South China Sea (SCS) holds massive historical significance as the epicentre of
the Indo-Pacific Region. The SCS holds immense economic and strategic
importance, with its sea lanes facilitating over 80 per cent of international
trade, making it vital for countries’ commercial and security interests. The
rise of China and the consequent geopolitical response from the United States
(US) makes the region strategically alluring for both the ruling as well as the
rising power. Furthermore, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD),
involving India, Japan, Australia, and the US, has the potential to counter
China’s expansionist ambitions and uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific. This
US-China dynamic elevates the stakes for the smaller states within the region.
China, recognising the strategic significance of the SCS for its national
interests, has publicly designated the region as a matter of fundamental
importance. Consequently, neighbouring countries have become increasingly
concerned about Beijing’s alleged ambitions of transforming the area into a
Chinese-dominated sphere as Beijing wants to be Godzilla of Asia. This
prevailing dracophobia in the region has led to a series of miscalculations and
sporadic disputes. Consequently, the SCS is evolving into the most vibrant and
contentious geopolitical hotspot. It is in this context that this article
analyses the Lilliputian dilemma among the smaller regional neighbours of
The countries of Southeast Asia hold a strong emphasis on sovereignty, making the principle of
non-intervention a cornerstone of their foreign and interregional relations. In
addition to being a vital hub for trade and transportation, Southeast Asia
encompasses crucial sea lanes of communication, accounting for 32 per cent of
global oil net trade and 27 per cent of global gas net trade.1 It is no surprise, therefore, that the
regional countries are highly protective of their maritime rights.
Unfortunately, as Mark Valencia astutely observes that “when Asian nations
think of the maritime domain, their focus tends to gravitate towards boundary
conflicts rather than the preservation of the declining marine environment or
the management of dwindling fisheries”.2 The South China Sea (SCS) disputes and border
conflicts among the regional states have elevated the region to be a primary
concern for China. Moreover, due to Southeast Asia’s geopolitically pivotal
location as a bridge connecting two oceans and two continents—Oceania and
Asia—it becomes an alluring region for an emerging global power like China.
Consequently, the region has experienced significant political shifts and the
emergence of new security risks.3 Despite the historical grievances and
longstanding territorial disputes, the ongoing maritime claims are now placing
strain on the previously successful regional security structure.4 Chinese assertiveness in the SCS not only
presents significant geopolitical challenges for regional and extra-regional
powers, like the US, but also elicits a range of counter-responses. The region
finds itself at a critical juncture where the actions and intentions of China
have far-reaching implications for the stability and security of Southeast Asia
Growing Geopolitical Assertiveness in SCS: Unpacking the Implications
SCS holds immense historical significance as the epicentre of the Indo-Pacific
Region. With the rise of diplomacy and a rapidly expanding global economy, the
strategic allure of this region is expected to increase. According to the
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), over 80 per cent
of all international trade in 2021 was conducted through waterways, with Asia
accounting for 54 per cent of global maritime trade.5 Consequently, the SCS is evolving into the
most vibrant and contentious geopolitical hotspot. Territorial and sovereignty
disputes plague the region, with conflicting claims over islands, rocks, reefs,
territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, and the seabed. Additionally,
military and maritime activities in the region as well as concerns about
environmental degradation further contribute to the volatile nature of the
area. China, recognising the strategic significance of the SCS for its national
interests, has publicly designated the region as a matter of fundamental importance.6 It is important to note that Beijing is
unwavering when it comes to its core interests, as evident in its assertive
maritime manoeuvres. The Chinese claims over the SCS have created a complex web
of intractable challenges, stretching from the Cold War era to present-day
assertions. Historical incidents, such as the attacks on Vietnam over the
Paracel Islands in 1974 and the Fiery Cross Reef in 1988, as well as conflicts
with the Philippines over the Mischief Reef in 1995, demonstrate the
long-standing tensions. More recent events, including armed skirmishes in the
Scarborough Shoal in 2015 and encounters involving vessels like the Impeccable
and the USNS Bowditch, further underscore the unstable and intricate nature of
the region.7 China’s unwavering stance on its
indisputable sovereignty based on historic rights, along with its nine/eleven
dotted line claims, contributes to the complexities and challenges surrounding
the SCS. Through this line, China claims 90 per cent of the territory of the
SCS and if acknowledged by others, its neighbouring countries had observed that
this would create, to use Graham Allison’s words, a ‘South China Lake’.8 The region remains a simmering tinderbox, with
the potential for significant geopolitical consequences.
