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Walking a Tightrope: India's Challenge in the South China Sea ; By Aamir Khan

Guided by : Commodore Venugopal Menon IN (Retd.)

Preliminary Review by: Sruthi Sadhasivam, Research Officer, C3S

Picture courtesy: Asia Times

Article: 17/2024

The South China Sea (SCS) is emerging as a flashpoint in international politics. China’s claim in the SCS region through Nine Dash Lines violates the concept of freedom of navigation and the rule-based international order. Because of its strategic location, SCS has become a source of intense geopolitical tension. Though China's aggressive activities in the SCS have little immediate influence on India, they do have long-term consequences. Due to the increasing relevance of this maritime passage, it has enormous economic and security importance for nations in the region, especially India. India's growing presence in the SCS region has implications for the regional security equation. This article explores the multiple factors that drive this development in the SCS region

The reasons for India’s involvement in the South China Sea region are:

  1. The significance of the SCS region to India's economy:

The South China Sea (SCS) is a significant trade route for India; more than half of the trade passes through the SCS and the Malacca Strait (Ministry of External Affairs, 2022). Any disruption would prove disastrous for India's trade and economic growth. The US Energy Information Agency (2019) estimates that the South China Sea has around 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas potential (Energy Information Administration, 2019). Thus, the SCS region holds vast oil and gas deposits, the majority of which are located around the South China Sea's edges and are possibly unexplored (Saha, 2021). India, like China, is an energy-starved country that is straining its resources around the world to obtain hydrocarbons in whatever form and quantity are available. This is how India's oil and gas exploration and extraction in the South China Sea should be understood. As a result, there is no way India will withdraw from the South China Sea just because China or another nation has made an exception to its economic and naval activity in the area (Majumdar, 2013). Due to India's fast-growing consumption and sluggish domestic output, India's reliance on oil and gas imports is expected to increase by more than 80% during the next four years, from 78.6% currently (India’s import dependency, 2023). The SCS has plenty of gas and oil that might meet India's energy needs and lessen its reliance on imports from the US and Russia. Since the early 2000s, India and Vietnam have collaborated on oil and gas exploration, and despite the territorial issue, India's ONGC Videsh received an extension from Vietnam to explore oil and gas in the SCS (India energy company, 2023). Despite the deal being signed in 1988, there have been no significant results that have emerged. India should implement proactive steps to capitalise on this opportunity and expand its oil exploration in the region.

Hence, its importance should be seen as a strategic presence in the area, rather than an economic one. Nevertheless, Beijing had warned countries about the oil and gas exploration activities in the SCS and asserted that “... relevant countries respects China's position and refrain from taking unilateral action to complicate and expand the issue.” According to David Scott, a lecturer in international relations at Brunel University, "The South China Sea is becoming a factor in India's own strategic calculations and strategic debates, and India is becoming a factor in the strategic calculations of South China Sea states” (Saha, 2021). Therefore, India should engage in the region to advocate freedom of navigation and secure its economic interests in the SCS region.

2.Countering the Influence of China in the SCS region:

The Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power noted that "the 20th Party Congress report focused on intensifying and accelerating the PLA's modernization goals over the next five years, including strengthening its strategic deterrence system," indicating that the PLA Navy is growing at an unprecedented rate (U.S. Department of Defense, 2022). China's escalating aggressiveness in the SCS region undermines regional equilibrium. According to then Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, China is employing the cabbage strategy in the SCS, it means “surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage” (Himmelman, 2013). In the event of retribution, these Coast Guards were ready to confront foreign warships operating near the Chinese-claimed features during a standoff, constituting the middle layer of the cabbage. Furthermore, China is reclaiming land in the South China Sea and forming new islands. China has erected twenty and seven outposts on the Paracel and Spratly islands, respectively, including airstrips, ports, and military bases. With the deployment of fighter planes, cruise missiles, and a radar system, China has also militarised Woody Island (Center for Preventive Action, 2024). Beijing eventually plans to remove Philippine marines from the Sierra Madre and will do all in its power to prevent the Philippines from doing the same on Second Thomas Shoal (Tran, 2024). On the other hand, the Indian Naval Doctrines 2004 show "Forward Leaning" maritime policy, which declares the "arc from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca as a legitimate area of interest" (Bajpaee, 2019). The Indian Naval Doctrine 2015 classified the South China Sea as a secondary area of interest, whereas choke points in the Indian Ocean such as the Strait of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok were designated as primary areas of interest, making it a top priority area for the Indian Navy.

