English Hindi


Prelims Capsule

International Relations

Will World War 3 start from the South China Sea? Facts about China’s 9 Dash Line and Malacca Strait

Will World War 3 start from the South China Sea? Facts about China’s 9 Dash Line and Malacca Strait


  • GS 2 || International Relations || India & Rest of the World || South East Asia


  • The South China Sea is regarded as one of the busiest waterways in the world, serving as a vital trade and merchant shipping route.

What is the South China Sea?

  • The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean that extends from the Strait of Malacca in the southwest, to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast.
  • Location-The South China Sea is a branch of the western Pacific Ocean located in Southeast Asia.
    • It is located south of China, east and south of Vietnam, west of the Philippines, and north of Borneo.
  • Bordering states and territories include the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam (clockwise from the north).
  • Taiwan Strait connects it to the East China Sea, and Luzon Strait connects it to the Philippine Sea.

South China Sea Dispute- Countries Involved in South China Sea Dispute

  • Territorial dispute-It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by several countries.
    • China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all have competing claims.
  • China: The country claims that ancient history records show that China held control over the entire waterway and it was only during the modern era that the dispute began. China also raises legal concerns and rights over the Sea.
  • Vietnam: The country raises its claims based on inheritance grounds. It was only in the 1970s that Vietnam raised its claim after its relations with China deteriorated.
  • Malaysia: The country claims the feature in the southern Spratley falls inside the border of Malaysia’s continent which makes their claim acceptable on legal grounds.
  • Indonesia: The country claims only the part of the sea which comes under its exclusive special economic zones.
  • Philippines: The country bases its claims on historical grounds. They only demand the part that comes under their exclusive economic zone.
  • Brunei: Its claims are based on EEZ as mentioned by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Claim over the Islands

  • The Paracel Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
  • The Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines.
  • The Scarborough Shoal is claimed by the Philippines, China, and Taiwan.

China’s Stand

  • Eleven dash line-China laid claim to the South China Sea in 1947. It demarcated its claims with a U-shaped line made up of eleven dashes on a map, covering most of the area.But two “dashes” were removed in the early 1950’s to bypass the Gulf of Tonkin as a gesture to communist comrades in North Vietnam.
    • China says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, and in 1947 it issued a map detailing its claims.
  • Nine dash line-China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
    • It showed the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Those claims are mirrored by Taiwan.

What does the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) say?

  • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in 1994, established a legal framework intended to balance coastal states’ economic and security interests with those of seafaring nations.
  • While nearly all of the South China Sea’s coastal countries have signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, claimant countries have begun to legitimize their claims based on their interpretation of the Convention.

Significance of SCS

  • 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.
  • Economic importance
    • According to the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources, this sea contains one-third of the world’s marine biodiversity and lucrative fisheries that provide food security to Southeast Asian nations.
    • The South China Sea is thought to have massive oil and gas reserves beneath its seafloor.
    • It is made up of numerous shoals, reefs, atolls, and islands. The most important are the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal.
  • Trade route-The South China Sea is regarded as one of the busiest waterways in the world, serving as a vital trade and merchant shipping route.

Role of India in South China Sea Dispute

  • India has maintained that it is not a party to the SCS dispute and that its presence in the SCS is to protect its economic interests, particularly its energy security needs.
  • However, China’s growing ability to decide and expand its role in the South China Sea has compelled India to reconsider its position on the issue.
  • As part of the Act East Policy, India has begun internationalizing disputes in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s threatening tactics in the South China Sea.
  • Furthermore, India is leveraging its Buddhist heritage to forge strong ties with the Southeast Asian region.
  • India has also deployed its navy in the South China Sea with Vietnam to protect sea lanes of communication (SLOC), denying China any room for assertion.
  • Quad-In addition, India is a member of the Quad initiative (India, the United States, Japan, and Australia) and the lynchpin of the Indo-Pacific narrative. China sees these initiatives as a containment strategy.


  • Historical anomalies-The different histories of distant, largely uninhabited archipelagos of the sea make the matter more complicated and multifaceted.
  • Illegal infrastructural issues-The South China Sea has been witnessing a lot of unfortunate conflicts in terms of economic interests, civilian security, and the environment in the recent past.  The illegal construction of artificial islands and nuclear power plants on these fragile islands in the region raises severe environmental threats to the South China Sea.
  • China’s hegemony – China’s behavior or negligence, denial, and arrogance while ignoring international laws and regulations such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • North Korea’s provocative behavior, combined with China’s bullying tactics, has drawn US aircraft into the already troubled waters. The increased number of military vessels and planes in the area makes it more difficult to control.
  • The undefined geographic scope of the South China Sea-The South China Sea’s undefined geographic scope; disagreement over dispute resolution mechanisms; different approaches to conflict management (self-restraint, mutual trust, and confidence-building); and the undefined legal status of the Code of Conduct (COC) all contribute to it.
  • Disagreement over dispute settlement mechanisms.

Way forward

  • Judicial decisions on issues of contested sovereignty have a history of inciting a nationalist backlash. As a result, it is critical to consider potential solutions to this dispute. The following are some measures-
    • The middle path away-To resolve the disputes peacefully, the region’s claimants must be willing to abandon their confrontational attitude and instead agree to find a middle path, even if it means sacrificing some of their claims.
    • Following UNCLOS rulings-Following the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, all claimants may limit their claims to areas within 200 nautical miles of the Special Economic Zone (UNCLOS). By accepting such a proposal, the claimants can also agree to leave international waters open to free navigation.
    • Equitable sharing by the claimants– Another option would be for the parties involved to establish common ownership of the disputed areas, with all revenues from the South China Sea being shared equitably among the littoral countries.
    • The hegemony of China needs to be addressed-China has presented a bilateral negotiation point of view, but the other countries have not accepted it. This is because other countries believe that China, due to its size, may have an unspoken advantage in water distribution.
    • International organizations can play a role-The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has also been involved in resolving the dispute, but no decision has been made. However, resolving the dispute has become critical because it is affecting global trade and, in particular, a security issue for the United States.


  • The situation in the South China Sea will be resolved only when the bordering countries shift their mindsets from one of sovereignty and sole ownership of resources to one of functional cooperation and cooperative management. India’s growing clout in the region as a result of increased economic cooperation would go a long way toward resolving disputes.

Mains model Question

  • Write a note on South China Sea dispute.