Contemporary China and India

Contemporary China and India

Contemporary China


In the 21st century, two nations alone, China and India, account for just over one-third of the world’s population. In this century, both nations have become economic powerhouses that have asserted what they each believe to be their national interest: China’s domination over East Asia and India’s embrace of its own Hindu traditions.


Learning Objectives

  • Examine China’s policies regarding the South China Sea.
  • Analyze the rise of Hindu nationalism and Neoliberal policies in contemporary India.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Association of Southeast Asian Nations: a regional organization comprising ten Southeast Asian states, which promotes intergovernmental cooperation and facilitates economic integration amongst its members

exclusive economic zone: a sea zone prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, over which a state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind 

nine-dash line: a term that refers to the demarcation line used initially by the government of the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan) and subsequently also by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for their claims of the major part of the South China Sea 

Philippines v. China: an arbitration case brought by the Republic of the Philippines against the People’s Republic of China under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concerning certain issues in the South China Sea, including the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim 

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: the international agreement that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources (It was concluded in 1982.)


Tension in the South China Sea


One-third of the world’s shipping sails through the South China Sea, and it is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Karimata and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan (around 3.5 million sq km or 1.4 million sq mi). The sea is located south of China, east of Vietnam and Cambodia, northwest of the Philippines, east of the Malay peninsula and Sumatra, up to the Strait of Malacca in the west, and north of the Bangka–Belitung Islands and Borneo.

Several countries have made competing territorial claims over the South China Sea, and these territorial disputes are Asia’s most potentially dangerous source of conflict. Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC, commonly known as Taiwan) claim almost the entire body as their own, demarcating their claims within what is known as the nine-dash line. The area overlaps the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Indonesia, China, and Taiwan all lay claim over waters northeast of the Natuna Islands. Vietnam, China, and Taiwan all lay claim over waters west of the Spratly Islands, some of which are also disputed between Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The Paracel Islands are disputed between China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam lay claim over areas in the Gulf of Thailand. Singapore and Malaysia claim waters along the Strait of Johore and the Strait of Singapore.


Territorial claims in the South China Sea, map by Voice of America.


The disputes include the islands, reefs, banks, and other features of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin. There are further disputes, including the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands, which many do not regard as part of the South China Sea. The states with these conflicting claims are interested in retaining or acquiring the rights to fishing areas, the exploration and potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas in the seabed of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.


Importance of the South China Sea


The area of the South China Sea may be rich in oil and natural gas deposits although estimates vary from 7.5 billion to 125 billion barrels of oil and from 190 trillion cubic feet to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The once abundant fishing opportunities within the region are another motivation for claims. China believes that the value in fishing and oil from the sea may be as much as a trillion dollars. According to studies made by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (Philippines), this body of water holds one-third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity, making it a very important area for the ecosystem. However, the fish stocks in the area are depleted and countries are using fishing bans to assert their sovereignty claims. Finally, the area is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. In the 1980s, at least 270 merchant ships used the route each day. Currently, more than half the tonnage of oil transported by sea passes through the South China Sea, a figure rising steadily with the growth of the Chinese consumption of oil. This traffic is three times greater than that passing through the Suez Canal and five times more than the Panama Canal.




China and Vietnam have both been vigorous in prosecuting their claims to this region. China and South Vietnam each controlled part of the Paracel Islands before 1974. A brief conflict in 1974 resulted in 18 Chinese and 53 Vietnamese deaths and China has controlled the whole of Paracel since then. The Spratly Islands have been the site of a naval clash, in which over 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed in 1988. Disputing claimants regularly report clashes between naval vessels.

In 2011, a vessel identifying itself as the Chinese Navy reportedly contacted one of India’s amphibious assault vessels on an open radio channel; the Indian vessel was on a friendly visit to Vietnam, when it was spotted at a distance of 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the disputed South China Sea. The Chinese vessel stated that the Indian ship was entering Chinese waters. The spokesperson for the Indian Navy clarified that as no ship or aircraft was visible, the vessel would thus proceed on her onward journey as scheduled. The same year, shortly after China and Vietnam had signed an agreement seeking to contain a dispute over the South China Sea, India’s state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) said that its overseas investment arm, ONGC Videsh Limited, had signed a three-year deal with PetroVietnam for developing long-term cooperation in the oil sector. The ONGC also accepted Vietnam’s offer of exploration in certain specified blocks in the South China Sea. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu issued a protest.

Vietnam and Japan reached an agreement early in 1978 on the development of oil in the South China Sea. By 2012, Vietnam had concluded some 60 oil and gas exploration and production contracts with various foreign companies. In 2011, Vietnam was the sixth-largest oil producer in the Asia-Pacific region, although the country is a net oil importer.

China’s first independently designed and constructed oil drilling platform in the South China Sea was the Ocean Oil 981. It began operation in 2012, 320 kilometers (200 mi) southeast of Hong Kong, employing 160 people. In 2014, the platform was moved near to the Paracel Islands, which propelled Vietnam to state that this move violated their territorial claims. Chinese officials said it was legal, stating the area lies in waters surrounding the Paracel Islands, which China occupies and controls militarily.

Other nations besides Vietnam and China have contested for this region. In 2012 and 2013, Vietnam and Taiwan clashed over what Vietnam considered anti-Vietnamese military exercises by Taiwan.

