South China Sea issues remain complex, but India’s geopolitical imperatives in the region are clearer than ever.
Earlier this month, China unveiled its 2023 standard map with a ten-dash line—an updated version of its nine-dash line used to make territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS). The move sparked outrage among China’s neighbours, who saw it as an attempt to legitimise Beijing’s sovereign claims over portions of their exclusive economic zones (EEZ). The nine-dash line already covers more than 90 percent of the SCS, but the new edition features an additional dash located east of Taiwan, seemingly extending China’s territorial claims in the region.
New Delhi has no territorial claims in the region and has been focused mainly on the India-China border in Ladakh, where there is a continuing stalemate between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
For India, which also protested against China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin in its new map, the SCS has long been a theatre of secondary interest. New Delhi has no territorial claims in the region and has been focused mainly on the India-China border in Ladakh, where there is a continuing stalemate between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Beijing’s expansionist strategy in maritime Asia, however, gives Indian observers pause. Could China’s SCS adventurism presage a similar game plan in the eastern Indian Ocean? Would Beijing’s military consolidation in Southeast Asia worsen the power imbalance between China and India in Asia?
A flashpoint for conflict
To comprehend the motivations driving China’s SCS strategy, it is necessary to examine the scope of Beijing’s territorial claims in the region. China’s sovereignty claims are sweeping in nature and extend across the entirety of the sea space, islands, and sea features inside the nine-dash line in the South China Sea. Beijing, crucially, is willing to employ force to enforce its supposed writ over its claimed waters. Over the years, China has constructed and progressively militarised artificial islands in the SCS. It now uses them as bases for the Chinese Coast Guard and militia operations in the region, regularly harassing fishing and coast guard vessels of other claimant states. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, whose exclusive economic zones overlap with areas claimed by China, have all been at the receiving end of Chinese strong-arm tactics.
China’s sovereignty claims are sweeping in nature and extend across the entirety of the sea space, islands, and sea features inside the nine-dash line in the South China Sea. Beijing, crucially, is willing to employ force to enforce its supposed writ over its claimed waters.
It is pertinent that the nine-dash line does not have any validity in maritime law. An arbitral tribunal in July 2016 ruled that Chinese claims of historic rights within the nine-dash line were without legal foundation. Beijing, predictably, rejected the judgement, calling it ill-founded and thoroughly one-sided. In recent years, Beijing has doubled down on its territorial claims in the SCS, sending in more militia and coast guard vessels into disputed regions, including in the waters off the Philippines, where Chinese vessels have engaged in brazen acts of provocation. In August 2023, tensions between China and the Philippines peaked when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel fired a water cannon on a Philippine resupply mission in the Spratly Islands.
The US-China conflict
The tense relationship between China and the United States (US) exacerbates the disagreements over maritime territory. The latter is not a party to the territorial disputes in the SCS but it favours the Southeast Asian states, many of which are US allies. Officially, Washington maintains that it is committed to “preserve peace and stability, and uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law.” In July 2020, however, the US updated its position on the SCS, stating that it considered China’s claims over offshore resources and its campaign of bullying and harassment to be entirely unlawful. US warships have since upped the vigil in the SCS, regularly assisting ASEAN navies and coast guards to counter Chinese aggression in the disputed waters. For its part, China views the US military presence in the region as an unwelcome intervention. Beijing alleges that the US Navy’s ‘freedom of navigation patrols’ (FONOPS) violate Chinese sovereignty and endanger regional peace.
A contested airspace
Worrying as they are, the territorial disputes in the SCS have another troubling dimension: The contest for regional airspace, which, unlike the fairly clear-cut nature of the claims over land and sea territory, is fuzzy. Beijing does not claim the skies over the SCS in the way that it claims the regional sea spaces and sea features. While China resists the presence of foreign military aircraft in the Western Pacific, even setting up an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, it has desisted from setting up an ADIZ over the SCS, possibly because exclusionary air zones in busy airspaces are hard to enforce.
The “unnecessarily aggressive act,” as Washington termed it, came months after a Chinese jet nearly collided with a US aircraft over the SCS.
That does not mean China has a benign posture in the skies above the SCS. Far from it. Chinese military aircraft frequently shadow and harass foreign military aircraft in the airspace above Taiwan. In May 2023, a J-16 Chinese fighter jet flew dangerously close to a US reconnaissance plane carrying out a routine operation over the SCS. The “unnecessarily aggressive act,” as Washington termed it, came months after a Chinese jet nearly collided with a US aircraft over the SCS. Indeed, in recent years, there have been multiple incidents of Chinese stalking of US military aircraft over the Western Pacific. Chinese jets have also harassed Australian military aircraft over the SCS. Even so, China apparently recognises the dangers of close-air encounters and has even signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the US outlining the rules of behaviour for close-quarter air and maritime situations. Beijing is cautious to avoid a repeat of the EP-3 incident in 2001 when a US reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the SCS.
