Explained: What the South China Sea dispute is all about
India has ramped up calls for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the peaceful resolution of disputes in the crucial region during its recent interactions with key powers such as the United States and the Asean bloc.
New Delhi’s interest in the region, reflected in the India-US Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region issued during President Barack Obama’s visit to India last year, is based on the fact that around 50% of the country’s trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, part of the South China Sea.
History of the conflict
China claims almost the entire South China Sea and the islands and reefs that dot it. It first made its claims in 1947 by issuing a map detailing those claims.
Beijing has its eyes on an area defined by the “nine-dash line”, which stretches hundreds of kilometres south from its Hainan province.
Beijing’s claims are in conflict with those of Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.
After Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia too have declared ownership of part of the Spratly Islands. Vietnam controls 29 islands, the Philippines has seven, Malaysia three, Indonesia two and Brunei one.
The reported presence of rich oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea and the region’s role as one of the most important maritime trade routes has added to the complexity of the dispute.
Goods worth more than $5 trillion pass through the maritime channels of the South China Sea every year.
Though not directly involved, India has interests in oil blocs that Vietnam has allowed New Delhi to explore. China has opposed India’s oil exploration ventures.
In April 2015, satellite images showed China building an airstrip on reclaimed land in the Spratlys.
In October 2015, the US sailed a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands - the first in a series of actions aimed at asserting freedom of navigation in the region. China warned the US should “not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing”.
In February, China deployed two batteries of surface-to-air missiles and a radar system on Woody Island in the South China Sea, upping the stakes in the dispute. The deployment was captured in satellite images taken by the private company ImageSat International.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi did not deny that the missile systems had been deployed. “As for the limited and necessary self-defence facilities China has built on islands and reefs stationed by Chinese personnel, that is consistent with the self-defence and self-preservation China is entitled to under international law,” he said.
India’s take on the dispute
Around 50% of India’s trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, part of the South China Sea. The presence of the Chinese military threatens trade and energy exploration by other countries.
Addressing the ASEAN-India Summit in Kuala Lumpur in November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said New Delhi and the ASEAN grouping share a “commitment to freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded commerce” in line with accepted principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. He also said territorial disputes in the region “must be settled through peaceful means”.
India wants all parties to disputes in the South China Sea to abide by guidelines for implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and redouble efforts for early adoption of a Code of Conduct through consensus.
The India-US Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region of 2015 also affirmed the importance of “ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight” in the South China Sea. It too called on “all parties to avoid the threat or use of force”.
China reacted angrily to recent reports quoting US defence officials that said the Indian and US navies could conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea. Indian officials later described the reports as highly speculative.