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India’s Engagement in the South China Sea; By Vishwesh Sundar

, dated April 7, 2017

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C3S Occasional Paper 001/2017


The South China Sea dispute is a conflict between People’s Republic of China (PRC), Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, over the territory of the Spratly and Paracel islands. The two chains of islands are partly or fully claimed by the respective countries. Alongside these fully fledged islands there is contention over dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.[i]

The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Singapore and Malacca straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometres.[ii] There are several islands in this region, but the territories of the Spratly and Paracel islands are the most fiercely disputed. These islands are very small and most of the islands are submerged under water during high tide. However, they are spread over a large area. The main archipelago in this region is the Spratly islands. The islands contain approximately 4km2 of land area spread over a vast area of 425,000 km2. There are over 30,000 small islands and reefs. The next big archipelago is the Paracel islands. It has a land area of 7.75km2 spread over an area of 15,000km2.

Although these islands are insignificant in size and are mostly not inhabited, their location and the natural resources they possess intensify the dispute. The following are the geopolitical advantages possessed by the region, which catalyse the dispute.  Firstly, fishing as an occupation in the South China Sea is profitable, as the sea accounts for nearly 10 percent of fish caught globally. Secondly, it is the second most used sea lane in the whole world and hence the country which controls the South China Sea controls the trade in the region. Thirdly, the region has vast reserves of oil and natural gas. The exact estimates of the oil reserves are not known but presence of substantial reserves of the fossil fuels has made China remark that it is the “Second Persian Sea”. Lastly, the region is of great strategic importance. There are only two islands in the region where a long runway can be built. One of these is controlled by Taiwan, which increases competition for this island. Some islands like the Woody islands in the Paracel archipelago have banks, hospitals and there are proposals for setting up schools for construction workers. The island also boasts of a 2.4 km runway which can handle take-offs and landing of Boeing-737’s or planes of similar size.[iii]

This research paper would analyse the role of India in the South China Sea issue. India is not directly involved in the dispute and is seen as a neutral player in the issue. However, this is a strategic point in the history of the country when it can convert this dispute into an opportunity for itself. India, by extending its good will to the countries in the ASEAN region, could reap various benefits in the form gaining power in this geopolitical space. This could be in the form of political clout, military presence, better diplomatic relations and enhanced socio-economic and cultural ties with the respective countries. Before delving into the study of the dispute, it is important to study how the dispute unfolded itself.

Historical Background:

Before the 19th century, both China and Vietnam laid claims to the South China Sea region, but were not aware of each others’ claims. China endorsed the revised Nine Dash line in 1953 and indicated that about eighty per cent of the region belonged to it. Historical claims were the basis of claiming the maritime region. The littoral states became cautious as China was passionately pursuing its annexation of the region. It was only after 1974 that the first skirmishes developed between China and Vietnam. As countries in the region began exploring for natural resources and found them in abundance, the fight for control of the space became more intense. It led to Philippines taking China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2015, on the basis that it violated the legality of the provisions of the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).

Legal aspects of the historical claims:

The UNCLOS has demarcated territorial waters into three categories. Within 12 nautical miles limit, States are in principle free to enforce any law, regulate any use and exploit any resource. The Convention retains for naval and merchant ships the right of “innocent passage” through the territorial seas of a coastal State. Coastal States are also empowered to implement certain rights in an area beyond the territorial sea, extending for 24 nautical miles from their shores, for the purpose of preventing certain violations and enforcing police powers. This area is known as the “contiguous zone”. Beyond this region, states also have jurisdiction over 200 nautical miles from their coast which is referred to as the Exclusive Economic Zone, where States have a right to exploit, develop, manage and conserve all resources[iv]. Despite clear demarcation of the waters, China lays its claim on historical basis. It makes claims for example on the Scarborough Shoal which is 500 nautical miles from mainland China, while just over 100 nautical miles from Philippines. This has urged the Permanent Court of Arbitration to intervene in the case. However, the effectiveness of the judgement might not be very fruitful as the institution has no powers of enforcement and China has boycotted the proceedings and rejects the courts authority in this case. China is pursuing the South China Sea issue with great vigour and uses historical claims to justify its claims. The futility of such arguments would be discussed below. The following arguments are made by Mohan Malik in his essay Historical Fiction: China’s South China Sea Claims.

