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Prelims Capsule

International Relations

The South China Sea Conflict: Analysis in In-depth

The South China Sea Conflict: Analysis in In-depth


  • 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.

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

China’s Stand

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

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 is a way- 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.


Mains model Question

  • Write a note on South China Sea dispute.