The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in collaboration with The Indian Futures organised a Symposium on ‘Strategic Competition in the South China Sea: Interests, Defence and Diplomacy” on 16 September 2022. The Symposium was divided into two sessions: Session I: Ideational Perspectives: State of Play? and Session II: State Perspectives: Alliance, Non-Alignment, or Multi-Alignment?
In her welcome remarks, Amb Vijay Thakur Singh, DG, ICWA elaborated upon the increasing tensions in the South China Sea region which has great strategic and economic value for countries in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. China has, over a period of time, steadily stepped up its activities in the South China Sea as its needs for resources increased and it asserted its historical maritime territorial claims. China’s claims are contested by Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The claims and counter-claims on the islands and waters remain unresolved; and South China Sea remains alive with frequent skirmishes. Claimant countries have in their own ways pushed back against Chinese claims, and asserted their own territorial rights. New partnerships are emerging in the Indo-Pacific region whether it is QUAD, AUKUS or IPEF – bringing options to the countries in the region.
In his introductory remarks, Dr Manish Dabhade, Founder, The Indian Futures and Faculty, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi alluded to the multilateral strategic contestation underway in the South China Sea which is likely to intensify. The US and its allies are locked in the ‘Thucydides Trap’ with a rising China. For India, the South China Sea is of immense strategic significance from political, economic and security perspectives. The region falls into the larger ambit of the Act East Policy of India.
The first session was chaired by Amb Ashok Kantha, Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies and Distinguish Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation. Speakers were Lt Gen Vinod Khandare, Advisor, Ministry of Defence, Government of India and Mr Jayadeva Ranade, President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy (CCAS). The session discussed Chinese postures in the South China Sea. Over a period of time, the region has emerged as the fulcrum of great power strategic competition. The dispute has intensified political and military rivalry across the region between China and the US and has become a major point of friction in the ongoing US-China rivalry. The session noted China’s rapid military modernization including of its naval fleet and its effort to expand its footprint in the Indo-Pacific.
The second session was chaired by Amb Gurjit Singh, Former Ambassador of India to Germany, Indonesia, ASEAN, Ethiopia and the African Union. Speakers were Dr. Do Thanh Hai, Minister Counsellor and Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, The Hon. Lisa Singh, CEO of the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne and Prof Srikanth Kondapalli, Dean, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This session discussed the issue from a regional perspective. The South China Sea has different connotations and perspectives for different countries. Among the claimant countries, Vietnam was among the first to observe the changes in Chinese behaviour and tactics in the South China Sea. It was noted that, for China, the control of the South China Sea is crucial to maintain its own prosperity. It was also stated that ineffectiveness of large multilateral bodies in dealing with regional challenges such as the South China Sea was leading to increasing resort to issue-based minilateralism.