  1. Westphalia principle only over water and not over land argument: China’s claim to the Spratlys on the basis of history runs aground on the fact that the region’s past empires did not exercise sovereignty. In pre-modern Asia, empires were characterized by undefined, unprotected, and often changing frontiers. The notion of suzerainty prevailed. Unlike a nation-state, the frontiers of Chinese empires were neither carefully drawn nor policed but were more like circles or zones, tapering off from the center of civilization to the undefined periphery of alien barbarians. More importantly, in its territorial disputes with neighbouring India, Burma, and Vietnam, Beijing always took the position that its land boundaries were never defined, demarcated, and delimited. But now, when it comes to islands, shoals, and reefs in the South China Sea, Beijing claims otherwise. In other words, China’s claim that its land boundaries were historically never defined and delimited stands in sharp contrast with the stance that China’s maritime boundaries were always clearly defined and delimited. Herein lies a basic contradiction in the Chinese stand on land and maritime boundaries which is untenable. 
  2. Ethnic claims: China often distorts history to use to its advantage. The current Chinese borders represent the borders which were solidified into a single state after the Qing (Manchu) expansionism following the rise of the Westphalia State concept of sovereignty. Chinese claim that the Han, Mongols, Tibetians and Manchus were all Chinese but, when in fact the Great Wall was built by the Chinese dynasties to keep out the northern Mongol and Manchu tribes that repeatedly overran Han China. The wall actually represented the Han Chinese Empire’s outer security perimeter.

However, if the Chinese lay claim to the Mongol and Manchu empires colonial possessions would be equivalent to India laying claim to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia (Srivijaya), Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka on the grounds that they were all parts of either the Maurya, Chola, or the Moghul and the British Indian empires.[v]

If Chinese claims are justified based on historical facts, India too can claim these islands were under Chola Empire, but rationally India had not done that. India seeks the resolution of the dispute according to the laws of the UNCLOS, thereby ensuring Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea.

It is amply clear from the discussion above that China is fighting a lost cause. However, it is still pursuing the issue on the principle of ‘might is right’. It also shows displeasure with the presence of external forces in the region, for instance, the presence of the U.S Navy. They believe that U.S.A is trying to militarise the region. India has rejected U.S.A’s invitation to conduct joint patrolling in the region and wishes to be aloof in the regional affairs. However, India must act proactively in the region and turn this crisis into an opportunity for itself. Some of the political, diplomatic, strategic and military and socio-economic benefits that India could reap with strategic alliances with ASEAN are explained below.

Political and strategic alliances:

The South China Sea issue has the potential to develop into the next arena for a Cold War. The conflict may differ but the core of the issue remains the same. U.S.A’s involvement in the issue and its attempt to militarise this region, signifies a potential for a power clash; the difference being that the contenders vary and now it is an arms race between U.S.A and China instead of the erstwhile U.S.S.R.

At this juncture, India must balance the two differing parties rather than choose sides, as the former option has always benefitted India. India must use this as an opportunity to enhance political relations with ASEAN countries. India must also ensure that its policies don’t put China to a great disadvantage, as it is our neighbour. With relations already being strained, ruffling the feathers of China, which considers the South China Sea as core interest, would only be disadvantageous to India. Our government must provide the ASEAN block with all resources to contain China but must not overtly engage militarily with these countries so as to antagonise China.

With U.S.A’s pivot shifting towards the Asia- Pacific region, and its attempt to improve relations with India through strategic alliances, India can pursue its containment strategy more effectively. The Act East policy could also be of significant aid to practice this policy. The enhanced defence cooperation between India and U.S.A would also signal that India’s foreign strategy and defence strategy would also fall in line with that of U.S.A, especially in the South China Sea dispute. The U.S House of Representatives has given a nod to bolster defence ties with India on par with NATO members. While Carter visited India, he said U.S-India defence ties could provide an anchor of global security[vi]. Many scholars argue that these are techniques U.S.A is using to contain China, using India.

However, India must strive to evolve an independent military strategy. The government should never, even in future, involve itself in joint patrolling of the South China Sea. In one’s opinion, India must not make any attempt to militarise the issue, but seek to gain the good will of South East Asia by providing them any sort of tangible or intangible support when they are in need of them. It is essential that India remains a minor yet constant irritant to China to secure its own personal interests.