Prior to the dispute around the sea areas, fishermen from involved countries tended to enter on each other’s controlled islands and EEZ, which led to conflicts with the authorities that controlled the areas, as they were unaware of the exact borders. Due to the depletion of the fishing resources in their maritime areas, fishermen felt compelled to fish in the neighboring country’s areas. After Joko Widodo became President of Indonesia in 2014, he imposed a policy threatening to destroy the vessels of any foreign fishermen caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. Since then, many neighboring countries’ fishing vessels have been blown up by Indonesian authorities. On May 21, 2015, around 41 fishing vessels from China, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines were blown up. On March 19, 2016, China Coast Guard prevented its fishermen from being detained by Indonesian authorities when the Chinese fishermen were caught fishing near the waters around Natuna, leading to a protest by Indonesian authorities. Further Indonesian campaigns against foreign fishermen resulted in 23 fishing boats from Malaysia and Vietnam being blown up on April 5, 2016. The South China Sea had also become known for Indonesian pirates, with frequent attacks on Malaysian, Singaporean, and Vietnamese fishing vessels and for Filipino pirates attacking Vietnamese fishermen.


A map of South China Sea claims and boundary agreements, U.S. Department of Defense’s Annual Report on China to Congress, 2012.


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in general, and Malaysia, in particular, have been keen to ensure that the territorial disputes within the South China Sea do not escalate into armed conflicts. Joint Development Authorities have been set up in areas of overlapping claims to jointly develop the area and divide the profits equally, without settling the issue of sovereignty.

Generally, China has preferred to resolve competing claims bilaterally, while some ASEAN countries prefer multi-lateral talks, believing that they are disadvantaged in bilateral negotiations with China. ASEAN countries maintain that only multilateral talks could effectively resolve the competing claims because so many countries claim the same territory. For example, the International Court of Justice settled the overlapping claims over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Putih, including neighboring Middle Rocks, by Singapore and Malaysia in 2008, awarding Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh to Singapore and Middle Rocks to Malaysia.

An estimated US $5 trillion worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea and there are many non-claimant states that want the South China Sea to remain as international waters. Several states (e.g., the United States) are conducting “freedom of navigation” operations to promote this situation.


U.S. and Chinese Positions


The United States and China are currently in disagreement over the South China Sea, exacerbated by the fact that the US is not a member of the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea (the United States recognizes the UNCLOS as a codification of customary international law but has not ratified it). Nevertheless, the U.S. has stood by its claim that “peaceful surveillance activities and other military activities without permission in a country’s exclusive economic zone” are allowed under the convention.

In relation to the dispute, former U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton voiced her support for fair access by reiterating that freedom of navigation and respect of international law is a matter of national interest to the United States. Clinton testified in support of congressional approval of the Law of the Sea Convention, which would strengthen U.S. ability to support countries that oppose Chinese claims to certain islands in the area. Clinton also called for China to resolve the territorial dispute, but China responded by demanding the U.S.  stay out of the issue. China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stated that the stand was “in effect an attack on China” and warned the United States against making the South China Sea an international or multilateral issue. This came at a time when both countries were engaging in naval exercises in a show of force to the opposing side, which increased tensions in the region. The U.S. Department of Defense released a statement in which it opposed the use of force to resolve the dispute and accused China of assertive behavior.

In 2014, the United States responded to China’s claims over the fishing grounds of other nations by stating that “China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims.” While the US pledged American support for the Philippines in its territorial conflicts with the PRC, the Chinese Foreign Ministry asked the United States to maintain a neutral position on the issue. In 2014 and 2015, the United States continued freedom of navigation operations, including in the South China Sea. In 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned China to halt its rapid island-building. In November 2015, two US B-52 strategic bombers flew near artificial Chinese-built islands in the area of the Spratly Islands and were contacted by Chinese ground controllers but continued their mission undeterred.

In response to U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson’s comments on blocking access to Chinese man-made islands in the South China Sea, in January 2017, the Communist Party-controlled Global Times warned of a “large-scale war” between the U.S. and China, noting, “Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish.”

The position of China on its maritime claims based on UNCLOS and history has been ambiguous, particularly with the nine-dash line map. For example, in 2011, China stated that it has undisputed sovereignty over the islands and the adjacent waters, suggesting it is claiming sovereignty over its territorial waters, a position consistent with UNCLOS. However, it also stated that China enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters along with the seabed and subsoil contained in this region, suggesting that China is claiming sovereignty over all of the maritime space (includes all the geographic features and the waters within the nine-dash line). China has also repeatedly indicated that the Chinese claims are drawn on a historical basis.

The vast majority of international legal experts have concluded that China’s current claims, which are based on historical claims, are invalid. For example, in 2013, the Republic of the Philippines brought an arbitration case against the People’s Republic of China under Annex VII to UNCLOS, concerning certain issues in the South China Sea including the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim (Philippines v. China, known also as the South China Sea Arbitration). China declared that it would not participate in the arbitration but in 2015, the arbitral tribunal ruled that it had jurisdiction over the case, taking up seven of the 15 submissions made by the Philippines. In 2016, the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines. It clarified that it would not “…rule on any question of sovereignty over land territory and would not delimit any maritime boundary between the Parties.” The tribunal also confirmed that China has “no historical rights” based on the “nine-dash line” map. China has rejected the ruling, as has Taiwan.

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