Context: The Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea(SCS) is a cause of worry not only for the littoral countries, but also for others and leading to chorus of protest from all quarters.


  • The South China Sea (SCS) has been a transit point for trade since early medieval times, contains abundantly rich fisheries, and is a repository of mineral deposits and hydrocarbon reserves.

Source: Wikipedia

Assertive China in the SCS:

  • Chinese military postures: Is a 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 is disputed, as it is neither treaty-based nor legally sound. 
    • To test the legality of China’s ‘nine-dash line’ regarding the disputed Spratlys, Philippines invoked the dispute settlement mechanism of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2013
      • In response, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague decreed in 2016 judgment that the line had “no legal basis.” 
      • But, China dismissed the judgment as “null and void.”
  • These portures act in ways that are neither benign nor helpful for long-term peace and stability. 
    • For example
      • Chinese naval forces have rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat, buzzed a Philippines naval vessel and harassed a Malaysian oil drilling operation, all within their respective EEZs recently. 
      • 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.

Other reasons that worries nations:

  • Transformation in the US-China relationship: The two most consequential powers of the world, the United States, which is known as the “resident power”, and China, which is “the reality on the doorstep”, are engaged in a fundamental transformation of their relationship. 
    • China is not ready to conform to the US worldview, and China ’s rise has been challenged from different quarters.
  • Decline in US Hegemony: The Indo-Pacific has prospered under American hegemony for the previous 40 years. 
    • This is not just because of their huge investments  in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) alone, but also because of the security blanket that it provides. 
    • The American military presence has afforded countries the opportunity to pursue economic prosperity without substantial increases in their own defence expenditures.

Response from littoral countries:

  • Not one country challenged China, which agreed to settle the ‘Nine Dash Line’ disputes bilaterally, and to continue work on a Code of Conduct with countries of the ASEAN.
  • Rising discontent: Though ASEAN-China economic ties are deepening, it may appear that the ASEAN countries are bandwagoning with China. But in reality, there is growing discontent. 
  • Attempt to balance China: While avoiding military confrontation with China, the littorals are seeking political insurance, strengthening their navies, and deepening their military relationships with the United States.
    • Vietnam has added six Kilo-class, Russian-origin submarines to its navy. Russia and Vietnam have a defence cooperation relationship, which they are committed to strengthening. 
    • France, Germany and the Netherlands, respectively, have supplied Formidable-class stealth ships to Singapore, patrol boats to Brunei Darussalam, and corvettes to Indonesia
    • Indonesia and the Philippines are in early stages of exploring procurement of the BrahMos missile from India.

Current Scenario: 

As COVID imposes crushing costs on all economies, both the US and China may also be weighing its options. 

  • Inclination towards US or China: The regional prosperity of the littoral countries has come at a mounting cost in geo-strategic terms. The South China Sea is effectively militarised and in the post-COVID age, enjoying the best of both worlds may no longer be an option.
    • 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.
  • Options with ASEAN: 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 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 to accommodate competing hegemons while advancing their interests. 
    • This does not mean that they are not concerned over Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea.
      • The festering regional resentment against China resulted in the unmuting of the ASEAN response to the growing Chinese footprint in the SCS at its 36th Summit in June, 2020.
  • A robust US military presence: 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. 
  • Role of others in the region: 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. 

India in the region: 

The situation in the South China Sea will be critical for India’s security and well-being as 

  • A global common: The South China Sea is not China’s sea but a global common. 
  • Important for communication: It has been an important sea-lane of communication since the very beginning, and passage has been unimpeded over the centuries. 
  • Historical importance: 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. 
  • Trade, investment, diaspora: Nearly $200 billion of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea and thousands of Indian citizens study, work and invest in ASEAN, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. 
  • Stakes in the peace and security of this region: It follows that India has a stake in the SCS, just as China has in the Indian Ocean.
  • Extended neighbour: 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. 
  • India, a fulcrum of the region: Between the Suez and Shanghai, between West and East Asia, and between the Mediterranean and the SCS. 

What role India has to play in the region?

  • Responsive to ASEAN’s expectations: While strategic partnerships and high-level engagements are important, ASEAN expects long-lasting commitments from India in the future. 
    • ASEAN nations have taken the initiative time and again to involve India in Indo-Pacific affairs. 
  • Importance of regional groupings: A restructuring of global trade is unlikely to happen any time soon in the post-COVID context and regional arrangements will become even more important for economic recovery and rejuvenation.
  • Part of global supply chains: The clarion call of “Think Global Act Local” requires India to be a part of the global supply chains in the world’s leading growth region for the next half-century. 
  • Pursue its defence diplomacy outreach: In the Indo-Pacific region - increase military training and conduct exercises and exchanges at a higher level of complexity, extend Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief activities, share patrolling of the Malacca Strait with the littoral countries, etc. 
  • Extending Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships: India has concluded these partnerships with Australia, Japan, Indonesia, the U.S. and Vietnam could be extended to Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.
  • Enhance military capacity: India must also buttress the military capacity of the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command. These have immense geo-strategic value, as they overlook Asia’s maritime strategic lifeline and the world’s most important global sea lane. 

In this backdrop 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 India to recognise that the value of such agreements goes beyond the economic gains they generate.


Image Source: TH