Contested Waters: Sino-Indian Dynamics in the South China Sea

Urbi Das
March 15, 2019


Oceans and seas form a continuous chain separating landmasses and therefore demands attention from the geopolitical angle. Also there are strategic choke-points, the control of which can change the dynamics of power equation in the region. The significance of oceans and conceptualization of the Sea power is credited to American Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan who dealt with the growing significance of sea that separates the landmasses and how gaining control over strategic waters determines the overall power of a particular nation.

The worth of Sea power according to Mahan lies in developing a robust naval strategy that would ensure control over strategic sea lanes, and at the same time peaceful execution of commercial activities (Mahan 1890). Mahan’s ideas dates back to 1890, still find relevance in shaping the contemporary discourse of international relations.

The 21st century has witnessed rise of Asian countries and thereby a shift in the dynamics of power from Europe to Asia. The world has witnessed the rise of Asian countries, such as India and the People’s Republic of China and their increasing role in world affairs. The identification of South China Sea as a zone of strategic and economic significance is due to its geopolitical location. Strategically positioned at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, it covers a total area of about 143,000 square miles with a mean death of 3,976 feet. Bounded on the northeast by the Taiwan Strait, with Taiwan and Philippines on the east; on the southeast and south by Borneo, and on the west and north by the Asian mainland, the South China Sea is bordered by China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia and Vietnam (Chong, 2018).

The South China Sea is a critical gateway for India since it connects the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea through the Malacca Straits. Half of India’s total sea-borne international trade by volume passes through the Malacca Straits connecting India to her major trading partners in  Southeast Asia, namely the ASEAN countries. China illustrates South China Sea as its ‘core interest’ zone, leveraging its economic and military instruments to protect its claims in the region.  The current scenario of competition in the South China Sea is not only to gain control over the region for operation of navies during any probable face-off  but also to exercise control over resources.

Sino-Indian bilateral relationship has evolved and it is no longer exclusively bitter. Both cooperation and competition mark the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi. This is due to the extensive trade and commercial interactions between the two countries taking advantage of the wave of globalization that has swayed the world in the post-cold war era. In the year 2016, India became the 7th largest export destination for Chinese products, and the 27th largest exporter to China (MEA, 2017). The two countries have extensive cultural linkages beginning as early as 1500-1000 B.C. and the cultural ties continue today through Educational Exchange Programmes, the presence of Indian community in China and Chinese community in India and the ever increasing economic linkages.

However, amidst the optimism of growing association and increasing economic ties, India and China have been competing for their strategic leverage in Indo-Pacific. The Chinese activities in the South China Sea has drawn close attention of India. China’s reclamation of islands in the South China Sea, claims over Senkaku Island and Mischeif reef, and military activities in the Woody Islands have raised concerns over Beijing’s design in the region (The Guardian, 2016). India’s concern mainly arises from the fact that South China Sea is one of the critical waterways for Indian goods. It is the same for many other countries, as over US$5 trillion (as of 2016) trade passes through the sea lanes of the region.

Also, India undertakes joint ventures in oil and gas operation with the littoral countries that calls for securing the area from the view point of India’s energy security. India therefore has called for freedom of navigation, to uphold the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the use of peaceful means to resolve any disputes in the region. India’s role in the entire region has been articulated by the Act East Policy. As articulated by Prime Minister Modi at the Shangri-La Dialogue, India seeks to be both an engaged power and a stabilizing force in the entire new great game surrounding the Indo-Pacific. That includes South-China Sea which has already become the ring wherein the big powers like the USA, China, the middle level players like India, Japan and even the smaller nations like Brunei, and Cambodia are intensely involved.

It is worth mentioning that nations cannot survive as isolated units amidst the current wave of globalization that calls for interconnectedness. Chins is India’s immediate neighbor and the underlining point remains that its rise both economically and militarily is commendable in the last few years. India cannot afford to offend China and also it is wise to refrain from getting directly embroiled in the maritime face-off between China and USA. Therefore, India should embark on diplomatic maneuvers- using navies as instrument of diplomacy and political influence in the region. The option remains to gain more allies and friends wherein both the bigger stakeholders as well as the smaller countries should be given gravitas since international relations is a never-ending game of changing equations where friends and foes are never permanent

*** The author is Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata and can be reached at ***