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South China Sea Arbitration ruling: A chance for India to rev up its foreign policy; By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023


Image Courtesy: Wilson Centre


C3S Paper No. 0103/2016

On July 12 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague delivered its verdict on the case brought by Philippines countering China’s claims in the South China Sea. The court ruled as follows[1]:

  1. China has no historic rights within the nine-dash line.

  2. Besides, land features in the Spratlys were judged to be mere rocks and not islands, thus China and other states can only claim a 12 nautical mile territorial sea around them, as opposed to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

  3. In addition, China’s construction of artificial installations on Mischief Reef was deemed a violation of Philippines’ sovereignty, given that the land feature was on the smaller country’s continental shelf.

The above were some of the prominent legalities pronounced. China has refused to accept the verdict. On the other hand India has urged all parties in the South China Sea dispute to follow the principles based on United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), and arrive at a peaceful solution.[2] The Ministry of External Affairs has also stated that “India supports freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS.” and “Sea lanes of communication passing through the South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development.”[3]


What are India’s interests in the South China Sea? How does The Hague’s ruling present an opportunity for India to galvanize its foreign policy towards China and Southeast Asia?


South China Sea- An ‘overseas bank’ for India

India may be dubbed an extra-regional player in the South China Sea. But historically, the oceans connect, no matter what steps past colonizers took on land to divide (i.e. drawing borders). India is geographically, strategically and economically linked to the South China Sea. The Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits are water bridges towards the disputed sea. Some 25 per cent of all India’s external (maritime) trade — that is, approximately 190 billion dollars worth — does, indeed, pass through the South China Sea (bound to and from Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao, the two Koreas, China [including Hong Kong], Japan, Pacific Russia, and, the western seaboard of the USA) and is certainly susceptible to geopolitical infirmities/ disruptions in the South China Sea.[4]


 The South China Sea is also rich in resources, ranging from hydrocarbons and fishing to minerals. India is interested in harnessing the energy resources. In fact, it has been awarded oil blocks in Vietnam’s EEZ. Despite China not being keen on this contract, India’s ONGC Videsh Limited continues to supply energy to Vietnam from these oil blocks.[5] It offers an opportunity to India to maintain a strategic economic presence in the region.


Another investment opening in South China Sea region which offers itself to India is the diplomatic domain. India needs to be an active economic player in the region to demonstrate its political goodwill to the ASEAN states, especially those involved in the South China Sea dispute. These include Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. These states look upto India as a balancer against China’s overwhelming economic and military presence.  India also has stakes in promoting its soft power in the region, for which the essential hard power foundation is required vis-à-vis the South China Sea.


The PCA Ruling- A pearl oyster for India

The South China Sea ruling may have opened a Pandora’s Box for Beijing, but it has pointed the way for a pearl studded oyster for Delhi. While the ruling favours Philippines, it does set an essential precedent for Vietnam to also approach the PCA regarding its dispute with China. If The Hague rules in Vietnam’s favour, China cannot continue to protest Hanoi and Delhi engaging in oil exploration in the South China Sea. India can rig up energy exploration and perhaps bring some of the spoils back home.


While China earlier expressed that it is not interfering in international freedom of navigation in the South China Sea waters, it is however against other countries’ vessels passing through its claimed EEZ, which is of disputed nature. However a recent statement by a Chinese navy admiral that freedom of navigation patrols carried out by foreign navies in the South China Sea could end “in disaster”,[6] can have future implications not only for U.S.A but also India. Nevertheless, China which claims to be a responsible international actor will be cautious before escalating the conflict[7] before the eyes of the world.


The advantages of the PCA ruling do not lie in the waters of South China Sea alone. India now has a golden opportunity to improve its strategic presence at the Sino-Indian border, while Beijing is busy nervously pacing its claimed backyard in the South China Sea. It is a happy coincidence of timing, that India on July 19 2016 deployed its T-72 battle tanks in Ladakh, to join existing regiments near the Sino-Indian border.[8] With this move, a full brigade will be formed, ready for arm muscling if necessary. China will not show much concern, given it has larger fish to fry.


