The South China Sea Puzzle: A Closer Look

The intricate issue of the Nine-Dash Line within the broader South China Sea dispute carries significant geopolitical ramifications
Keywords: South China Sea, Maritime, Conflict, Dispute, Southeast Asia, ASEAN, Security, Geopolitical, Nine-Dash Line
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The protracted territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which have historical roots spanning centuries, have led to heightened tensions in contemporary times. Of particular concern are China’s expansive territorial claims, encompassing both land features and their corresponding maritime zones, provoking objections from neighbouring nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and other key regional players like Taiwan. The escalating discord in the South China Sea, exacerbated by events like the Philippines’ arbitration lawsuit, has instigated substantial deliberations and scholarly investigations into China’s regional policy dynamics and its interaction with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

At the core of the South China Sea dispute lies China’s assertion of the Nine-Dash Line, a demarcation delineating a substantial expanse within the region. The origins of the Nine-Dash Line can be traced to relatively early 20th-century maps, antedating the establishment of UNCLOS. China contends that these historical claims constitute the foundation for its maritime entitlements in the region. 

The intricate issue of the Nine-Dash Line within the broader South China Sea dispute carries significant geopolitical ramifications, exerting a profound influence on the strategic equilibrium in the Asia-Pacific region. The South China Sea, distinguished by its substantial continental shelf, shallow waters, the convergence of swift-flowing rivers, and notable biodiversity, stands as a reservoir of considerable natural wealth. This unique amalgamation renders the region exceptionally resource-rich.

Analysis: Exploration of Potential Solutions and Challenges:

A comprehensive legal resolution for the South China Sea dispute requires strict adherence to international law, notably UNCLOS, and a dedicated pursuit of peaceful dispute resolution. Encouraging all parties to comply with UNCLOS principles, including recognition of coastal states’ rights and adherence to international arbitration, is essential. The acceptance and compliance with arbitral rulings, as seen in the 2016 Philippines-China case, set a crucial precedent for peaceful resolution through legal means.

A pivotal solution to the multifaceted disputes in the South China Sea lies in the formulation and expeditious implementation of a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC). A COC holds substantial promise in guiding the behaviour of claimant states and preventing inadvertent incidents at sea by establishing clear guidelines. This framework, negotiated among all involved parties, is envisioned to align with UNCLOS principles, providing comprehensive guidelines for behaviour, incident prevention, and dispute resolution. The significance of the COC is further emphasized by its potential to foster trust among parties and reinforce a commitment to established international law, thereby contributing decisively to the stability of the region. In the broader context, the pursuit of joint resource development agreements in disputed areas provides an alternative approach, promoting cooperative arrangements aligned with principles of international law for the exploration and exploitation of natural resources.

Formulating and executing a South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) is challenging but feasible through sustained diplomacy, stakeholder engagement, and a commitment to international law, specifically UNCLOS. A key challenge lies in the geopolitical complexities arising from the U.S. decision not to ratify UNCLOS. This non-ratification creates a sense of unevenness, impacting China’s willingness to  embrace UNCLOS principles and complicating efforts for a unified approach. The U.S. absence limits its direct influence on UNCLOS discussions, potentially allowing China to shape related matters in line with its strategic interests without significant opposition.

The potential for selective compliance by China with UNCLOS provisions becomes a plausible scenario in the absence of U.S. ratification. China may prioritize adherence to aspects that align with its national interests while downplaying or disputing those perceived as unfavourable. The diminished U.S. presence may reduce the perceived consequences of non-compliance, affecting the overall effectiveness of UNCLOS in shaping China’s behaviour in the South China Sea.

Addressing the intricacies of the South China Sea dispute and securing China’s adherence to UNCLOS despite the U.S.’s non-ratification presents diplomatic and strategic complexities. India, standing at a critical crossroads, holds the potential to contribute significantly to regional stability and maritime governance. Through active engagement in multilateral forums such as the UN and ASEAN, India can diplomatically influence the consensus on UNCLOS principles, encouraging China to align its maritime practices accordingly.

Bilateral dialogues between India and China become crucial for fostering mutual understanding of maritime concerns. Open and constructive discussions can highlight the importance of UNCLOS adherence and advocate for peaceful dispute resolution. By highlighting the advantages of a rules-based order, India may resonate with China’s broader strategic interests, potentially paving the way for cooperative solutions. Actively supporting and participating in UNCLOS arbitration processes reinforces India’s commitment to conflict resolution and sets a precedent for responsible state behaviour. Strengthening regional security partnerships and leveraging economic ties underscore India’s dedication to UNCLOS compliance, shaping a maritime environment in alignment with international legal norms. The collaboration with ASEAN countries uas part of India’s “Act East” policy further solidifies India’s role as a key player in upholding UNCLOS principles in the South China Sea.


In conclusion, a thorough and clever strategy for resolution of the South China Sea issue is required, given the aggravating factors of China’s forceful claims and the United States’ refusal to ratify UNCLOS. This intricate geopolitical situation underlines the value of strategic alliances, diplomatic skills, and firm adherence to international law. 

India is in a unique position to impact regional dynamics through its active participation in multilateral forums, positive bilateral conversations, and economic clout. It is a crucial player at a critical juncture. The detailed approach, which includes cooperation in regional security, economic diplomacy, and adherence to UNCLOS, places India at the forefront of the endeavour to shape a maritime environment based on international legal standards. 

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Yashawardhana, is a final-year B.A., LL.B. (Hons) student at Jindal Global Law School and is currently interning at India Foundation. He has previously interned at distinguished offices such as that of Shri P.P. Chaudhary, MP(LS) and Chairperson of the Standing Committee on External Affairs, were he learnt the basics of legislative affairs. Apart from this he also has experience of working at multiple Law Chambers such as that of AOR Nachiketa Joshi and Adv. J Sai Deepak to name a few, where he contributed to significant research and drafting endeavours. He also has enriched his academic pursuits with a diverse array of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, including volunteering, organizing committees, and as the current Vice-President of the JGLS Student Council (2023-2024), he has experience in leadership roles.

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