Diplomatic relations:

When the world witnesses the rise of two global powers in the 21st century, India and China, they could be guided by different approaches to tackle future maritime issues. At this juncture, countries would have two options: one, to follow the expansionist policies of China and follow the principle of might is right, thereby leading to a stalemate in negotiations or two, they could emulate India’s policy of peaceful, diplomatic settlement of disputes in concurrence with international law and treaties.

Past experience has shown that China’s emergence has come at a great cost to the countries that surround it.  Its policy of having a ‘greater living space’, following the Nazi ideals has resulted in China having maritime or land boundary disputes with most of its neighbours. [vii]On the contrary, the world could look up to India, a country which is committed to the ideals of democracy and respects a multi-polar world. India has got appreciation from many countries in the region for its efforts to maintain peace and settle disputes in a way which benefits both parties. Countries in South Asia which were apprehensive of India’s rise and its power to dominate the regional affairs have started viewing India as a benign neighbour. South East Asian countries have also lauded the way it has resolved the maritime disputes with other countries in the region. The Joint Statement of the Third India-Philippines Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation states that the Philippines recognized the steps taken by India to solve its maritime boundary with Bangladesh, through arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and its acceptance of the ruling as an example of peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS by the International Court. [viii]

Further, India does not have any maritime dispute with South East Asia and the boundaries were fixed through diplomatic means. The maritime boundaries with Thailand and Indonesia were fixed through a trilateral agreement in 1978 and with Myanmar in 1987. [ix]The history of conflict resolution indicates clearly that the world would be willing to accept India’s rise as a security provider and an arbitrator because its rise has not disrupted the extant order as is normally assumed. For example: India willingly accepted the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding the delimitation of the maritime boundary between India and Bangladesh.

India must proactively engage with South East Asia and East Asia to contribute towards maintaining of the regional order. This is a golden opportunity for India to build ties with countries that either have antagonistic relations with China or have an uneasy history with China. These would include Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. Strategically, it is imperative that apart from outlining strategic planning and priority areas, India has to engage proactively with potential partners. India’s approach to this regions’ affairs has been either too cautious or lacks conviction. Even South East Asian nations are not very sure of India’s commitment to its strategic interests.[x] It’s about time that India starts viewing South East Asia as part of their immediate neighbourhood and not as extended neighbours. One component of neighbourly cooperation would be the defence dynamic.

Military benefits:

India must utilise this opportunity to befriend countries which have boundary disputes or countries which have historical animosity with China. Vietnam is located at a strategic point just south of China, convenient to counter Chinese aggression. Indonesia’s historical animosity towards China acts to India’s benefit. In strategic discourse, apart from outlining strategic planning and priority areas, there is need for proactive engagement with potential partners and immediate neighbours.[xi] Although India has declined U.S.A’s offer to engage in a joint patrol, it must involve the South East Asian countries while conducting joint naval exercises in the region. The Malabar exercises conducted between India-U.S.A and Japan must, in future, also expand to include the navies of South East Asia. India has to show symbolically and in reality its concern for securing the region. This would also demonstrate that the rise of a new great power need not disrupt the extant order as is normally assumed. In fact, the rise of a new great power — in this case, India — can be seen as contributing to the maintenance of the regional order.[xii]

Singapore’s defence minister Ng Eng Hen stated that his country wanted India to play a bigger role in the South China Sea. The leaders of Vietnam and the Philippines have also made similar statements in recent years. This “invitation” extended to India by the leaders of South East Asia to participate in that region’s security affairs is tantamount to India’s emergence as a great power in Southeast Asia, and by extension, in Asia itself.[xiii] South East Asia views India as a regional power and hence would be more comfortable with its presence rather than that of U.S.A to balance the power equations in the region. Further, China has often accused U.S.A of militarising the area. A military face-off in this region could turn out ugly and lead to stalemate in negotiations. On the other hand, China and South East Asia believe that India would play a constructive role and not use force for settling the dispute. India has always been projected itself as a benign neighbour. Its commitment to resolve the South China Sea disputes according to the principles and rules established by the UNCLOS and the Code of Conduct of parties, its non aggressive history and border disputes with China being common concerns with the ASEAN countries and India have cumulated into the invitation to India to engage militarily in the region.

