May 30, 2024

General Studies Paper -2

Context: Recently, India delivered the strategic BrahMos cruise missile and articulated its full support in upholding national sovereignty for the Philippines.

About the South China Sea

  • It is one of the most strategically and economically important waterways in the world, extending from the Strait of Malacca in the southwest, to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast.
    • It is a crucial maritime gateway and junction for shipping between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  • It is surrounded by several nations, including China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
  • The region is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, and fisheries, and serves as a crucial trade route for various economies.

Economic Importance of the Region

  • Trade Route: The South China Sea serves as a crucial trade hub for various economies of East Asia, South Asia, and beyond.
    • A trade of more than $5.3 trillion happens on these waters. It makes up about one-third of all marine traffic.
  • Natural Resources: The region has proven oil reserves of around 7.7 billion barrels, with an estimate of 28 billion barrels in all.
    • Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 266 trillion cubic feet.
    • The Philippines is counting on the US and its allies to play a crucial role in its plans to explore energy resources in the disputed South China Sea.
  • Fisheries: More than half of the world’s fishing vessels are in the South China Sea, and millions of people depend on these waters for their food and livelihoods.

Territorial Disputes

  • The territorial disputes in the South China Sea primarily involve China and several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries.
  • China claims sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, putting it at odds with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei, who all maintain claims over islands, reefs, and undersea resources in the region.
    • These disputes have implications for the freedom of navigation and overflight.
  • The South China Sea dispute essentially revolves around multiple claims to the land features — islands and reefs — and associated territorial waters.

India and South China Sea

  • India’s stance on the South China Sea has seen a significant shift in recent years, reflecting its broader strategic and economic aspirations on the global stage.
  • India has been increasing cooperation, defence as well as economic, with these countries to take its resistance to maritime Chinese influence to China’s own backyard.

India’s Evolving Position

  • Recently, India articulated its full support for the Philippines in upholding its national sovereignty amid the ongoing South China Sea dispute between Philippines and China.
  • In 2023, a joint statement between India and Philippines had called for China to adhere to the rules-based maritime order and acknowledge the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling (2016) in favour of the Philippines.
    • These are part of an evolving approach that signals a departure from India’s earlier more cautionary and neutral position vis-à-vis the South China Sea.
  • India has significantly enhanced its military and diplomatic engagement with claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
    • It has been offering military aid and more supportive rhetoric to China’s rival claimants.

Economic Stakes and Strategic Engagements

  • India’s engagement with the region was initially primarily economic, driven by its Look East Policy, which aimed to enhance economic integration with Southeast Asia and the imperative to secure energy resources to fuel its growing economy.
  • The participation of Indian state-owned enterprises, such as the ONGC Videsh, in oil and gas exploration projects in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and other similar ventures not only signified India’s economic stakes in the region but also its support for the principle of freedom of exploration and exploitation of maritime resources within the bounds of international law, specifically UNCLOS.

Policy Transformation

  • The transformation of India’s policy orientation from Look East to Act East has marked a shift towards a more strategic and active engagement with the Indo-Pacific region.
  • It reflects India’s acknowledgment of the changing geopolitical landscape and the need for a more proactive and multifaceted foreign policy approach with the Act East Policy emphasising not only economic integration but also strategic partnerships and expanded security cooperation with countries in the Indo-Pacific including Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, besides the Philippines.

Geopolitical Impact and International Stance

  • Major Asia-Pacific economies could lose up to 12% of their GDP if the geopolitical tensions were to force closure of key trade routes in the region.
  • The United States champions a free and open Indo-Pacific and has made clear that Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.
    • The U.S. stands with its ally, the Philippines, in the face of this escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability.

Way Ahead

  • The disputes in the South China Sea require a political framework, which can only be created through dialogue.
  • Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should try to find a political solution through ‘quiet diplomacy’.
    • The potential for resolving this issue through legal methods is very low.
  • One of the most important ways to de-escalate the current tensions in the South China Sea for both parties is to avoid hostile actions against each other, uphold a more reconciliatory attitude and emphasise the need to cooperate rather than compete.
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