Territorial sovereignty, contention on energy, threat to maritime security and overlapping maritime claims are at the core of the South China Sea dispute

Being one of the most important seas of the world, geopolitically, economically and strategically, the South China Sea (SCS) attracts considerable attention in the strategic community in India. It continues to be seen as one of the most difficult regional conflicts in the Asia-Pacific and an “arena of escalating contention.” India has vital maritime interests in the SCS. Around 55 per cent of India’s trade in the Asia-Pacific transits through the SCS region. In fact, in recent times, New Delhi has become more active in expressing its interest in the freedom of navigation in the SCS and the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes between Beijing and its maritime neighbours.

Strategic importance

The SCS is an important junction for navigation between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It connects with the Indian Ocean through the Malacca Strait to the southwest, and commands access to the East China Sea to the northeast. The sea lane running between the Paracel and Spratly Islands is used by oil tankers moving from the Persian Gulf to Japan as well as by warships en route from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Security in the SCS is a concern both for regional countries such as China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, as well as the extra-regional countries, including India, due to their strategic and economic interests in this region. Any conflict in the SCS will pose a threat to regional and international security.

Territorial sovereignty, contention on energy, significance of the geographic location, threat to maritime security and overlapping maritime claims are at the core of the SCS dispute. Some scholars suggest that for the next 20 years, the SCS conflict will probably remain the “worst-case” threat to peace and security in the ASEAN region.

The SCS, an integrated ecosystem, is one of the richest seas in the world in terms of marine flora and fauna, coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, fish and plants. The sea accounts for approximately 10 per cent of the annual global fisheries catchment, making it extremely viable for the fishing industries of nearby countries. Furthermore, value-added production (canning, filleting, fresh, frozen and chilled processing) has translated into valuable foreign exchange earnings and job opportunities for countries in the region. However, China has been imposing fishing rules to operate in the disputed waters, resulting in serious maritime security concerns and objections from other claimant states. Recently, China’s new fishing rules which came into effect on January 1, 2014 raised questions about its efforts to exercise jurisdiction over all fishing activities in the disputed waters.

Furthermore, the region richly laden in both oil and natural gas has led to speculation that the disputed territories could hold potentially significant energy resources. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates, the SCS contains 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves. EIA has difficulties in making accurate estimates of oil and natural gas in the area because of the lack of exploration and territorial disputes. Hence, reserve estimates in the area vary greatly. According to the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources, the SCS oil reserves are estimated to be around 23 to 30 billion tonnes and 16 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. There may also be additional hydrocarbon reserves in underexplored areas of the sea. Most notably, the SCS occupies a significant geostrategic position in terms of international shipping as a majority of energy shipments and raw materials have to pass through it.

Undoubtedly, the SCS is a critical corridor between the Pacific and Indian Ocean for commercial and naval shipping. In view of the emerging challenges in the region, India is strengthening its engagement with the ASEAN region steadily. New Delhi recognises the strategic importance of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean for defence of the Indian peninsula. India’s prosperity is dependent, almost exclusively, on sea trade. Land routes from the Indian subcontinent are few and provide little facility for commerce. Safeguarding the sea lanes is therefore indispensable for India’s development as its future is dependent on the freedom of the vast water surface. A secure and safe sea lane is important for India’s industrial development, commercial growth and a stable political structure.

There are compelling reasons for India to protect the sea lanes in the SCS. First, it considers an unimpeded right of passage essential for peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. Second, India favours peaceful resolution of the dispute, in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as opposed to the use of threat in resolving competing claims. Access to resources such as oil, natural gas, food and minerals is now high on the agenda of global issues to be faced in the years ahead. India’s increasing involvement in the SCS region illustrates the relationship between its strategy and the need for resources, and for the routes and logistical systems necessary for their transportation.

Roadblocks

There are some apprehensions in New Delhi about Beijing’s ambitions in the SCS. Chinese assertiveness and her tendency to unilaterally seek to change the status quo has the potential to impinge upon India’s commercial and strategic interests in the SCS. Though military conflict over freedom of navigation and access to maritime resources is neither necessary nor inevitable, it is natural for India to address China’s “threat perception” and to promote its national interest.

India has a legitimate interest in safeguarding the sea lanes and access to maritime resources. With a considerable expansion of India’s engagement with the SCS’ littoral states, India appears to be emerging, genuinely so, as an indispensable element in the strategic discourse of this region. India could be a valuable security partner for several nations in the Asia-Pacific region, provided it sustains a high economic growth rate and nurtures the framework of partnership that it has enunciated in the region.

(Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy is a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.)

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