In the past too India has expressed its willingness to part its military and maritime prowess to safeguard the region. For example: In 2006, the former Defence Minister noted that India was willing to assist the regional states in “any capacity” for security in the Strait of Malacca subject “to the desire of the littoral states.” The National Defence College has been conducting training and educational programmes; India gets frequent port calls from the ASEAN countries and inward and outward visits by ministers of defence are some of the key components of defence diplomacy. The Joint Naval exercises held with countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia is a subtle yet strong way of assuring safety to the South East Asian Nations at times of crisis.

India’s military assistance to Vietnam and Philippines, which are the two main contenders in the dispute, has been in the form of sharing intelligence and military technology. Most of the defence ties with these countries have a high naval component clearly indicating at efforts to balance the Chinese naval presence in the South China Sea. India has provided a $100 million credit line that will enable Vietnam to acquire naval vessels from India. Docking rights at Vietnam’s Nha Trang port given to India may further enhance India’s capabilities. It has also been willing to sell Brahmos short range cruise missiles. [xiv]Vietnam has been interested in procuring maritime surveillance capabilities from India. These show that more than rhetoric the two nations are now proactively engaging each other in defence and strategic domain.

India’s lack of enterprise and policy on the contentious South China Sea as well as its animosity over India’s defence relations with Vietnam during the Cold War years had resulted in Philippines figuring quite late in India’s strategic planning. The India-Philippines Joint Defence Cooperation Committee has been a significant leap in defence relations. Both sides agree that peace, tranquillity and freedom of navigation are of importance in the region. The defence acquisition process by the ASEAN countries could also help in reducing the deficits of India with respect to defence procurement. These countries are happy to import defence equipments from India as we offer ‘friendly prices’[xv] and because of our strategic importance.

Our space technology advancement has augmented defence relations with ASEAN countries. India has built tracking satellite station in Vietnam that offers an eye on China. This tracking centre which is set up in Hanoi will give access to the activities in China as well as the South China Sea region. It is however, dubbed as a civilian facility for agricultural, scientific and environmental applications. However, improved imaging technology which could be used for military purposes[xvi] seems to be the primary reason for this establishment. ISRO’s latest built indigenous satellite also is of great strategic value. The satellite Navic would provide two basic services: one which is open source and another which is restricted and strongly encrypted, provided only to “authorized users,” according to Indian Space Research Organisation. It is designed to give accurate position information to users in India and its border states which are as far away as 1500 kms from its borders.[xvii] Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that this would not benefit just India but we could help fellow SAARC nations as well. This service if extended till South East Asia could enhance intelligence sharing between India and ASEAN countries.

Just as China seeks to be an important extra territorial player in the Indian Ocean region, it is imperative that India becomes an extra territorial player in the South China Sea region. China is expanding its naval presence in the Indian Ocean region. This is better articulated with the concept of ‘string of pearls’. Although Indian strategists do not subscribe to this theory as a major security concern for India, Chinese presence in the neighbourhood is still a cause of concern.[xviii] India must emulate the same strategy in the South China Sea as it serves various military purposes. One is to strengthen India’s ‘Act East’ policy that is intended to balance the Chinese presence in eastern Indian Ocean region as well as South East Asia. The second is to familiarise the navy with a potential theatre of operations – the South China Sea – that probably would be important in any contingency involving conflict with China. Third it could demonstrate India’s ability to operate far from home.[xix] Another major component of the Act East policy is enhancing trade between India and ASEAN.

Economic and Trade gains:

The South China Sea has reached boiling point because of the copious amounts of resources present in the region. Most of the countries in this region have high growth rates and in order to sustain such high levels of growth, it is imperative that they secure the economic interests of the region.

Fishing is an important occupation in this region as fish accounts for 22% of protein intake in the region as compared to global average of 16%. The rising demand for fish due to over population and economic development have pushed fishermen to fish farther from their coast due to decline in the catch rate in traditional fishing grounds, near the mainland.[xx] This means that scope of frictions would only increase. In order to enhance fish catch, the ASEAN countries would find the services of India’s GAGAN (GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation) very useful. India could also help set up food processing industries in these countries, thereby generating income for the home country and enhancing employment for the residents of these countries. The GPS facilities would serve twin purposes. It can trace the areas of high fish yield, as well as keep in check the piracy in the South China Sea. It is alleged that most of the arms supplied to the LTTE and the insurgents in the North-east India came through this route. Further, the smuggling of drugs into the country could be tackled.

