Disputes in the South China Sea
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Issue Vol. 27.4 Oct-Dec 2012 | Date : 25 Dec , 2012

On March 13, 1988, three Vietnamese transport ships arrived at the reef and set up Vietnamese flags. A little later, four large Chinese warships arrived and warned the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese did not respond. The Chinese mobilised more warships and next day early morning despatched 40 marines in three motor boats to physically remove the Vietnamese flags. The Vietnamese held their ground and the Chinese had to return to their war ships. The Chinese now fired their 37mm anti aircraft guns destroying the lightly armed Vietnamese on the reef. About 80 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in this skirmish. Thereafter, the PLA occupied several reefs in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam occupied other islands on the reef and the Chinese war ships withdrew to avoid escalation.

The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, shoals, reefs and sandbars most of which have no indigenous people…

In July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the People’s Republic of China to resolve the territorial dispute. China replied that the US stay out of the issue. The US Department of Defence issued a statement on August 18, 2010, where it opposed the use of force to resolve disputes in the South China Sea and accused China of assertive behaviour. Issues kept simmering and in May 2011, Chinese naval ships attacked and cut the cable of a Vietnamese exploration ship.

Chinese Objection to Indian Oil Exploration

On July 22, 2011, the INS Airavat, an Indian naval amphibious assault ship was on a friendly visit to Vietnam. The ship was repeatedly contacted at a distance of 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast on an open radio channel by a vessel identifying itself as Chinese Navy which warned the Indian ship that she was entering Chinese waters. Indian Navy clarified that no ship or aircraft was visible from INS Airavat and the ship moved on without paying any heed to the cautionary warning. Furthermore, India clearly stated that she supported freedom of navigation in international waters including the South China Sea.

India and Vietnam signed an agreement seeking to contain a dispute over the South China Sea in September 2011. Further Oil and Natural Gas Commission’s (ONGC) overseas investment arm ONGC Videsh Limited had signed a three-year deal with Petro Vietnam for developing long term cooperation in the oil sector. Further it had accepted Vietnam’s offer of exploration in specified blocks in the South China Sea. This was met with stiff opposition from China who claimed that no exploration could be undertaken in areas over which China has sovereign rights. The Government of India correctly responded by stating that while China had concerns but India was going by the agreement signed with Vietnam. The Chinese claim was rejected by both India and Vietnam and as per the UN, the area of exploration belongs to Vietnam.

China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over all the maritime features in the South China Sea…

India has firmly stated that ONGC will continue to explore oil in the South China Sea. Furthermore, India has clarified that the entire Indian Ocean Region stretching from East African coast to South China Sea remains crucial to its foreign trade, energy and national security. Vietnam has remained steadfast on the issue and in July 2012, the National Assembly of Vietnam passed a law demarcating Vietnamese sea borders to include the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Creation of Chinese Township of Sansha

The latest development is the setting up of a prefecture by China by the name of Sansha in the Paracel Islands. On July 24, 2012, the city was formally inaugurated as the centre of Government for the Spratly and Paracel Islands. The government offices are located at Yongxing (Woody Island) on which some 1,000 civilians currently reside. The island is the biggest island in the group and has an area of about five square miles. The island is served by an airport which was completed in July 1990 with a 2,700-metre runway. It is capable of handling the Sukhoi Su-30 of the PLA Air Force.

There is also a Coast Guard station and a hospital. While Vietnam strongly contends that Paracel and Spratly Islands are its territory, the Chinese have left no stone unturned to build infrastructure for militarily occupying these islands. Meanwhile, Taiwan is in possession of the largest maritime feature in the South China Sea, Itu Aba or Taiping.

The present dispute  pertains mainly to the Paracel and Spratly Islands…

Resolution of the Dispute

All countries, particularly the US and ASEAN want the issues to be resolved peacefully. China has been dealing with the issue bilaterally without any success. Its forceful occupation of territory is challenged particularly by Vietnam who has demonstrated its military capabilities and would counter use force judiciously. The obvious question that arises is about the options for resolving the issue. Broadly speaking, there are two options. The first is to resolve the problem through negotiations bilaterally or multilaterally. In the event of no success during negotiations the parties could resort to other modalities of dispute settlement such as conciliation, arbitration and adjudication. Since this is a sovereignty dispute, it would be difficult to refer it to any form of third party without the consent of the parties involved.

Furthermore, China has exercised her right under Article 298 of the UN Convention of Law of Seas to opt out of a compulsory binding dispute settlement. Therefore, the case cannot go before the International Tribunal for Law of Sea. The other option would be to set aside sovereignty issues and to undertake the joint development of disputed areas. Joint development has produced tangible results between Malaysia and Thailand (1979-1990), Malaysia and Vietnam (1992) as also between Australia and Timor Leste (2002). This issue can be applied to Disputed Areas. However, China has yet to clarify its claims. Thereafter, the aspect of Joint Development could be analysed.

India and Vietnam signed an agreement seeking to contain a dispute over the South China Sea in September 2011…

China holds the key to resolution of problems in the South China Sea. China resolves a border problem after protracted negotiations so as to exploit time to its advantage. Paracel Islands was secured in 1974 by China without worthwhile opposition from Vietnam as they were involved in the war for unification. They would like to get a clearer perspective of hydrocarbon availability prior to clarifying their claims. Out of all the other claimants, Vietnam would fight for its rights and settle for a judicious resolution.


Resolution of disputes in the South China Sea would depend on China’s keenness to clarify its claims and be prepared to negotiate with other claimants. This would possibly occur once oil exploration results are available possibly in about another five years which would allow China to provide space to other claimants leading to rapprochement between the contestants to these territories. India has taken a correct stand to explore oil in the region and should remain firm on this aspect. This would send a signal to China that it is dealing with a country that can stand up to China for projecting her energy interests. As of now, all claimants have to dig in their heels and wait for China to clarify its claims.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen PK Chakravorty

former Additional Director General Artillery.

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