South China Sea

27th April – South China Sea

Diplomatic tensions in South China Sea

In the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, China has been busy increasing its presence in the South China Sea. This time the focus of its acquisitory attention are the two disputed archipelagos of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the middle of the South China Sea waters, between the territory of Vietnam and the Philippines. This past week, Beijing unilaterally renamed 80 islands and other geographical features in the area, drawing criticism from neighbouring countries who have also laid claim to the same territory.

About Spratly islands dispute –

  • There has been an ongoing territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia concerning the ownership of the Spratly Islands archipelago and nearby geographical features like corals reefs, cays etc.
  • Since 1968, these nations have engaged in varying kinds of military occupation of the islands and the surrounding waters, with the exception of Brunei, that has contained its objections to the use of its maritime waters for commercial fishing.
  • In the 1970s, oil was discovered in neighbouring islands, specifically off the coast of Palawan. This discovery ramped up territorial claims by these countries. Over the years, US government agencies have claimed that there is little to no oil and natural gas in these islands, but these reports have done little to reduce the territorial dispute.

About Paracel islands dispute –

  • This archipelago is a collection of 130 islands and coral reefs and is located in the South China Sea, almost equidistant from China and Vietnam.
  • Beijing says that references to the Paracel Islands as a part of China sovereign territory can be found in 14th century writings from the Song Dynasty. Vietnam on the other hand, says that historical texts from at least the 15th century show that the islands were a part of its territory.
  • These islands also find mention in records starting from the 16th century by explorers who led expeditions to the East — the Portuguese, British, Dutch, French and Spanish, have all written about the Paracel Islands in various texts.
  • By 1954, tensions had dramatically increased between China and Vietnam over the archipelago. In January 1974, China and Vietnam fought over their territorial disputes after which China took over control of the islands.
  • In retaliation, in 1982, Vietnam said it had extended its administrative powers over these islands. In 1999, Taiwan jumped into the fray laying its claim over the entire archipelago.
  • Since 2012, China, Taiwan and Vietnam have attempted to reinforce their claims on the territory by engaging in construction of government administrative buildings, tourism, land reclamation initiatives and by establishing and expanding military presence on the archipelago.

Importance of South China Sea for India –

  • Trade and Energy – 55% of India’s trade passes through Strait of Malacca which opens into South China Sea and India has a stake in ensuring freedom of navigation. (ONGC and PetroVietnam oil exploration MoU in South China Sea)
  • It is important for India to maintain good relations with ASEAN countries and Japan.
  • From Strategic point of view, India might be interested in developing strategic contacts in South China Sea (as suggested by Former Defence Minister George Fernandes) to counter Chinese presence in Indian Ocean. ((Vietnam has offered naval base facilities at Cam Ranh Bay to Indian Navy)
  • India has discreetly contested the claims of U-shaped ‘nine-dash line’ marking the vast area that China claims in the sea, a route for more than $5 trillion in trade each year.

SourceThe Indian Express

QUESTION – What is the Spratly and Paracel islands dispute? Also discuss the significance of South China Sea for India.

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