Tackling these ills and ensuring the Freedom of Navigation is very essential for India as close to 50% of India’s trade passes through this region. This is the gateway for trade to both ASEAN and East Asia. Indian trade with the ASEAN countries is growing multifold. In the year 2014-15, ASEAN-India trade stood at $76.58 billion, growing at an average annual growth rate of 12 per cent, up from $44 billion during the year 2009-10.[xxi] India’s trade with Japan and Korea would also get a major boost if India assists in surveillance of the region.
This is a strategic shipping lane as roughly two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies; nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea.[xxii] Further, the South China Sea itself has substantial reserves of oil. If India plays the South China Sea card well, it could benefit economically. The Indo-Vietnam joint exploration began in 1988 by ONGC-Videsh Limited (OVL). However, China believes that India exploring oil within the Nine-Dash line is violation of its sovereignty. India must continue with oil exploration as this could be used to compel China to make compromises on border disputes and Pakistan-related issues. Just as China defends its various projects, including the USD 46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in the disputed Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK),[xxiii] this is also just an economic venture and must be continued despite the displeasure of the Chinese. As security relations with the ASEAN countries improve and by conducting joint naval exercises like Malabar, India can secure its oil drilling facilities. Although, the oil present in this region is scant, oil exploration in the area is essential for strategic and diplomatic reasons. As countries become economically dependent, there is greater movement of people and ideas. Economic benefits can have a positive spill over into other arenas such as socio-cultural forums.

Social and Cultural ties:

Wars today are not won on battlefields but by the attractiveness of one’s culture, political ideals, policies, values or the ability to manipulate political choices. This is what Joseph Nye termed as ‘Soft Power’. The Chinese have established their presence in all spheres, in the South East Asian region.

The littoral countries in the South China Sea are unable to persuade China to draw out maritime boundaries in accordance with the UNCLOS as China continues to remain the “primary economic patron” in the region. It is the major contributor to foreign aid in the region. Any face-off results in favour of China. Soon after the confrontation between China and Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, an embargo of Philippines’ bananas led to great loses for Philippines as China accounts for 30 per cent of the market. China’s contribution to the tourism industry in the region is also very high.

India on the other hand has seen a late entry to experiment with soft power dynamics in the region. India is no stranger to these waters and land. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the Chola Empire extended till the South China Sea. Hinduism spread far and wide in this region and one can find localised versions of Hindu deities in these areas. Many of the countries engaged in the dispute are democracies with an English speaking population. All the countries of the region have had a history of land or maritime dispute with China and believe in freedom of navigation and settlement of border issues in accordance to the principles of the international treaties.

China is using novel methods to ensure that consolidation of the annexed territory could be done in future. China has promoted tourism in this area so that it can monitor and patrol the region with tourists, not naval vessels. For a modest fee of 200 yuan a tourist could go to the Paracel islands which include some of the disputed islands with Vietnam. “Since 2013, around 10,000 tourists have been to these islands. This form of civilian patrolling enhances the claims of China. When the tourists visit the islands, the national flag is hoisted and the national anthem is played.  “There was a sense of patriotism and pride and everybody swore ‘I love my country, I love Xisha,’” exclaims a tourist. “This was so beautiful; we couldn’t give this place up” said another tourist.[xxiv] As Chinese historical claims are unjustifiable, China is reinforcing its claims through false propaganda and colonisation of the islands.

This is also a potential sphere where India could provide assistance to the South East Asian countries. India must provide assistance for connecting the disputed territories to mainland and enhance tourism in this region. This must be of primary discussion during the Joint Working Group on Tourism Cooperation to be held in Philippines this year. Energizing tourism and cultural ties with South East Asia should be a component in bolstering ties with these nations.

