Author : Dr. Amit Singh

Conflicting claims over islands and maritime zones in the South China Sea (SCS) has been a longstanding security issue between China, Taiwan and five Southeast Asian countries. The recent uptick in tensions in the SCS underscores the volatile nature of the problem, only conforming fears that it is a major “regional security flashpoint” with global consequences.

In a submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) in May 2009, Beijing claimed the entire SCS and made its first effort to include the region as a "core national interest", similar to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang province. In response, the US rejects the China's claims to sovereignty over the entire SCS emphasizing that the American national interest is served by the freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the SCS.

China’s hard line on the SCS has affected India too. New Delhi was a bit taken aback after Beijing denounced plans by an Indian Company to develop oil fields in the region. The Chinese objection was to ONGC Videsh’s (OVL) venture for off-shore oil exploration in water’s belonging to Vietnam (not recognized by China), Beijing urged India to refrain from entering into deals with Vietnamese firms exploring oil and gas in the disputed SCS over which China enjoys ‘indisputable’ sovereignty.

However, while China opposes India’s entry into the SCS, it insists on building strategic projects in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) and on deploying troops there. There were recently unconfirmed reports of confrontation between the Chinese warship and INS Airavat in the international waters of SCS. India has responded to Chinese objections by stating that its cooperation with Vietnam is in accordance with international laws. During SM Krishna’s visit to Hanoi on September 15-17, 2011, the External Affairs Minister of India underlined that OVL will go ahead with oil and gas exploration in the two offshore blocks (127 and 128) claimed by Vietnam. China, however, appeared unconvinced and announced plans to expand maritime exploration of 10,000 sq km of seabed in Southwest Indian Ocean.

The afore-stated developments need to be seen in the context of India’s stated naval doctrine. The Indian Navy document (2007) “Freedom to use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy”, lays down clearly that India's area of interest which “extends from the north of the Arabian Sea to the South China Sea''. In the 2010 ARF meeting, India was among 12 (of 27 participating countries) that backed the United States’ multilateral approach, instead of China’s “bilateral approach” for resolution of the SCS disputes. During the 17th ARF meeting, India joined other countries to openly declare that the SCS should remain open for international navigation. The Indian position on the security situation in the SCS was made clear by the Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao in her address at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi on July 28, 2011, where she reiterated the region’s importance as an important shipping route and India support for freedom of navigation in sea-lanes.

India’s Interests in the SCS

India has a strong interest in keeping sea lanes open in the SCS. The SCS is not only a strategic maritime link between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, but also a vital gateway for shipping in East Asia. Almost, 55% of India’s trade with the Asia Pacific transits through the SCS. Apart from helping secure energy supplies for countries like Japan and Korea, India has the unique distinction of shipping oil from Sakhalin to Mangalore through sea routes of the region. Therefore, it is vital for India to have access to the region. If China continues to assert dominance over these waters, it will be difficult for India to continue with its activities through this channel.

India-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation

Maritime cooperation between India and ASEAN has been sparse and limited. Although Indian naval ships frequently visit the Southeast Asian countries ports and SCS, cooperation with regard to capacity-building and patrolling piracy-infested areas or jointly facing non-traditional threats at sea like drug-trafficking, human-trafficking and possible maritime terrorism remain inadequate.

India however, in recent years, has been seen as a credible counterweight to China. Southeast Asian countries, wary of continued Chinese aggression in the SCS, have encouraged joint maritime exercises with India. In February 2010, the Indian Navy concluded its Milan series of maritime exercises in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and almost all ASEAN countries participated in Milan exercise.

India, which has helped Malaysia in building up its Coast Guard in the past, must consider assisting other ASEAN countries. India has a strong Navy with technological credibility that can be leveraged by ASEAN. Collaboration on missile technology, radar systems, defence component systems and supporting hardware are again areas where ASEAN countries can work in partnership with India. China, naturally, does not welcome the ASEAN move to interact militarily with India.

India has also shown keenness to sell Brahmos missiles to friendly countries including the neighboring Southeast Asian countries. Most of the ASEAN countries have been engaged in a defence modernization programme and would like to obtain assistance in weapons up-gradation and systems integration. Like India, most of the Southeast Asian countries also rely on Russia for their defence procurements. India with its long experience in using Russian products and developed the technological capabilities for low cost servicing could be a potential ally for ASEAN in this field. Assisting ASEAN will also improve India’s relations with the Southeast Asian countries bilaterally and multilaterally and it will also boost India’s morale in balancing China in the IOR.


China’s recent acts in the SCS indicate that it is working on a ‘revisionist agenda’ in the region and trying to unilaterally change the status quo in the SCS. China’s rising economic and military might could compel the ASEAN countries to rally together as well as to seek assistance from the United States’ and other nations to balance China.

The US posture has, in turn, raised tensions in the region as China warned its neighbours not to “play with fire”. Further, Beijing believes that Washington is eyeing to control the Spratlys through Vietnam and the Philippines. If the territorial disputes relating to the SCS are not resolved soon to the satisfaction of all maritime stake holders including the littoral nations, a heightened global tension might result.

On India’s part, if New Delhi is concerned about the freedom of navigation in the SCS. It is only too aware that this is an issue that will profoundly impact Indian foreign policy. New Delhi realizes, now more than ever, that capacity building and maritime cooperation between India and ASEAN will be the key to stability in the region. However, the question arises, how will India sustain its position in the SCS, either through OVL or by backing Vietnam but this will require the political will and strategic vision.

(This article first appeared on SAEA Group website)
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