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India’s Approach in the South China Sea

Focus: GS-II: Bilateral Groupings and Agreements

Why in News?

Indian Naval Ships Delhi, Shakti and Kiltan visited Manila, Philippines as part of Operational Deployment of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet to South China Sea.

  • This signifies India’s strong ties with Philippines and its commitment to further deepen the partnership.
  • It is also a demonstration of India’s commitment for maintenance of peace and stability in the region in consonance to its ‘Act East’ and SAGAR policies.

Significance of the South China Sea:

Strategic Location:

  • The South China Sea is surrounded by China and Taiwan to the north, the Indo-Chinese peninsula (encompassing Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore) to the west, Indonesia and Brunei to the south, and the Philippines to the east (often referred to as the West Philippine Sea).
  • It is linked to the East China Sea by the Taiwan Strait and to the Philippine Sea by the Luzon Strait, both of which are marginal seas of the Pacific Ocean.

Trade Significance:

  • In 2016, an estimated USD 3.37 trillion worth of trade flowed through the South China Sea, highlighting its critical role as a global trade route.
  • According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), around 80% of global trade by volume and 70% by value occurs via maritime routes, with 60% of this traffic passing through Asia and one-third of global shipping transiting the South China Sea.
  • China, as the world’s second-largest economy, heavily depends on this waterway, with approximately 64% of its trade moving through the region.
  • In contrast, only 14% of U.S. trade passes through these waters, illustrating the unequal distribution of maritime traffic.
  • India also relies significantly on the South China Sea for approximately 55% of its trade volume.

Fishing Ground:

Additionally, the South China Sea serves as a productive fishing ground, providing a crucial source of livelihood and food security for millions of people in the surrounding region.

Policy Shift:

  • Initially, New Delhi’s engagement with the region primarily focused on economic aspects, driven by its Look East Policy. This policy aimed to strengthen economic ties with Southeast Asia, as well as secure energy resources essential for its burgeoning economy.
  • India’s involvement in oil and gas exploration ventures in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs), facilitated by state-owned enterprises like ONGC Videsh, not only underscored India’s economic interests in the region but also demonstrated its commitment to the principle of freedom in exploring and exploiting maritime resources within the framework of international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  • The transition from the Look East Policy to the Act East Policy signifies a strategic shift towards a more dynamic and engaged approach to the Indo-Pacific region. This policy evolution reflects India’s recognition of the evolving geopolitical dynamics and the necessity for a proactive and comprehensive foreign policy strategy.
  • The Act East Policy goes beyond mere economic integration and emphasizes the importance of forging strategic partnerships and enhancing security cooperation with nations across the Indo-Pacific, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines.
  • Concurrently, India has also bolstered its own capabilities through measures such as forward positioning, mission-based deployments, enhanced maritime domain awareness, and the development of deep-water maritime facilities.
  • These efforts demonstrate India’s commitment to assertive and proactive engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, aligned with its broader strategic objectives.

June 2024
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