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EDITORIAL ANALYSIS : Quiet diplomacy could ease South China Sea tensions


Source: The Hindu

  • Prelims: Current events of national and international importance(indo-pacific, India-Japan relations, South China Sea etc
  • Mains GS Paper II: Bilateral, regional and global groupings involving India or affecting India’s interests, Significance of Indo-Pacific for India etc



  • The Foreign Ministers of India and the Philippines met at the fifth meeting of the Philippines-India Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation, in New Delhi,
  • External Affairs Minister of India, and the Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, outlined the path for a strengthened bilateral partnership between Manila and Delhi in the 21st century.



South China Sea:

  • An arm of the western Pacific Ocean that borders the Southeast Asian mainland.
  • Bordered by Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
  • It is connected by the Taiwan Strait with the East China Sea and by the Luzon Strait with the Philippine Sea (both marginal seas of the Pacific Ocean).
  • It Comprises three archipelagos, namely, the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas Islands and Macclesfield’s Bank and Scarborough Shoal.



  • China’s Nine Dash Line: Defines area claimed by China – by far the largest portion of the Sea.
  • Scarborough Shoal: Claimed both by the Philippines and China (known as Huangyan Island in China).
  • Spratlys: Occupied by claimants, which consist of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Malaysia.
  • Paracel Islands: Subject of overlapping claims by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
  • Island Chain Strategy: A geographical security concept crafted by the United States in the 1940s to deter China and the Soviet Union’s maritime ambitions.


Developments between India and Philippines:

  • The decision to open the resident defense attaché office in Manila
  • Boosting cooperation between the Coast Guards of the two countries
  • Acquisition of naval assets by Manila under a concessional line of credit from Delhi
  • Expansion of training and joint exercises on maritime security and disaster responses
  • Commencing a maritime dialogue
  • Agreement on regional and multilateral issues, particularly on maritime highways such as the South China Sea.


India’s position on South China sea dispute:

  • It adhered to international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
  • India’s call to respect the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea is a departure from India’s earlier position.
    • From ‘noted’ to ‘adherence to the 2016 Arbitral Award’ is a candid recognition of its legitimacy.


South China Sea and UNCLOS:

  • The Philippines had submitted a case of arbitration to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in order to settle disputes with China.
  • The UNCLOS’ Annex VII stipulates: “The absence of a party or the failure of a party to present its case shall not be a bar to the proceedings.”
  • The PCA finally released the Award on July 12, 2016:The arbitration took into account:
    • Maritime rights
    • The status of particular marine features
    • Historical rights
    • Legitimacy of particular Chinese actions in the South China Sea, that Manila claimed to be illegal.
  • The tribunal’s decision is “final and binding” in accordance with UNCLOS Article 296 and Article 11 of Annex VII.
  • The PCA denied China’s assertion that it had historical rights in the South China Sea
  • The unanimous decision was unexpectedly in the Philippines’ favor.
  • It further stated that any prior claims to resources situated inside the “nine-dash line” were unfounded.
  • The tribunal determined that development and land reclamation had fundamentally changed the reefs in contravention of UNCLOS commitments.
  • China has “inflicted irreparable harm to the maritime environment” in addition to “destroying evidence of the natural condition of features in the South China Sea.
  • The Tribunal found that “China has violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by:
    • interfering with Philippines’ fishing and petroleum exploration
    • constructing artificial islands
    • failing to stop Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone”.
    • China had reduced the traditional fishing rights of Filipino fishermen and that by physically obstructing Philippine vessels
  • It determined that China had no legal basis for asserting historic rights to resources located within the sea areas under the Tribunal’s jurisdiction.


Issues with the ruling of Tribunal:

  • Tribunal “did not rule that it was unlawful in principle for China to undertake construction activities on the disputed islands that it occupies.
  • There is nothing in the decision which would make it unlawful for China to construct military installations on the islands it occupies, with the exception of Mischief Reef”.
  • The Tribunal emphasized that the dispute is driven by their fundamentally different interpretations of separate rights under UNCLOS in the South China Sea.


Way Forward

  • The South China Sea is a crucial maritime gateway and junction for shipping between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  • Any confrontation in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most vital oceans in terms of geopolitics, economy, and strategy, will be a danger to regional and global security.
  • As free and stable marine commons are crucial to global trade and economy, India and many other nations have an interest in safeguarding the water lanes that pass through the region.
  • Despite the fact that the PCA declared its decision, the reality on the ground has not altered, making it practically impossible to carry out the decision.
  • By reiterating the need for a peaceful conflict resolution that fully respects legal and diplomatic channels and abides by the ruling,
    • India’s message: the region wants peace and respect for international law.
  • The South China Sea problem requires 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”, as the potential for resolving this issue through legal methods is very low.



  1. Evaluate the economic and strategic dimensions of India’s Look East Policy in the context of the post Cold War international scenario.(UPSC 2016)

(200 WORDS, 10 MARKS)