South China Sea – UPSC GS2

  • South China Sea is resource rich and it is contested by China and other South East Asian Countries.
  • It is one of the busiest maritime route generating lots of revenue
  • Some islands are claimed by different countries based on their own interpretation of history
  • Disputes in South China Sea are mainly between China, Philippines, Vietnam over the territorial sovereignty in South China Sea along with other atolls, reefs and rocky outcrops
  • China’s claim:
    • China says that major portion of these islands belong to them as part of the historical events and area defined by Nine Dash Line
    • China has started building artificial islands and even strategic runways for mobilising its air force from these islands
  • China’s claim overlap the South China Sea areas of different claimants countries, that involve  Brunei,   Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia
  • India’s stand:
    • India supports freedom of navigation based on international principles


Case under International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea:
  • Philippines has gone to International Court of Arbitration against China’s claims
  • Beijing insists that Manila’s case is an issue of territorial sovereignty over which the tribunal has no jurisdiction
  • Manila complained under the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea ratified by both nations.
    • It says a country has sovereignty over waters 12 nautical miles from its coast, control over economic activities in waters on its continental shelf and up to 200 nautical miles from its coast.
    • China’s nine-dash line includes waters beyond these zones.
What Permanent Court of Arbitration has said about the issue?
  • There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the South China Sea areas falling within the nine-dash line
  • China has violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and also caused severe harm to the coral reef environment by building artificial islands in South China Sea
  • China’s rights are incompatible with the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) provided in the UNCLOS
What is China’s response to this ruling?
  • China has declared that the award is null and void and has no binding force
  • It attributed the current crisis in the South China Sea mainly to the U.S.’s ‘rebalance doctrine’ that has caused it to position forces in the area
  • China is planning to setup an air defence zone in the South China Sea after which international flights flying over the waters would be required to notify China
What happens next?
  • While the findings are legally binding, UNCLOS has no enforcement body and legal experts say it remains unclear what can be done when China ignores the ruling
Why ASEAN as an organisation is not able to resolve the issue?
  • Not all 10 ASEAN members are claimants to the South China Sea.
  • Members of ASEAN have overlapping claims among themselves.
  • China believes in bilateral discussion of South China Issue
  • Because of its economic and military power, China has been able to win over some ASEAN members
  • There is no single country in ASEAN party to the South China Sea disputes that is capable of challenging China individually
  • This is an important reason why ASEAN has welcomed the role of the United States as a power balancer on the issue
Way forward for India:
  • continue with its economic and diplomatic interests,
  • maintain self-dependent naval might,
  • conduct joint exercises in Indian Ocean,
  • be ready to put pressure on Malacca passage,
  • hydrocarbons deal with Vietnam as China is doing CPEC in PoK,
  • push for global consensus on the SCS.

South China Sea Framework:
  • China and ten member countries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have formed a framework for a code of conduct to ease tension in disputed South China Sea.
  • China-ASEAN hotline for use during maritime emergencies
  • Framework will be legally binding code of conduct aimed at preventing disputes in the strategic South China Sea.
  • China and the ASEAN members had committed to sign a code of conduct around 15 years ago. But the pace of the negotiations was slow as China claimed the South China in its entirety.
  • In recent years, issue has become important for both China and ASEAN due to increased conflicts. Hence, this framework has been decided.
Related Questions:
  1. South China Sea has assumed great geopolitical significance in the present context. Comment. (UPSC Mains 2016)

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