It is another case of fate matching timing when on July 15 2016, India sent three naval warships to Malaysia for search and rescue operation exercises and improve interoperability in communication.[9] There is absolutely no conspiracy of coincidence here, given that it takes long durations, even a year to decide and prepare such deployments.  Delhi’s decision makers will do well to plan ahead and continue to deploy naval warships to Southeast Asia, in agreement with the region’s countries. The aim is not to take military action, but to merely act as a source of solace for the anxious ASEAN states who are party to dispute with China. Benign exercises like those being conducted at Kelang, Malaysia, apart from defence trade, will serve to improve bilateral relations. Besides, China will think twice before escalating conflict in the South China Sea, given that India’s strategic presence can be ignited if provoked.  The increasing military presence of U.S.A in the region will not help Beijing’s case.


India can also present itself as a role-model to China. This is seen in the case of Delhi graciously accepting UNCLOS principles when resolving a maritime territory dispute with Bangladesh, where the latter benefited from the ruling.[10] China envies India’s independent foreign policy, and will gain by emulating its standards.


In addition, the ruling may weaken China’s stance against India’s application for membership at the Nuclear Suppliers Group at the next plenary meeting.[11] On the other hand it can strengthen India’s position when China tries to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). India was recently awarded membership to MTCR, while China is not yet a party to the group.


Hence it is observed that India can relish the results of the PCA ruling while China swallows the bitter pill. While U.S.A is using the ruling as fuel to amplify its naval front in Asia-Pacific, India is looking at the diplomatic and economic currency that can be gained from the ‘overseas bank’, that is South China Sea. India must prove itself as a responsible rising power in the Asian century, by not participating militarily in the South China Sea dispute. Its economic and political presence in itself is enough to calm fears and de-escalates tensions. Southeast Asia will remember its incident-free historical linkage with India. This link acts as an umbilical cord even today. India’s instincts to reach out to Southeast Asia will increase with the PCA ruling, via the Act East Policy. India may not be a paternal protector like U.S.A. But it is and will continue to be the mainspring of goodwill, peace and tranquility to the region.


References: 

[1]  M. Taylor Fravel, Jessica Chen Weiss, Peter Dutton, et. all, “What is the Future of the South China Sea?, Foreign Policy, July 12 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/12/what-is-the-future-of-the-south-china-sea/

[2] Statement on Award of Arbitral Tribunal on South China Sea Under Annexure VII of UNCLOS, Ministry of External Affairs, India, July 12 2016, http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/27019/Statement+on+Award+of+Arbitral+Tribunal+on+South+China+Sea+Under+Annexure+VII+of+UNCLOS (Accessed July 20, 2016)

[3] Ibid

[4] Pradeep Chauhan, “How South China Sea dispute affects India”, India Today Daily O Portal, July 14 2016, http://www.dailyo.in/politics/why-india-should-bother-about-south-china-sea-dispute/story/1/11746.html

[5] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Vietnam invites India to explore resources in South China Sea”, The Economic Times, February 26 2016, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/vietnam-invites-india-to-explore-resources-in-south-china-sea/articleshow/51130326.cms

[6] Ben Blanchard, “Freedom of navigation patrols may end ‘in disaster’: Chinese admiral”, Reuters, July 18 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-ruling-idUSKCN0ZY0FJ

[7] ‘South China Sea: Convergence of U.S.-India interests’ Discussion led by Prof. Peter Dutton and Cmde. R. S. Vasan, Chennai Centre for China Studies, July 13 2016, https://www.c3sindia.org/india/5673

[9] “South China Sea Deployment: India Sends Three Naval Ships to Malaysia”, Sputnik, July 15 2016, http://sputniknews.com/asia/20160715/1043056258/deployment-sea-india-ships.html

[10] Haroon Habib, “Bangladesh wins maritime dispute with India”, The Hindu, July 9 2014, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/bangladesh-wins-maritime-dispute-with-india/article6191797.ece

[11] Indrani Bagchi, “South China Sea ruling a shot in the arm for India, a damning indictment of Beijing, say experts”, The Times of India, July 12 2016, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/South-China-Sea-ruling-a-shot-in-the-arm-for-India-a-damning-indictment-of-Beijing-say-experts/articleshow/53180365.cms


Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. She can be contacted at asma.masood11@gmail.com. Twitter:@asmamasood11)

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