India should work hard to fill the vacuum that would be created because of the frictions between China and South East Asia. Post the 2010 South China Sea dispute, China’s charm as a country of opportunity has seemingly lost its sheen.[xxv] Most countries have now turned towards India because of fear of domination and threat of aggression in the region. Unless our government changes the strategy from reactive to one of proactive engagement, the benefits of India’s soft power can’t be reaped.

In the past decade there has been some improvement but has not been adequate. For example: In 2007, an India-ASEAN Student Exchange Programmes were organised to enhance people to people relations. More than just building greater connectivity such visits have re-established the historical symbiosis of the two great civilizations. An India-ASEAN car rally was also organised to demonstrate “India’s proximity to the ASEAN”.[xxvi]  If India wants to dismiss its image as an outsider it is imperative that it emphasises on the historical connection to the region. It is the perfect time when India can prove to be the heart of the Asian civilisation and the religious and philosophical guide that it had always been. Buddhism, yoga, joint research of the civilisations and shared efforts to conserve historical manuscripts and monuments could be some areas where India must make progress.

History and religion must be used to shape public perception of India as a country which respects diversity, democratic principles and is committed to ensure peace and tranquillity in the region. The government could promote peace yatras for global welfare through which monks, spiritual leaders and historians could exchange ideas and bring back the reminiscence of the bygone eras. Just as China is passionately promoting the One Belt One Road policy for economic and diplomatic gains, India must promote cultural exchanges and connect with the region using its historical connections. An example of such an initiative is Mausam. The purpose of this project would be to link historical coastal sites in East Africa, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and South East Asia. The future of the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) seems uncertain, due to hostile relations with neighbours and islands disputed in the South China Sea.[xxvii] However Mausam seems relatively more promising compared to OBOR. India can create new ties based on the legacy of past times which would add to its soft power dynamics.

PCA verdict and the events that followed:

The verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration was the pinnacle of the escalation of the South China Sea dispute. China had refused to participate in the arbitration several times. However, on 29 October 2015, the arbitration tribunal ruled that it had jurisdiction over the case. On July 12th 2016, the PCA ruled in favour of Philippines on the grounds that the historical claims made by China did not hold water. The PCA also criticised China for the environmental degradation it had done in this region.

Soon after the verdict, China reacted proactively and first declared the ruling as “null and void”. Later, China flew a Cessna CE-680 civilian aircraft between Mischief and Subi reefs, which now were included in the EEZ of Philippines.[xxviii] By not complying with the PCA verdict, China is just following the trend set by the other P-5 members in the past. For example: In the Nicaragua case, when the Court found in favour of Nicaragua and ordered the United States to pay reparations, the U.S. refused, and vetoed six UN Security Council resolutions ordering it to comply with the court’s ruling.[xxix] This has brought out the debate over the importance of hard power vis-à-vis soft power. While India has complied with the verdict of the PCA even though it was unfavourable, it had graciously accepted the verdict. It demonstrated to the world, the respect it had for the principles of democracy and international law and was on a moral high ground. In contrast stands China, which has blatantly disregarded the UNCLOS to protect its core issues. Compromise on these issues would have been a national humiliation. It has used various strategies such as bullying and confounding its adversaries and has been able to exercise de facto control over the region. These actions are also a hint to other countries with which China has a land or maritime boundary dispute that China would go any length to protect its national security interests and morale at home. This is a simple example to show that while India’s soft power is spreading throughout the world, without hard power they will be swallowed whole by the bigger powers without any acknowledgement.[xxx]

The chameleonic nature of Filipino politics has resulted in some interesting turn of events. The present Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who himself is of Chinese origin, chose to align with the dragon and distant himself from the eagle. Within less than a year of the PCA ruling, President Duterte announced his “separation” from U.S.A and remarked that the country would realign itself with the ideological beliefs of China and Russia. The new found camaraderie between China and Philippines has resulted in rapid changes in the strategic environment of this region.

The U.S.A foreign policy with regard to the pivot to Asia has become proactive post Trump election victory. It contrasts the Obama policy of de-escalation of tensions in this region. The sending of nuclear powered USS Carl Vinson supercarrier and its escorts in the South China Sea displays the shift in the policies. Is the policy shift from accommodation to aggression a wise change? Many policy experts are of a negative view. The Chinese may allow American vessels to pass through SCS without stopping it. However, this privilege would not be given to other countries. China would still retain de-facto control over the region. The military developments of the Chinese in the SCS might sober down when the Americans are patrolling the seas, but will continue after they have exited the region.[xxxi] Hence, this may not be the most effective way to control Chinese military expansion in the region.

