the Paracel Islands as a part of China sovereign territory can be found in 14th century writings from the Song Dynasty.
  • Vietnam on the other hand, says that historical texts from at least the 15th century show that the islands were a part of its territory.
  • These islands also find mention in records starting from the 16th century by explorers who led expeditions to the East.
  • Colonial powers of the French-Indochina further accelerated the tensions with regard to the Paracel Islands due to their colonial policies in the 20th century.
  • By 1954, tensions had dramatically increased between China and Vietnam over the archipelago.

What is the most recent dispute about?

  • Recent China established new administrative districts on both Spratly and Paracel Islands.
  • It also renamed those 80 islands, reefs and other geographical features around the two archipelagos with Chinese names.
  • The last time China had unilaterally engaged in a similar initiative was in 1983 where 287 geographical features had been renamed in the disputed chain of islands.
  • Why in news?
  • Background
  • Importance of South China Sea
  • What is the case about?
  • Are Chinese claims valid?
  • What next?
  • India’s involvement in issue
  • Further role by India

Why in news?

  • The Permanent Court of Arbitration at Hague has declared that China cannot claim any historic rights over islands in the South China sea. The tribunal also ruled that China has violated Philippines’s sovereign rights.
  • The dispute had been raised by Philippines in 2013. However, China had refused to participate in the tribunal proceedings, questioning jurisdiction among other things.
  • After the tribunal announced the verdict, China has officially announced it has neither accepted nor recognised the award of the tribunal.
  • This award had been looked forward to by many countries including India and USA, both of which have strategic maritime as well as economic interests in the region.



  • The South China Sea is located at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, to Asia’s southeast.
  • It encompasses an area of about 1.4 million square miles and contains a collection of reefs, islands and atolls, including the Spratly Islands,Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal.
  • China has been claiming the historic control of over 85% of South China Sea, while countries like Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei also have been making competing claims.

Importance of South China Sea

  • It is a 3.5m sq km waterway.
  • One of the world’s most strategically vital maritime spaces.
  • More oil passes through here than the Suez Canal.
  • More than $5 trillion in trade flows through its waters each year. That is a third of all global maritime commerce.
  • The Strait of Malacca that links Indian and Pacific Oceans handles four times as much oil as Suez Canal.

 What is the case about?

  • Philippines brought its dispute with China to international arbitration in January 2013, despite Beijing’s warnings of a diplomatic and economic backlash.
  • The Philippines asked a tribunal of five arbitrators to declare as invalid China’s vast claims, known as nine-dash lines for the dashes that demarcate virtually all of the South China Sea as Chinese territory, under the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Seas, or UNCLOS.
  • The Philippines also asked the tribunal to classify whether a number of disputed areas are islands, low-tide coral outcrops or submerged banks to determine the stretch of territorial waters they are entitled to under the convention.
  • It also wants China to be declared in violation of the convention for carrying out fishing and construction activities that breached the Philippines’ maritime rights.

Are Chinese claims valid?

  • China had joined UNCLOS long before and has accepted international jurisdictions.
  • However, their current discourse is that China was not the party to the rule making and hence, China has some hesitation in fully following the UNCLOS provisions.
  • The Chinese proposal is that SCS is a territorial sea which means that freedom of navigation would be problematic, although they clarified that they are not obstructing the freedom of navigation or have obstructed before.

What next?

  • The award can’t be enforced as Chinese have rejected it.
  • What is going to be instructive is how China will respond as PCA doesn’t have any enforcement mechanism.
  • UNCLOS has made it very clear that if a country has equivalent of manmade islands, which is what is at dispute here, the country does not have a maritime entitlement.
  • There is a claim which says that China’s territorial water goes up to 2000 kms!! which is quite untenable.
  • Thus, Chinese response is going to be very critical. However, the first sign of foreign office statement from Beijing has been very categorical. They have used ‘null and void’ to answer the verdict, which is very strong.

India’s involvement in issue

From India’s perspective, the freedom of navigation and overflight is critical for two reasons:

  • Lot of India’s trade passes through SCS. Therefore, India cannot accept the situation where India is dependent on the goodwill of Chinese for transit.
  • If China manages to establish its sovereignty over these islands and waters, then it becomes a very important base for its power projection in the Indian Ocean. This is what concerns India.

India is at present, not taking sides between the contestants in the dispute. So, the Indian position is balanced. At this stage, when it is talked about geopolitical dimension, India should continue this stand.

Further role by India

  • The role India could play while awaiting China’s response is to engage in a chat with Beijing and cite the India-Bangladesh example that there is a case of principles and that India is taking no position on territoriality but is talking about the way in which maritime practice and law must be respected because that has bearing on the larger issues of global order.
  • India can try to deal with each of the major stakeholders in its own way as it has in the past.


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