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South China Sea: Beijing has a major natural advantage in the geopolitical power game

Hundreds of miles away from the scene of the current Sino-Indian dispute lies another perpetual theatre of war where China is a permanent player — the South China Sea, where tiffs over competing claims frequently degenerate into maritime muscle-flexing.

China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei all lay claims to these waters. Rival countries have wrangled over territory in the South China Sea for centuries, but tension has steadily increased in recent years following China's rapid rise in military prowess.

The possibility of a sudden armed conflict there is never far away, given its importance in three major settings — location, strategic resources, and military advantages.


One-third of the world's shipping pass through here, carrying over $3 trillion in trade each year, making this stretch the second-most used sea-lane in the world.

As for strategic resources, the region has proven oil reserves of around 7.7 billion barrels, with an estimate of 28 billion barrels in all. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 266 trillion cubic feet.

The most vital of them all, the country controlling this maritime route will have natural military advantages — making this region the geopolitical pivot to controlling the rest of Asia.


Chinese claims & the Nine-Dash Line

The South China Sea has been a bargaining chip in China's pocket since the beginning of its rise in the global order. Here, Beijing operates from a position of strength, with physical control over critical islands. Possession of these gives Beijing a clear upper hand and the ability to exert strategic authority over these waters, regardless of the rights and interests of other neighbouring nations.

China has followed up on its expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols.

It has been a cause for concern for others ever since Beijing unilaterally put forward the Nine-Dash Line — which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan — in 2009 to declare the South China Sea as its territorial waters.

Being neither treaty-based nor legally maintainable, China's claim is tenuous. Nonetheless, keeping the specifics of the Nine-Dash Line ambiguous has provided China with a useful tool to buy time in critical situations.

For China, the South China Sea also acts as a natural shield in terms of national security. It provides relative "sanctuary" for its second-strike nuclear submarines that would be its insurance in case of a first strike against it.

In terms of trade too, the South China Sea is an important route for China — with 80 per cent of its energy imports and 39.5 per cent of total trade passing through here.


India's stake

Over the past decade, China has been using coercion on four major fronts: in the East China Sea, South China Sea, China-India border, and toward the US on the question of freedom of navigation.

Of these, only the border feud impacts India directly. However, the significance of the South China Sea in emerging geopolitical equations cannot be overlooked anymore.

Even though India is not an active player in the high-stakes jostle for the control of these waters, it will hardly remain an unaffected bystander in case the power structure there changes drastically.

Nearly $200 billion worth of Indian trade passes through the South China Sea and thousands of its citizens study, work and invest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea.

This makes it an area of high strategic necessity for India. If China comes to establish un-rivalled sway over these waters, that could upend a huge part of the existing trade and geopolitical set-up.

Access to the major waterways in Southeast Asia is an important consideration for Indian policymakers, as is the need to build capacity in member states of the ASEAN. Both are central to New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific vision.

In other words, what happens in the South China Sea is very much India's business too. It must find ways to play its cards right, so that it can leverage these disputed waters when the time comes to hold Beijing to account for its brazen border breaches and other transgressions.

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