In the opinion of this author, the most prudent option is to populate the islands of the South China Sea with people from the littoral states. In this way the islands can be monitored and information about Chinese militarisation can be reported. ‘Tourist patrolling’ must be encouraged by the ASEAN countries. In other words, tourism must be promoted in the SCS so that costs of surveillance are reduced. In essence, the frequency of monitoring has to be increased rather than sending lethal military vessels to the SCS. The Chinese are not going to abandon their military establishments any time in future. Hence, the Trump administration must focus on containing the military development in the region rather than trying to remove the Chinese military presence from the nine-dotted line. Since the contention of China with regard to the SCS has been made baseless after the PCA verdict, China would wish to enhance its military bases covertly. In this scenario the strategic position of India would help in surveillance of Chinese air and naval activities. The US-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), as well as monitoring the Chinese military activities from Andaman and Nicobar islands would enhance Indo-US military ties in future.

Since, no littoral country views China as a benign neighbour and only as a bully,[xxxii] a collaboration of U.S.A with the ASEAN countries can pressurise China against expanding its military establishments. However, China wishes to solve the SCS dispute through bilateral talks and is irritated by the presence of external actors. Could the enraging dispute result in a Thucidides Trap? Only time can tell.


“A nation has no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, only permanent interests.”

-Winston Churchill.

This seems to be appropriate with regard to India’s relations to the countries involved in the South China Sea dispute. While the dispute continues, India must utilise the duration of the conflict as a dividend to enhance ties with these littoral states.

On the political front, U.S.A has made several military developments, for which China accuses the U.S of militarising the region. Hence, India must be cautious while establishing a naval presence and patrolling in the region. On the other hand, it must cosy up with countries in South East Asia. On the diplomatic front, India has to portray an image of being a big brother for South East Asia in contrast to China which is seen as a bully in the regional affairs. Militarily, it is important that there are arms and ammunitions, and surveillance technology transfer to the ASEAN from India countries so that Chinese movements in the South China Sea are monitored. Just as Chinese navy is expanding to the Indian Ocean; Indian navy must start venturing into the Indo-Pacific region too and proactively engage with navies of the ASEAN countries. Fourthly, India must continue its oil explorations in the South China Sea, despite the enthusiasm of finding large reserves of oil are fading away. By playing the card of the South China Sea issue, India can make Beijing to make compromises on the border disputes or Pakistan-related issues. Lastly, the connectivity and people to people interactions must be enhanced between India and South East Asia and this region must be looked at as an immediate and not an extended neighbourhood. India can aspire to expand its horizons from the Indian Ocean to the Indo-Pacific region only when India becomes more vocal on such issues and establish symbolically and in reality its keenness to support South East Asia.

The South China Sea dispute has a significant importance, not only because of the resources present in the region, but because it will signify the rise of China and its ability to command regional politics with its might. The moves of U.S.A also have to be calculated as small frictions could have the potential to lead into a war in this region. The power of ASEAN to influence the politics of the region, as a block, would also be put to a litmus test. This conflict would also show us the ability of India to operate outside its comfort zone and its ability to shape world affairs.


[i] BBC News Asia, “Q&A: South China Sea dispute,” 27th October, 2015, accessed May 18, 2016,

[ii] De Blij, Harm J., and Peter O. Muller. 2006. Geography: realms, regions, and concepts. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

[iii] The World Factbook 2016-17. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2016 .

[iv] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “A Historical Perspective,” 1998,

[v] Malik Mohan, “Historical Fiction: China’s South China Sea claims,” World Affairs, May/June 2013, Accessed May 15, 2016,

[vi] Jha Lalit K. “US House Approves Move to Bolster Defence Ties With India.” Press Trust of India, May 21, 2016. Accessed May 18, 2016.

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[Vishwesh Sundar is an intern with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. He completed B.A (Economics, Political Science & Sociology) at Christ University, Bengaluru. He has carried out research on identified issues on China under the guidance of the members of C3S. The views expressed in this article however are of the author. He can be reached at]

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