Halim Nazar, Research Intern, ICS
The South China Sea dispute involves conflicting land and maritime claims of sovereignty between China and several nations in the South China Sea area. Although China’s claims that they historically exercised “exclusive control” over the sea was rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, they haven’t been deterred in their pursuit. Almost a quarter of the global trade passes through these waters, so many non-claimant nations like India require the South China Sea to remain open as international waters. The region is of immense importance to India as India has been increasing trade and economic linkages with several East Asian nations and also with the Pacific region.
The South China Sea is the second-most used sea lane globally, with one-third of the world’s shipping (over $3 trillion) passing through the area. A single country having complete control over this maritime route would have significant economic and military advantages for itself. Thus, enabling this region to be the geopolitical pivot for achieving control over the rest of Asia. Opposing China, The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan all lay claims to sections of these waters.
China has laid claim to most of the South China Sea via a looped line called the “historic line” or the “nine-dash line”. The “loop”, or the “cow’s tongue” as it is called, surrounds many islands from China to Malaysia and Singapore, including the Spratly and Paracel chain of islands.
It is apparent that as Beijing accumulates more political, military and economic power, it would use it to further their interests, inevitably at the cost of other nations, regardless of the rhetoric of “win-win” situations. By following a delaying strategy, wherein a state maintains its claims over the contested land without offering concessions or using force, China seeks to consolidate its claims while deterring other states from strengthening their claims. Under the course of a delaying strategy, if a state occupies a piece of contested land, the passage of time strengthens its claim in international law; states can go beyond diplomatic statement and utilize civilian and military actors to further assert their claims. In the South China Sea, China would only compromise when improved ties with the other states become more critical than the maritime rights and islands that are contested. A similar compromise has precedence in Chinese statecraft as Mao had ordered the transfer of the disputed Bailongwei (White Dragon Tail) Island to North Vietnam in 1957, as part of improving the alliance between China and North Vietnam. Such a shift in priorities is improbable but can be orchestrated. For example, China could oppose the formation of any counterbalancing coalition in the region, especially one under the US’s leadership. In this scenario, China could be expected to offer some concessions to improve ties with the affected states.
India has significant geo-economic and geopolitical stakes in the South China Sea. Although India is not geographically in the South China Sea region, it is extensively involved with several littoral states in the area, mostly through naval exercises, oil exploration, strategic partnerships and diplomatic discussions. India considers the South China Sea as its “extended neighbourhood” and has extended its diplomatic outreach to the various nations there.
The Chinese have estimated that the South China Sea has one of the world’s largest oil reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia and will ultimately yield around 130 billion barrels of oil. India’s state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), had come into agreement with Petro Vietnam for developing long-term cooperation in the oil sector via its overseas investment arm, ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL), and it had accepted Vietnam’s offer of exploration in certain specified blocks in the South China Sea and signed a letter of intent on September 15 2014. OVL had already forayed into Vietnam in 1988 when it obtained the exploration license for Block 06.1. The company also got two exploration blocks, Block 127 and Block 128, in 2006. However, Block 127 was relinquished as it wasn’t profitable, and the other block is currently under exploration and roughly coincides with the current area of Chinese escalation.
India has high stakes attached to the uninterrupted flow of commercial trade in the South China Sea as well as in maintaining the movement of its Navy in these waters. Over 55 per cent of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea. Therefore, ensuring peace and stability in the area is of paramount importance to India.
The South China Sea lies at the intervening stretch of waters between the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. As Indian maritime cooperation grew with America and Australia, these waters have come to be referred to as “Indo-Pacific”. Indian Navy now operates in the Western Pacific in collaboration with the United States and Japanese navies. Therefore, it becomes all the more important that India gets secure access through the South China Sea. To navigate from the Indian Ocean to Western Pacific, easy, unhindered access through the South China Sea is essential for India.
As China engineers strategic investments and partnerships throughout the South Asian neighbourhood, particularly under the ambit of the ambitious BRI project, it is imperative that India capitalize on the advantages of its geographical position and emerging naval profile as well as its cooperation with the ASEAN and legacy of goodwill to balance its eastern neighbour. India’s response to the South China Sea issue is based on the realist balance of power logic. India plans to deter China’s ambitions in the South China Sea whilst complementing ASEAN’s stance of indirect balancing of China by fostering an alliance based on the principle of cooperative security. The successful execution of the “Look East Policy” (LEP) and strides taken by the “Act East Policy” (AEP), which were premised on the adherence to the principle of ASEAN centrality, complemented India’s strategy of containing Chinese footprints in its “extended neighbourhood” by putting its weight behind countries like Vietnam caught in the dispute over overlapping claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea with Beijing. The LEP and AEP have constituted the bulwark for the development and entrenchment of India-ASEAN ties. Besides, it has also erected the foundation for India’s enhanced participation and assumption of responsibility in Indo-Pacific affairs.
The current policies have served India well. India, along with the US, Australia and Japan, held the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) summit, where they pledged to work together to ensure a free and open Indo-pacific and also cooperate on cybersecurity and maritime. A realist approach, tempered by strains of critical, tangible geopolitical imperatives, complemented by the constructivist logic of intangibles, would be most appropriate for India.