OCT 11

Mains   > International relations   >   India and Global Regions   >   India & South East Asia


China has expressed concerns and demanded answers from USA after a U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarine sustained damage in the disputed South China Sea. This marks another point of friction over the south China sea.


  • South China Sea is a marginal sea in South East Asia that is part of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Located in western Pacific Ocean, it is bordered by Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
  • It is connected to the East China Sea through the Taiwan Strait and the Philippine Sea through the Luzon Strait.
  • It contains numerous shoals, reefs, atolls and islands. The Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal are the most important.


  • During World War II, the Japanese forces had used several islands in the sea. After the war, Japan had to relinquish control of these islands. However, the peace treaties did not specify the new status of the islands.
  • During the treaty negotiations, China made various claims to the islands. It demarcated its claims with a U-shaped line made up of ‘eleven dashes’. It was later redrawn to form the ‘nine dash line’.
  • In the 1960s, huge reserve of oil and natural gas were discovered in the region and the territorial claims started growing.
  • In 1994, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into force. Based on their own interpretation of the UNCLOS, claimant countries started to legitimize their claims.

Claimant countries:

  • South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.


How does international law factor in?

  • Under the Law of the Sea Convention, all states have a right to 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone” to exploit the resources of the sea and seabed, as measured from their land territories. Where these zones overlap, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants.
  • This has yet to happen in the South China Sea, mostly because of debates over the nine-dash line, the ownership of Paracel and Spratly islands and status of Taiwan.
  • Since 2013, China has resorted to island building in the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands region.
  • In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled against part of China’s claims to the sea. In its ruling, the tribunal considered the South China Sea to be a “semi-enclosed sea” as defined by the Law of the Sea Convention. It means that by definition, the South China Sea is a shared maritime space. But China rejected the authority of the tribunal and its finding in the case.
  • In 2020, Beijing unilaterally renamed 80 islands and other geographical features in the area despite criticism from neighboring countries.


  • Trade route:
    • The region accounts for a third of the global maritime trade carrying over USD 3 trillion in trade each year, making this stretch the second-most used sea-lane in the world. Generally, oil and minerals move north, and food and manufactured goods move south of the region.
  • Strategic point:
    • Roughly 2/3rd of South Korea’s energy supplies, 60% of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies and 80% of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea. Hence, the country controlling the region will have natural military advantages — making the region the geopolitical pivot to controlling the rest of Asia.
  • Resources:
    • South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 7.7 billion barrels, and an estimated 266 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This makes the region economically significant.
  • Buffer for China:
    • For China, the South China Sea acts as a natural shield in terms of national security. It provides relative "sanctuary" for its nuclear submarines and serve as a buffer zone for China if the US conducts military attack against mainland China.
  • Livelihood:
    • More than half of the world’s fishing vessels are in the South China Sea, and millions of people depend on these waters for their food and livelihoods.
  • ‘Cold war II’:
    • The region has become a focal point in the new cold war brewing between the US-led western block and China. Though it has no direct stakes in the dispute, USA has been actively involved in the region. For e.g.: It has deployed its THAAD defence system in the Korean peninsula and signed military agreements with Philippines.


  • Freedom of navigation:
    • Nearly 55 percent of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region pass through these waters. Any instability in the region would adversely affect the shipping lanes and have a knock-on effect on India’s economy.
  • Strategic significance:
    • Should a potentially hostile power come to control this region, it could threaten India’s access to this vital waterway and security on the Eastern coast.
  • Relations with ASEAN:
    • Several members of the ASEAN, which constitutes one of India’s largest trade partners, are part of the dispute and hence any tensons in the region can have ripple effect on India.
  • Counter China in its own backyard:
    • Engagement in the region serves to counter China’s growing influence in the region. From New Delhi’s perspective, it is imperative that the SCS does not turn into a ‘Chinese lake.’
  • Energy security:
    • Already importing up to 80% of its total oil requirements, India will likely need to secure new energy sources as domestic demand rises. The potential energy deposits in the SCS have thus drawn New Delhi’s attention.
  • Litmus test of UNCLOS treaty:
    • Whether the UNCLOS laws will stand or not on this dispute will have significant impact on India’s maritime disputes, such as those along the Kutch and gulf of Mannar. 


  • Managing the region’s competing territorial disputes has required a delicate balancing act from India. On one hand, India wants to maintain friendly relations with the various claimants. On the other, it has to avoid excessively provoking China.
  • Thus, India’s stand on the issue has been one of deliberate ambiguity – not favoring any one side, but instead advocating freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law.
  • India has been pushing for a rules-based order in the region, including by means of upholding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.


  • Military:
    • The Indian Navy is increasing its presence in the waters of South China Sea and the western Pacific.
    • Eg: In August 2021, the Indian Navy made its presence felt in the South China Sea when a task force of four warships sailed on a two-month deployment that included Malabar 2021 naval exercises and bilateral exercises with naval forces of Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.
  • Strategic:
    • India has developed the Quad along with the United States, Australia and Japan. Since its inception, the group has pledged to work together for a free and open Indo-Pacific and to cooperate on maritime and cybersecurity in the face of challenges from China.
    • Quad:
  • Diplomatic:
    • India has been cultivating ties in the region as a part of the ''Act East'' policy. Also, India has entered into bilateral agreements with countries to promote trade and defence relations.
    • Eg: India and the Philippines signed a major defence deal where Philippines will buy the Indian-made Brahmos PJ-10 missiles.
  • Humanitarian:
    • India has been proactive in addressing the needs of littoral countries during times of crisis.
    • Eg: India and the Philippines are cooperating on the vaccine front. Manila plans to secure 8 million doses of COVAXIN developed by India's Bharat biotech.
  • Economic:
    • India has been continually involved in offshore energy development projects in the SCS since the early 1990s. Eg: ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) has signed MoUs for new oil and gas blocks and conducting oil exploration in cooperation with Vietnam.


  • Given the militarization efforts of China and its dominance of the South China Sea, Indian as well as other countries’ responses so far have been cosmetic in nature.
  • India has to put forward strong unilateral, bilateral and multilateral efforts for protecting its interests in the South China Sea.
  • Given the significance of the region, Greater activism, both diplomatic and military, is needed. India has to continue to strengthen its ties with the region and play a part in managing the turbulent waters of the South China Sea.


Q. ‘There is a notable shift in India’s approach to the disputes along the South China Sea’. In this regard, discuss the significance of South China Sea to India?