India's presence conveys a message of support to the Southeast Asian countries (Indian Navy, 2015). In other words, it strengthens India's status as a regional leader and counteracts China's dominance. According to Darshana Baruah who directs the Indian Ocean Initiative at the Carnegie Endowment, there is a "need for Delhi's strategic thinking to be maritime-oriented, not just as an option for crisis response but as a theatre to advance India's most pressing geopolitical and strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific" (Hussain, 2024). However, India is growing more vociferous in opposing China's maritime aggressiveness, although it remains a hesitant balancer. India's inadequate naval force projection capabilities do not justify the rhetoric of serving as a counterbalance to China in the South China Sea region.

3. Ensuring compliance with international legal principles and regulations:

The emergence of Xi Jinping has resulted in Beijing's increasingly forceful stance, notably in the South China Sea. In the SCS, there has been an increase in naval presence, the militarization of many islands, and the formation of artificial islands. China is also employing grey zone techniques, such as the deployment of Maritime Militias and the use of the Coast Guard for monitoring and harassment. They collaborate with China's Navy to help them press their claim in the South China Sea, but they do not get a reciprocal military reaction because they are considered civilian boats rather than Navy ships. For example, clashes between Chinese Coast Guard vessels and Philippine ships have become commonplace in the SCS. China's lip service to the Code of Conduct (COD) for SCS demonstrates that China has no interest in maintaining a transparent code for freedom of navigation. The Chinese Coasts Guards (CCG) intimidate the other littoral states vessels from navigating in the waters of SCS which China claims to be theirs irrespective of the fact whether it lies in the EEZ of the navigating countries vessels or lies in the open seas as per the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982. Over the past 10 years, China has been interfering with Philippine resupply operations to the Philippine marine garrison stationed in Sierra Madre.

However, the level of harassment escalated to a concerning degree last year. During a resupply trip on November 10, 2023, for instance, a swarm of 38 Chinese warships manoeuvred erratically and used water cannons. The CCG then purposefully crashed a Philippine vessel on December 10, 2023 (ANI, 2024). Recently, the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) was disregarded by the Chinese maritime forces when they "impeded" and "encircled" a Philippine coast guard vessel, along with two Chinese maritime militia vessels. As a result, the Philippine coast guard vessel was "isolated" from the resupply boat via their "irresponsible and provocative behaviour." On the other hand, China's disrespect for the UNCLOS and rejection of the ICJ's verdict in the South China Sea Case brought by the Philippines, and China's Foreign Ministry stated that "China solemnly declares that the award is null and void and has no binding force. China doesn't acknowledge or recognise it." Chinese belligerence is not confined to the Philippines; another neighbouring country also faces the wrath of Chinese assertiveness. A Chinese research ship was moving in Vietnam's EEZ and ignored the demand of Vietnam to leave the area close to the Russian operated gas block (Hayley & Guarascio, 2023). Like Vietnam, Indonesia is also grappling with expansvie and unilateral claims of China through a nine-dash line which overlaps with the EEZ near Natuna Island (Strangio, 2021). Thus, India, as a signatory to UNCLOS 1982 and a firm promoter of "a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, one built on a rules-based international order, sustainable and transparent infrastructure investment, freedom of navigation, and overflight," (Ministry of External Affairs, 2022) should work with ASEAN and other like-minded countries to maintain the rules-based international order and to encourage the competing nations to develop a code of conduct that will ensure "freedom of navigation" and "access to resources," which would be beneficial to its interests and the region as a whole. Nevertheless, the joint communiqué from the QUAD members underlined their commitment to a "free and open" Indo-Pacific region where disputes are settled in accordance with international law. It further said, "We continue to express serious concern about the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia vessels, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore exploitation activities,” referring to China and its abhorrence of upholding the freedom of navigation guaranteed by the UNCLOS as well as changes to the status quo in the SCS (Lakshman, 2023). As a result, India has the opportunity to be more than just a rule abider, but also a rule maker, rule upholder, and, to some extent, rule enforcer in these complicated dynamics of the SCS region.

