Earlier  this  month,  during  the  ASEAN  Regional  Forum  (ARF)  and  Foreign  Ministers’ Meetings  of  the  East  Asia  Summit  (EAS)  meetings  in  Kuala  Lumpur,  Malaysia,  the Chinese Foreign  Minister Wang  Yi elaborated on China’s  position  on the South China Sea   and   assured   that   his   country   endorses   and   upholds   international   norms   for unimpeded  maritime  transit  by  global  shipping.  Further  China  is  willing  to  work  and partner with other regional countries to make sure ‘freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea’ is maintained.

Chinese  assurances  come  amidst  recent  media  headlines  on  the  reclamation  of reefs  and  shoals,  building  new  terra  firma,  and  expansion  of  infrastructure  on  the islands  in  the  South  China  Sea.  Significantly,  the  contemporary  Asia  Pacific  security discourse has debated the reclamation issues at great length and the frequent standoffs between China and other claimants has led to a belief that South China Sea is a potential flashpoint.  The  issue  also  resonated  in  the  International  Arbitration  Tribunal  where Philippines pleaded for the  invalidat ion  of  China’ s  Nine-Dash Line; China preferred to stay away from the proceedings and absented itself in The Hague.

China has argued that its activities on the islands and reefs are ‘lawful, reasonable and justifiable’ and defended its position by stating that by reclaiming land, it was only discharging  international  responsibility  and  obligation  towards  maritime  search  and rescue  (SAR)  and  disaster  prevention  and  mitigation,  among  other  peaceful  maritime activities    such    as    safe    anchorages    for    ships    and    fishermen,    navigation    aids, meteorological  services,  and  maritime  safety  services.  Further,  once  completed,  these facilities  will  ‘provide  all-round  and  comprehensive  services  to  meet  various  civilian demands  besides  satisfying  the  need  of  necessary  military  defense.’  Also,  China  is conscious of its international obligations and possesses necessary capability to ‘provide regional countries with these much needed public goods at sea’.

In  Economics,  ‘public  good’  is  defined  as  those  services  that  are   ‘ non-rivalro u s’ and   ‘ non -exclu dabl e’   and  free  for  use  and  consumption.  For  instance,  navigation  aids such    as    lighthouses,    meteorological    services,    search    and    rescue    operations, humanitarian  assistance  and  disaster  relief  (HADR),  etc.  can  be  considered  as  public goods and are offered for free to the maritime community. If one was to apply the term ‘public goods’ in the context of the ongoing reclamations in the South China Sea, China’s argument holds water particularly in the context of aid to navigation, search and rescue and fisheries protection.

Geographically, South China Sea  is  dotted with large numbers  of  islands, reefs, shoals, and rocks and only a few among these are hardly above water during high tide. Although,  the  average  depth  in  the  area  is  about  1000  meters,  many  of  the  areas  are labeled  as   ‘ dangerou s   grou nd’   on  nautical  charts  cautioning  the  ships  to  stay clear  of these  waters  due  to  risky  submarine  topography  and  take  extra  precautions  while sailing. The South China Sea is also a very busy sea and air space that witnesses heavy movement of merchant ships and aircraft. Further, the South China Sea attracts nature’s fury in the form of storms and typhoon that can pose difficulties for shipping and could adversely impact fishermen.

Given the above geographic  constants, natural  phenomenon, and the density of sea  and  air  traffic,  it  is  fair  to  argue  that  there  is  a  high  probability  of  accidents  that would  require  search  and  rescue  services.  These  operations  can  be  mounted from  the reclaimed  sites  that  host  or  would  host  in  the  future,  ships  and  aircraft  to  respond  to SAR calls. Most of the South China Sea littorals are bound to respond to SAR calls under various international regulations such as 1974 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS); 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and  Rescue  (SAR); 1982 LoS  Convention;  and  the  International  Aeronautical  and  Maritime  Search  and  Rescue (IAMSAR)  Manual.  Similarly,  regional  agreements  such  as  the  2002  Declaration on the Conduct Of Parties in the South China Sea and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus (ADMM +) mandate SAR in South China Sea.

However,  success  of  any  SAR  in  the  South  China  Sea  is  a  function  of  response time. Also, a correct assessment of the position of the incident, location and availability of rescue vessel for SAR, time to reach the location, and geography and topography  of the area of operation are important consideration. Further, regional capacity to respond to SAR is critical which may necessitate pooling of resources from other countries for a robust response.

A cursory look at the SAR capacity of the regional countries suggests that China has  enormous  capabilities  such  as  ships  and  aircraft  to  responds  to  any  SAR  calls  in South China Sea. However, there appear to be no takers for the Chinese arguments that the facilities being built in the contested features of the South China Sea are for public goods such as SAR. Perhaps, Beijing would have to do a lot more to justify and convince that  the  infrastructure  being  developed  on  the  islands/reefs  is  for  ‘public  goods’  and could benefit other littorals.

About the Author 

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is the Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official  policy or position of the  Indian Navy or the NMF. He can be reached at

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