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Why is it in the news?

  • Recently, the Philippine coast guard removed the floating barrier placed by China’s coast guard at Scarborough Shoal, a disputed area in the South China Sea.

About the South China Sea

  • Location:South China Sea is an arm of western Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia. It is south of China, east & south of Vietnam, west of the Philippines and north of the island of Borneo.
  • It isconnected by Taiwan Strait with the East China Sea and by Luzon Strait with the Philippine Sea.
  • Bordering states & territories (clockwise from north):the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
  • Strategic Importance: This sea holds tremendous strategic importance for its location as it is the connecting link between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean (Strait of Malacca).
  • According to the United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD), one-third of the global shipping passes through it, carrying trillions of trade which makes it a significant geopolitical water body.
  • The South China Sea dispute involves China and several Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, over territorial control in the sea.
  • China’s claims are based on its “nine-dash line,” which encompasses a large portion of the South China Sea and has been a source of contention.
  • China has increased its physical presence in the region, including the construction of military installations on artificial islands.
  • The dispute is significant due to the vast energy resources, rich fishing grounds, and crucial trade routes in the South China Sea.
  • The “nine-dash line” is based on China’s historical maritime rights, but it extends far beyond what international treaties allow.
  • In 2016, an international tribunal largely rejected China’s claims and accused it of breaking international law, but there was no enforcement mechanism.
  • Resolving the dispute is challenging, and there is concern that it could escalate into a global conflict if not addressed diplomatically.
  • ASEAN has struggled to find a solution, and the failure to resolve the disputes could undermine international laws governing maritime disputes and lead to arms buildups.

Reasons for dispute in the South China Sea:

 Contesting Claims Over Islands:

  • The Paracel Islandsare claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
  • The Spratly Islandsare claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Philippines.
  • The Scarborough Shoalis claimed by Philippines, China and Taiwan.

China’s Assertion:

  • Since 2010, China has been converting uninhabited islets into artificial isletsto bring it under UNCLOS (examples would include Haven Reef, Johnson South Reef and Fiery Cross Reef).
  • China has been changing the size and structure of the reefsby modifying their physical land features. It has also established airstrips on Parcel and Spratly.
  • Chinese fishing fleets are engaged in paramilitary work on behalf of the state rather than the commercial enterprise of fishing.
  • The US is very critical of this building of artificial islands and terms these actions of China as building a ‘great wall of sand’.

Other Issues:

  • Undefined geographic scopeof the South China Sea.
  • Disagreement over dispute settlement
  • Undefined legal status of the Code of Conduct (COC)adds to it.
  • The different histories of distant, largely uninhabited archipelagos of the sea make the matter more complicated and multifaceted.

India’s Stand:

  • India has maintained that it is not a party to the South China Sea (SCS) dispute and its presence in the SCS is not to contain China but to secure its own economic interests, especially that of its energy security needs.
  • However, China’s increasing ability to decide and expand its role in the South China Sea has compelled India to reevaluate its approach on the issue.
  • As a key element of the Act East Policy, India has startedinternationalizing disputes in the Indo-Pacific region to oppose China’s threatening tactics in SCS.
  • Further, India is using its Buddhist legacy to make a strong bond with the Southeast Asian region.
  • India has also deployed its navy with Vietnam in the South China Sea for protection of sea lanes of communication (SLOC),denying China any space for assertion.
  • Also, India is part of Quad initiative(India, US, Japan, Australia) and lynchpin of Indo-Pacific narrative. These initiatives are viewed as a containment strategy by China.

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