The disputes, some say, would not have been so fractious were it not for inconsistencies in ASEAN’s stand over China and the SCS. Different ASEAN member states hold different positions on China’s maritime aggression and militarisation of island features. Some countries, like Vietnam and the Philippines, vigorously oppose China’s island-building and assertive posturing; others, like Cambodia and Laos, seem more supportive of Beijing. It does not help ASEAN that China has significant economic and political clout in Southeast Asia. Whereas it exerts variable influence over individual state—with some more beholden to it than other—opposition to China’s South China Sea posturing within the group of Southeast Asian states is fairly muted. For years, China and ASEAN have been negotiating a code of conduct, a set of defined rules to govern “behaviour” and ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea, but it has yet to come to fruition.
Different ASEAN member states hold different positions on China’s maritime aggression and militarisation of island features.
For ASEAN, territorial disputes are also a significant obstacle to ties with China. Southeast Asian leaders recognise the dangers of Chinese maritime aggressiveness but know that a failure to effectively deal with regional territorial disputes could call into question ASEAN leadership. A tactless handling of regional tensions could indeed set off a spiral of conflict in the region. Many states, then, feel compelled to walk a tightrope between confronting China and cooperating with it.
Not a matter for the Quad but not irrelevant either
On the face of it, the SCS conflict is not quite a matter for the Quad—a multilateral grouping comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US. Japan, Australia, and India know the dangers of wading into an affair that does not directly concern them. Each, however, recognises the region’s importance for trade and military balance. Quad partners acknowledge that Chinese aggression in the region cannot be allowed a free pass in a critical theatre. Japan, in particular, sees itself as an important stakeholder in the affairs of maritime Southeast Asia. Despite having no territorial claims or EEZs in the South China Sea, Tokyo has significant trade interests in the region. Japanese decision-makers worry about the growing risks of Chinese control over key shipping lanes in the Western Pacific. They are also disquieted by the prospect of China invading Taiwan, a partner and close friend of Japan. Australia, too, despite being ambivalent about carrying out military operations in the SCS, finds China’s maritime aggression troubling. Canberra has sought to support the US in its regional maritime operations.
Indian stakes in the South China Sea
India, too, has in recent years sought to rethink its SCS approach. While Indian policymakers are still focused on the Indian Ocean, there is a growing recognition of the importance of the Western Pacific for trade and connectivity. With more than 55 percent of India’s trade passing through the area, maritime security in Southeast Asia is more vital for New Delhi than ever. India’s political elites emphasise the SCS’ importance as a critical commercial gateway in which India has a vested stake.
Even so, New Delhi’s SCS policy continues to be shaped by the need to contain China’s rise in the Indian Ocean region. This is led by the understanding that China’s expanding footprint in the eastern Indian Ocean erodes India’s strategic leverage in its neighbourhood. A consolidation of Chinese power in the SCS, Indian observers reckon, could result in more People’s Liberation Army Navy power projection in the Bay of Bengal. The focus of Indian efforts in recent years, then, has been to track the movement of Chinese research and surveillance activity in the South Asian littorals.
India’s political elites emphasise the SCS’ importance as a critical commercial gateway in which India has a vested stake.
To be sure, New Delhi has moved to strengthen ties and deepen engagement in Southeast Asia. India has signed a deal with the Philippines for the delivery of three batteries of the Brahmos missile and recently gifted a warship to Vietnam. In May this year, the Indian Navy held its first joint exercise with ASEAN navies in the SCS, and in June, India and the Philippines released a joint statement urging China to follow the 2016 arbitral ruling. Whether this marks a departure from India’s long-standing neutrality on territorial disputes in Southeast Asia or is merely a sign of India’s growing political interests in the region is debatable. What seems clear is that New Delhi is keen to influence the geopolitics of the Pacific. By signalling to China that its campaign of intimidation in the SCS is unacceptable, India seeks to reinforce its credentials as a responsible stakeholder in the region.
Inasmuch as this complements New Delhi’s ‘Security and Growth for All’ (SAGAR) doctrine and the “Act East” policy, it does not alter the reality that India’s SCS military posture remains largely cautious. Notwithstanding the emphasis on navigational access and high seas freedoms, India has not challenged China’s maritime aggression or offered pushback against Beijing’s excessive territorial claims in the SCS. With India’s strategic interests mainly confined to the Indian Ocean, it is perhaps the right thing to do. For New Delhi, the choice isn’t between being an involved stakeholder or an aggressive player. Rather, it must be a committed partner to ASEAN states willing to offer pushback to China.
Source: Observer Research Foundation
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