China’s military innovations, long-term
investments in coast guard capabilities, and expansive commercial maritime
assets have significantly enhanced its ability to exert influence in the SCS
region. Consequently, neighbouring countries have become increasingly concerned
about Beijing’s alleged ambitions of transforming the area into a
Chinese-dominated sphere. This prevailing ‘dracophobia’ in the region has led
to a series of miscalculations and sporadic disputes.9 Recognising the geopolitical significance of
the SCS, China has been steadily increasing its naval presence, viewing the sea
as a second Persian Gulf.10 The potential oil resources near the Spratly
Islands alone are estimated to range from 105 billion to 213 billion barrels,
with gas reserves varying from 266 trillion to over 2,000 trillion cubic feet.11 Regarding the Spratly Islands issue, Beijing
maintains a stance of subscribing to no multilateral consultations, no
internationalisation of the dispute, and no specification of claims. Recent
developments further exemplify China’s efforts to solidify its presence in the
region. For instance, China has deployed an early warning radar system at Fiery
Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago, bolstering its installations there. In
addition, off the west coast of
the Philippines, China maintains a naval presence at Mischief Reef.12 These strategic moves by China have raised
concerns among neighbouring countries, intensifying tensions and exacerbating
the already complex dynamics in the SCS. It is these countries who face
challenges like ‘Lilliputians’ when dealing with a much larger and more
powerful neighbour China, who on the other hand is like ‘Gulliver’ in the land
of Lilliput, like a dominant and influential force in the neighbourhood.
The US’s interests in the SCS are
increasingly at risk. Washington has a profound and enduring interest in
ensuring that sea lines of communication remain open to all states for both,
commercial and peaceful military activities. The control exerted by China over
the near-seas region could have significant implications for the security
framework of the Indo-Pacific Region. It particularly raises concerns about the
US’s ability to fulfil its obligations to Taiwan as outlined in the Taiwan
Relations Act.13 Moreover, it could create challenges in
meeting its commitments under regional security and defence treaties,
especially with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. Furthermore,
Chinese control over the SCS could impede the US’s capacity to manoeuvre its
forces in the Western Pacific for various reasons. This includes maintaining
regional stability, fulfilling engagement and partnership-building
responsibilities, managing crises, and executing war plans. Washington’s
primary interest lies in safeguarding the rights to navigate, overfly, and
conduct military exercises within waters that Beijing claims as its own. The
increasing risks to the US interests in the SCS have far-reaching implications
for regional security and stability. It underscores the complex dynamics and potential
challenges that arise from China’s assertive actions in the region, prompting
Washington to closely monitor and respond to developments to protect its
strategic and security concerns.
India, as another significant regional
power, is increasingly concerned about China’s growing military assertiveness
in the SCS and its implications for international marine resources. Although
India does not have a direct territorial claim in the SCS, sea lanes have
become crucial for its expanding commercial links with Southeast Asian
countries. During the 15th East Asia Summit in Nov 2020, India’s External
Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, expressed New Delhi’s apprehensions regarding
China’s claims in the region. He highlighted that Chinese actions in the SCS
have undermined trust in ongoing negotiations for a proposed code of conduct in
the region.14 This reflects India’s deep-seated concerns
about the evolving security dynamics in the SCS. Given that approximately 55
percent of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific Region transits through the SCS,
New Delhi perceives itself as a key player in the region’s security dynamics.15 Any volatility, or instability, in the SCS
poses a direct risk to India’s trade and economic activities, further
emphasising its stake in the region’s evolving security landscape. India’s
concerns align with its broader strategic interests in maintaining stability,
safeguarding maritime trade routes, and ensuring a rules-based order in the
Indo-Pacific Region. As a result, India too closely monitors developments in
the SCS and seeks to actively engage in regional discussions to protect its
economic and security interests.
and International Response to Chinese Assertiveness
increasing assertiveness in the SCS has caused alarm not only within the region
but also among the global community. The US has been vocal in opposing
Beijing’s actions in the region and has demonstrated its opposition through
freedom of navigation operations.16 In 2020, the US conducted 10 of these
operations, compared to eight in 2019 and six in 2018. Australia and Japan have
also joined in expressing their concerns and have taken similar action. Japan,
to enhance the maritime security of the Philippines and Vietnam, has provided
them with military weapons and ships.17 Most regional countries have expressed their
apprehensions regarding China’s actions in the SCS. President Joe Biden and his
administration have largely supported the policies of the previous Trump
administration by emphasising that any Chinese maritime claims conflicting with
the 2016 arbitration tribunal decision are unlawful.18 In addition to increasing naval operations,
Biden has reaffirmed the US’s treaty obligations that require Washington to act
in the event of an attack on Philippines’ forces in the SCS. The recent visit
of the US Secretary of Defence, L Austin, to Manila further demonstrates the
Biden administration’s commitment to these objectives. It is worth noting that
the Philippines, despite being one of the most assertive claimants in Southeast
Asia, under President Rodrigo Duterte had previously pursued closer ties with
Beijing and distanced itself from the US. However, during Secretary Austin’s
visit, Duterte reversed his decision to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement
which allows easier entry of US military forces into the Philippines.19 This shift has revitalised the US-Philippine
alliance and pushed Washington into a stronger position to counter China’s
aggressive actions in the region.
The Biden administration should seize
the opportunity to lay the foundation for a global alliance that upholds a
maritime order based on norms. This can be achieved through various means.