4. To preserve its primacy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR):

According to the 2015 Indian Navy Strategic Document, "India as a net security provider in the country's maritime domain." The strategic document described the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as a primary area of interest. However, the Indian Navy has firmly shifted from a 'net security provider’ to a 'preferred security partner' in the Indian Ocean a term which first made its way into the Indian Navy's lexicon in 2019 (Sakhuja, 2021). Therefore, India intends to take a more proactive role, led by its Act East Policy and historical balancing approach. China's belligerent postures in the South China Sea region, and since 2019, China has been sending spy vessels disguised as ocean research vessels to the IOR. It raises concerns about Beijing's geopolitical interests and monitoring operations in India's sphere of influence (Chaudhary, 2024). The Indian Navy now started monitoring the Chinese ships moving in the Indian Ocean (Gupta, 2024). There are also reports of China building a surveillance military base on Great Coco Island in Myanmar. The proximity of Coco Island to Andaman and Nicobar Islands and its militarization by China pose a strategic threat to India’s national security (Saxena, 2023). China's encirclement of India by establishing ports in crucial areas in India's backyard necessitates a proactive response from the Indian side. India aimed to be a dominant force in the Indian Ocean, countering China's expanding influence while advancing its own strategic vision for the region. China has built military bases in Djibouti, patrolled disputed waters on a regular basis, expanded naval capabilities, and developed ports in strategically important Indian Ocean locations such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Bata in Equatorial Guinea, and Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar.

India sees China's rapid naval growth as a threat to its interests in the region and feels that developing a powerful fleet is critical to defeating any future Chinese assault. The Indian Navy is also demonstrating its strength in the Indian Ocean, as Chinese spy boats approach India and its backyard (Bhaumik, 2024). The China factor has fueled India's growing interest in maritime security. India is now officially announcing its deployment and expressing its desire to play a critical role in global maritime security, as well as its burgeoning maritime aspirations to counter China's growing influence (Hussain, 2024). Thus, India, along with QUAD members, can conduct increased patrols in the SCS to send a signal and strengthen deterrence but there is skepticism about India joining the patrol as India clarifies that the Malabar Naval Exercise is not endorsed by the Quad and is conducted in the Indian Ocean, South Pacific, or Philippine Sea, all of which are far from disputed areas (Bradford & Emmers, 2024). On the other hand, India's infrastructure and development projects, as well as trade agreements, can serve as a credible alternative to China, reducing the latter's economic dominance in Southeast Asia. However, a robust economy is essential to sustain our "Look East" or "Neighbourhood First" strategy. When considering the lack of economic influence, the policy can be described as "work in progress," at most. China is encroaching into India's sphere of influence but has yet to reach a crucial threshold. Hence, if China encroaches on crucial space in the IOR or the Andaman Sea, India would be compelled to respond in the SCS region. However, till then, India should exercise caution and be attentive to any changes in China's actions in the IOR and SCS regions.


China poses no direct threat to India, but any conflict could disrupt India's trade in the SCS waterways. Chinese ambitions for global dominance need attention, and its activities in the Southeast Asia area, particularly in the SCS region, cause ASEAN states to seek viable alternatives to lessen their reliance on China, with India emerging as a reliable partner. India's participation in the SCS is also vital for its economic interests, as the majority of commerce flows through this route, and the region has a high potential for oil and gas exploration. Nonetheless, India and China's naval expansion offers a complex and dynamic picture. We must manage the inevitable competition in an acceptable and amicable manner. On the other hand, India's presence in the SCS could act as a deterrent to Chinese aggression on the border, triggering the Malacca Dilemma for China. However, India must strengthen its naval capability to resist Chinese aggression and maintain its zone of influence in the IOR.


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Author's Email ID:

(Mr.Aamir Khan is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, P.P.N. (P.G.) College, CSJM University, Kanpur, India and an Intern at C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S.)

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