Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Growing isolation of China over South China Sea

Chinese muscularity in the South China Sea is leading to a growing chorus of protest among the littoral countries.
By IASToppers
July 08, 2020


  • Introduction
  • South China Sea Dispute
  • Nine-dash line
  • Significance of the Sea
  • The PCA verdict
  • Growing Chinese muscularity
  • Developments in the region
  • India’s relevant options

Growing isolation of China over South China Sea

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The Philippines invoked the dispute settlement mechanism of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2013 to test the legality of China’s ‘nine-dash line’ regarding the disputed Spratlys. In response, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague decreed in its July 12, 2016 judgment that the line had no legal basis. China dismissed the judgment as null and void.

South China Sea Dispute:

  • The South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, is subject to several overlapping territorial disputes involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
  • The Philippines, Vietnam, China, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia hold different, overlapping, territorial claims over the sea, based on various accounts of history and geography.
  • China claims more than 80 per cent, while Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.
  • The Philippines asserts ownership of the Spratly archipelago and the Scarborough Shoal, while Brunei and Malaysia have claimed sovereignty over southern parts of the sea and some of Spratly Islands.

Nine-dash Line:

  • China‘s nine-dash line refers to the undefined, vaguely located, demarcation line used by the People’s Republic of China for its claims of the major part of the South China Sea.
  • It stretches as far as 2,000 km from the Chinese mainland, reaching waters close to Indonesia and Malaysia.
  • The line encircles as much as 90% of the contested waters.
  • The Philippines argues that the line exceeds the limits of maritime entitlements permitted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  • As per UNCLOS, a nation has sovereignty over waters extending 12 nautical miles from its land and exclusive control over economic activities 200 nautical miles out.

Significance of the Sea:

  • The South China Sea is a key commercial waterway connecting Asia with Europe and Africa, and its seabed is rich with natural resources.
  • One-third of global shipping, or a total of US$3.37 trillion of international trade, passes through the South China Sea.
  • About 80 per cent of China’s oil imports arrive via the Strait of Malacca, in Indonesia, and then sail across the South China Sea to reach China.
  • The sea is also believed to contain major reserves of natural resources, such as natural gas and oil.
  • The US Energy Information Administration estimates the area contains at least 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
  • The South China Sea also accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s fisheries, making it a key source of food for hundreds of millions of people.

The PCA verdict:

  • The Permanent Court of Arbitration, Hague decreed in 2016 that the line had no legal basis, which China dismissed as null and void.
  • PCA held that none of the features of the Spratlys qualified them as islands, and there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights and to the resources within the nine-dash line.
  • The UNCLOS provides that islands must sustain habitation and the capacity for non-extractive economic activity. Reefs and shoals that are unable to do so are considered low-tide elevations.
  • The award implied that China violated the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
  • It noted that China had aggravated the situation by undertaking land reclamation and construction, and had harmed the environment and violated its obligation to preserve the ecosystem.
  • Given the power equations, 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.

Growing Chinese muscularity:

  • Given that their economic ties with China are deepening, the ASEAN countries may be bandwagoning with China (state allies with the adversary power in the hope that this would benefit its national interests).
  • While avoiding military confrontation with China, they are seeking political insurance, strengthening their navies, and deepening their military relationships with the United States.
  • Growing Chinese muscularity in the SCS is visible in the increased patrolling and live-fire exercising by Chinese naval vessels; ramming and sinking of fishing vessels of other claimant countries; renaming of SCS features; and building of runways, bunkers, and habitation for the possible long-term stationing of personnel on the atolls claimed by China.
  • Chinese exploration and drilling vessels compete aggressively with those of other littoral countries in the disputed waters.

Developments in the region:

  • Vietnam has added six Kilo-class, Russian-origin submarines to its navy.
  • France, Germany and the Netherlands, respectively, have supplied Formidable-class stealth ships to Singapore, patrol boats to Brunei Darussalam, and corvettes to Indonesia.
  • Japan is partially funding the up-gradation of the Indonesian coast guard.
  • Indonesia and the Philippines are in early stages of exploring procurement of the BrahMos missile from India; even Thailand and Vietnam have shown interest.
  • The ASEAN countries have begun to protest, even if their criticism is restrained which points to its growing isolation.
  • The Philippines disallowed Chinese bid to develop the Subic Bay and has extended the Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. for six months which is a strategic setback for China.

India’s relevant options:

  • From India’s perspective, 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.
  • The SCS carries merchandise to and from India, which follows that India has a stake in the SCS, just as China has in the Indian Ocean.
  • India must continue to actively pursue its defence diplomacy outreach in the Indo-Pacific region: increase military training and conduct exercises and exchanges at a higher level of complexity.
  • India can extend Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief activities, share patrolling of the Malacca Strait with the littoral countries, etc.
  • The Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships that India has concluded with Australia, Japan, Indonesia, the U.S., and Vietnam could be extended to Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.
  • India must aid the military capacity of the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command.
Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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