Firstly, the administration can enhance short-term deterrence by supporting the
Philippines in upgrading its military capabilities, and considering the
rotational deployment of American military resources, particularly missile
platforms, in the region. By doing so, it can demonstrate a commitment to the
security of its allies and partners in the SCS. In addition to strengthening
short-term deterrence, the Biden administration should also focus on long-term
strategies. This involves exerting economic and diplomatic pressure on Beijing
to encourage a peaceful and suitable resolution of maritime conflicts. By
utilising economic leverage and diplomatic channels, the administration can
emphasise the importance of adherence to international law and norms in the
SCS. This approach aims to create an environment conducive to constructive
dialogue and negotiation, reducing the risk of further escalation. Furthermore,
the US can work towards promoting multilateral cooperation and engagement in
the region. It should actively engage with like-minded countries and
stakeholders to form a united front in support of a rules-based maritime order.
By building alliances and partnerships, the Biden administration can increase
its influence and collective leverage to address the challenges posed by
China’s assertiveness. Overall, the Biden administration has an opportunity to
establish a comprehensive approach that combines short-term deterrence with
long-term economic and diplomatic pressures.20 This approach, combined with fostering global
alliances and promoting multilateral cooperation, can contribute to the
maintenance of stability and the pursuit of a peaceful resolution to maritime
conflicts in the SCS.
Vietnam has maintained a consistent and
firm stance on the SCS dispute in recent years. It has consistently rejected
new Chinese claims to sovereignty through diplomatic means and improved its
defences in the Spratly Islands covertly.21 Despite Chinese efforts to obstruct offshore
oil and gas exploration, Vietnam has persisted in retaining its rights to such
resources. However, Vietnam has been hesitant to mobilise global support for
the Southeast Asian cause in the SCS dispute, preferring to let other
countries, particularly the Philippines, bear the costs of openly criticising
Beijing.22 This is where the role of the US becomes
crucial. If Washington displays a willingness to act and builds on the momentum
created by the recent visit of the US Defence Secretary to the Philippines, it
can help overcome the hesitance of countries like Vietnam. In addition to
encouraging regional claimants, the US can utilise the QUAD to counter China’s
expansionist maritime ambitions in the SCS. The QUAD has initiated the
Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness to monitor and address illicit
activities in the Indo-Pacific, such as dark shipping and illicit fishing.23 This effort has the potential to significantly
enhance the partners’ capacity to comprehensively monitor the waters and uphold
a free and open Indo-Pacific. However, more action is needed, and the onus lies
on the QUAD to prevent China’s SCS ambitions from turning the region into a
Chinese-dominated entity. This is crucial for the QUAD to maintain its
credibility as a force for promoting and upholding the rule-based order.
The SCS has become a geopolitical
tinderbox within the Indo-Pacific security architecture. China’s assertive
maritime manoeuvres, claiming nearly the entire region, have put the SCS under
pressure, affecting smaller regional powers as well as extra-regional powers
like the US and India. Smaller countries are compelled to challenge Chinese
claims, and the US has been reaffirming its commitments to promoting and
upholding a rule-based order. The US, along with its strategic partners in the
QUAD, needs to take the lead in pushing back against Chinese assertiveness.
While there are collective efforts underway to counter Beijing’s unilateral
moves, more must be done to prevent the SCS from becoming a virtual Chinese
lake.24 If the US and its partners fail to act, the
principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific and the rule-based order will face
serious challenges. It is imperative to take action to avoid dire consequences
not only for the smaller regional countries but also for the US and India,
which have significant geopolitical stakes in the SCS.
conclusion, the SCS remains a highly contested and complex region with
significant geopolitical implications. China’s growing assertiveness in
asserting its claims and expanding its maritime influence has raised concerns
among regional countries, as well as the global community, including India. The
US, along with its strategic partners like India, Japan, and Australia, has
been vocal in opposing Beijing’s actions and upholding a rules-based order in
the Indo-Pacific. The dynamics in the SCS have led to various responses,
including freedom of navigation operations, military support to regional
claimants, and efforts to build alliances and multilateral cooperation.
However, more needs to be done to address the challenges posed by China’s
assertiveness and prevent the region from becoming a Chinese-dominated entity.
The involvement of smaller regional claimants, such as Vietnam, and their
collaboration with larger powers like the US play a crucial role in shaping the
future of the SCS. The QUAD has an opportunity to enhance maritime security and
uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific. However, collective efforts should
continue to strengthen, ensuring that the principles of a rule-based order are
maintained, and China’s unilateral moves are effectively challenged. It is
essential for the international community to recognise the significance of the
SCS and actively engage in finding peaceful and diplomatic resolutions to the
disputes. By promoting dialogue, adherence to international law, and fostering
cooperation, a stable and secure SCS can be achieved, benefiting not only the
regional countries but also the global order.
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Irfan Ul Haq
has done his Doctor of Philosophy in Political Science, University of Kashmir,
Srinagar. He is a prolific writer with
his area of expertise being Realism, Neo-realism, India-China Dynamic, and
BRI. He is also a risk analyst and
chairs workshops and takes lectures for University Grants Commission.
of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CLIII,
No. 633, July-September 2023.